“You only ever say three things in French,” said my son. “Bonjour, s’il vous plait and merci.” Crushing words, but the trouble is he’s right. Even though I studied French till the age of 18, spent four months in Paris as the world’s worst au pair and lived in Orléans for a while, I’ve forgotten virtually everything. Worse still, by the time I’ve figured what to say in French, five minutes have passed and the conversation has moved on to something even more incomprehensible than before.
Luckily my husband and teenagers are doing far better. My daughter has the advantage of having spent a term at an école maternelle in Orléans, on the banks of the Loire, when she was four. She was the only non-French speaking child in the whole school and when I left her on her first day she looked petrified at the prospect of not being able to communicate.
Her French school was a world apart from the nursery class in Blackburn she’d left behind but she loved walking home for lunch everyday and not having any school on Wednesdays. Then again, she hated having to sleep on a mat for an hour in the afternoons (“some children take dummies,” she told me indignantly), learning that peculiar swirly French writing and not being able to chatter nineteen to the dozen to the other children in the class.
After two days of her new régime she stomped home in a complete strop. “I’ve been here for two days and I still haven’t learned how to speak French,” she said crossly. But within weeks she’d picked up a smattering of the language and could count to ten, order croissants at the bakery and greet her new best friend Philippine.
But 15 years on, I reckon those tricky months at French school made a real difference. She’s still a firm Francophile and even though lots of secondary pupils drop languages like a hot coal at the age of 14 she didn’t. She’s now studying French as part of her degree and excitedly making plans for her year in Paris (or Montpellier or Avignon – opinions gratefully received!) next year. Which is great by me.
PS: If you’re looking for a great beach read, Tasmina Perry’s Private Lives (Headline Review, £14.99) is out this week. Set in the world of glamorous movie stars, go-getting media lawyers and super-injunctions, it’s just the ticket for holiday time.