“Parlez-vous Français?”

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My paternal grandmother was French, but that is not why I took French as my elective in high school. We had the choice of Spanish, German, Russian, Latin or French. Spanish was not considered useful. (How little we knew.) Russian seemed impractical since I didn’t intend to be a diplomat. I still associated German with Hitler, so it held no appeal. But French supposedly was the language of the intelligentsia. Not that I knew who they were, just that I was supposed to learn French.

I never mastered either speaking or listening to French. In fact when a clerk spoke to me in Paris, I fled. It took me some time to realize she had said,”May I help you?” But I did learn to read French, enough so that I passed a written exam in it for my Master’s degree. It has also been very useful to read the genealogical records in France for my grandmother’s ancestors.

And what I have learned! My very unpleasant grandmother hid an interesting truth from us as she presented herself as the epitome of grace. She had never married my grandfather and was in fact still married and the mother of four small children when she ran off with my grandfather to Canada at the end of World War I. And intriguingly, her mother had been born in San Francisco when her family went there to supply goods to the gold miners. And her family was Jewish. A complete surprise, but all there in the French newspapers and cemetery records.

So while I can only read French, it has saved me from parking tickets in Quebec and has allowed me to learn much more about my family background. Things my grandmother was determined to keep to herself. C’est la vie!

35 thoughts on ““Parlez-vous Français?”

  1. I specialised in French at school, at a time when few others bothered to continue with languages. By the time I was 17, there were only four of us left in the advanced French class. I was able to hold down conversations during trips to France, right up until my early 30s. But I lost the skill when I later had no need to use it.
    Then in 2004, I went to work for the Diplomatic Police in London, and was suddenly called upon to be the ‘French Speaker’, when dealing with France, Senegal, Belgium, Vietnam, and many other French-speaking countries. It was surprising how it all came back to me.
    Unlike you, I found it easier to speak than to read, though at one time I did read classical literature in French, and took numerous exams in the subject.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. Our family wasn’t good at hiding secrets. All of ours seemed to end up as dinner table conversation.

    My high school German has come in handy in unexpected ways over the years.

    Did your class have a favorite nonsense sentence?

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        1. We speak Tagalog, that’s our main language but each region has its own local dialect. I speak Pangasinan and Ilokano dialects too.

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  3. Such an eye-widening family story!
    I took French in high school but I wish we had been taught to be conversational, first; rather than sludging through all of that textbook grammar that just made my eyeballs glaze over. Au revoir!

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  4. What a fascinating story! A friend of mine read a book her grandfather had written – in a way the converse to you, she found that this rather unpleasant man had a soft side.

    I too find it easier to read French than to speak it – but am currently in the process of learning Italian as well as I’m hoping to get some short-term voluntary work in France and/or Italy as a walk leader!

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    1. I wish I had learned that she was a nicer person than I discovered. On the other hand, it did affirm my belief that she was a narcissist! Good luck with Italian. It sounds romantic to me.

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