Monday, June 20, 2011

In the land of 'Mole'ière

I realise I’ve totally neglected this blog over the last couple of months due to a variety of things. Suffice to say I lacked motivation. And, like my astute friend pointed out in her blog, “when I’m not feeling motivated or inspired, it’s hard to fake it.” But recently my brother-in-law got to go on a mini-exchange to Russia, prompting immediate envy on my part (oh to be 21 and on exchange again!). It also caused me to reflect once more on my own exchange experience.

In my third year of university, I was chosen from a handful of applicants - oh fine! we were ALL chosen - to go on exchange to France as part of my degree in French studies. Due to the excellence of the French department at my university, my degree was less 'French studies' as it was 'French literature'. Despite coming from an anglophone household, I had been speaking French all my life and was able to begin the advanced literature courses straight away. Two years of lit courses, I knew, would be an advantage in France, where I was sure to be discussing Molière and Proust with sophisticated French students. Turns out, that was never going to happen.

The exchange, I discovered, was actually at a language institute within the regular university. The courses ran at different levels of language ability, the classrooms filled with international students eager to learn the French language. I was tested and immediately placed in the highest level, along with another bilingual Canadian friend. We were confused. Why was there no level superior to supérieur? No level for people like us who were not inclined to spend our time rehashing the grammar lessons of our junior high days? We couldn't really complain, though. If this was giving us an entire year's worth of university credit for practically no effort, who were we to argue?

Our main professor was a woman we immediately nicknamed Claudia Schiffer, though she bore very little resemblance to the super model except her impressive height. She was tall and stern, with a silver bob, and a giant mole on her left temple that seemed to pulse when she became stressed. It was definitely no grain de beauté, and it was impossible not to stare at it as you tried to respond to her questions. The results were not unlike this scene.

Mme C disliked me from the very first day. She had quite the obsession with different accents (thinking back on it, she was probably a frustrated aspiring linguist forced to take a crappy job at a language institute, but we will never know for sure). In any case, if she had been conducting a study she wouldn't have suffered from lack of material. Except, however, when it came to me.

On the first day, after successfully mocking various students for the way they mispronounced different words, she turned her attention to the two anglophones in the room.

"Okay everyone," she said (in French, of course), "I know that the 'u' sound is difficult for foreigners. Anglophones in particular are awful at it. You there!" I awoke from my daydream - I had been wondering how many bottles of wine I could buy for 10€ - to find her pointing at me.


"What is this?" She asked in an accusing tone, indicating the wall.

"C'est un mur." 'It's a wall," I responded, my voice dripping with boredom.

She glared at me. "Say it again!" she demanded. I obliged, my pronunciation faultless. She became agitated. Her eye began to twitch. The Mole began to throb. She whipped around to face my fellow citizen, hoping to catch her off guard. Unfortunately for the Mole, Lou's pronunciation tended even more towards francophone than mine. I half expected it to grow legs and jump off Mme C's face. "Well," she addressed the class once she'd regained her composure, "these two have obviously benefitted from their exposure to francophone Canada, though as far as I'm concerned that accent comes with its own problems." She turned her steely gaze away from us and concentrated on getting the appropriate incorrect 'u' sound out of the Spanish student 3 rows over.

After that first day, I only attended class on a semi-regular basis. I concentrated on getting to know the 'real' France (usually found in a wine bottle) and annoying my new French friends with my shocking lack of revision for exams. "I've already unlocked the mysteries of the complément objet direct," I explained to them through mouthfuls of tarte flambée. "What's more likely to improve my French? Working on ridiculous grammar sheets in a roomful of foreigners, or sitting here with you, drinking excellent Alsace beer?" They were forced to conclude I was right.