NE PARLEZ PAS ANGLAIS!
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHIVANI SHAH
My love affair with the language of France began when I was 12 years old and took lessons from my cousin’s fiancée. She taught me beginners’ French until they got married and moved away. Two years later, my best friend and I took a summer course at the Alliance Française de Bombay where we learned, among other things, beginners’ French. Two years after that I opted for French over Hindi for the HSC. Yet a few years later I needed an “easy A” class at university, so I took French 101. It’s safe to say my knowledge of beginners’ French is kick-ass.
In August 2014, eight years into a life in the legal profession, I decided I needed a change. I wanted to spend my weekends doing something that had absolutely, unequivocally no connection with work whatsoever. I had an idea: I knew beginners’ French anyway. Why not learn even more of the language?
That’s how, on a muggy, rainy monsoon day, I found myself sitting in a classroom at the Alliance Française’s Cuffe Parade centre. I was one of 30 students in this A1 level class, all of whom were staring either at their books, their phones, or into space – anything but making eye contact with complete strangers. What we couldn’t know on that first day was that, by the end of six months, some of us would be good friends. We would bond over beers and our love of food and reading. We would stress over the exams that had us all convinced we would barely scrape through. All that would come later. First, there was French to learn.
It’s not often we get to learn something new as adults, something literally foreign, so it’s nice to be able to surprise yourself and be proud of yourself.
The Alliance Française has a unique teaching method that I can imagine is challenging for people with no prior knowledge of French – there’s no English allowed. From day one, your teacher and you are supposed to communicate only in French. They’re supposed to teach you how to read, write, speak and understand French using only French. Ne parlez pas anglais, s’il vous plaît. Our teacher, Usha, was wonderful and slightly flexible on the “no English” rule. But not so flexible that I didn’t get lectured my fair share of times for speaking in English when I just couldn’t remember the words to express myself in French.
It was daunting, but it was also the best way to learn. Without the crutch of your native language you have no choice but to pay attention, work hard and learn so you don’t get left behind. Sure, you’d sit there scratching your head on more than one occasion. But that big smile on your face when you think you’ve butchered the language and end up actually speaking correctly makes all the frustration worth it. It’s not often we get to learn something new as adults, something literally foreign, so it’s nice to be able to surprise yourself and be proud of yourself.
Our A1 class was six months long, and as the months went by our numbers dwindled. Those with college or work commitments stopped attending, and those who found it just too difficult didn’t sign up for the second part. But those of us who liked to spend our weekends confusing our brains stuck on. Every Saturday and Sunday, for three hours each, we immersed ourselves in our textbooks and audios and videos, slowly rewiring our brains. We learned to speak in French. We learned to think in French. I wish I could say we learned to understand Frenchmen speak French, but they talk just too damn fast, so that’s still a work in progress.
But I’m working on it. I’m waiting for the day that my knowledge of conversing in French catches up with reading and writing it. For the day I don’t confuse all the various past tenses or future tenses, and it becomes second nature for me. For the day I can actually watch French movies instead of reading the subtitles. But most of all I’m waiting for the day I can simply order un croissant et un café allongé in Paris without messing it up even a little.
Alliance Française de Bombay, Theosophy Hall, 40 New Marine Lines, Mumbai 400 020. Phone: 022 2203 5993 / 022 2203 6187