or how I learned French in two tortured weeks

IAN ADAMS July 23 1966


or how I learned French in two tortured weeks

IAN ADAMS July 23 1966


or how I learned French in two tortured weeks


MY STUDY OF FRENCH began in an East African boarding school when I was twelve. My French teacher was Japanese. When he spoke English it was incomprehensible. And when he spoke French . . . well, perhaps it's better that I remembered very little.

Later at an English grammar school, where I was just beginning to enjoy French, someone thought it would be an interesting experiment if all of us scholarship boys studied for two years with the slum children near London's St. Paneras station.

I don't suppose there have been many educational experiments that have failed so emphatically. But I did learn a lot about street fighting —who is to know' what will be important in later life?

Such were my formal brushes with the language. Then when 1 was nineteen I stumbled into a weird opportunity to learn French. I was in Paris, broke and hungry, when two English-speaking Dutch students befriended me and decided to take me into their part-time window-cleaning business. They coached me in ten basic French phrases and sent me off to work. On the Métro I carefully rehearsed my lines. The door of the first apartment I knocked on was opened by an imposing chatelaine. “Bonjour, Madame,” 1 stammered in French, ‘Tm here to clean you.” She slammed the door in my face.

During the next ten years the language and I managed to avoid each other with the mini-

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mum of embarrassment. And like most people I carried around the idea that sure I would be able to learn French — if only I could have a fair crack at it.

Well, I have had that chance. And now', after two incredibly short weeks, 1 can suddenly speak French. Admittedly, 1 am a long way from being bilingual. But I can understand eighty percent of what is going on in French. I can hold my own. with some hesitance of course, in a conversation. And, mon dieu! Quelquefois 1 even think in French.

I acquired my "instant" French after submitting for two weeks to what the people at the Berlitz language schools politely call complete immersion. I say politely, because the technique, or la méthode as it is called, is a form of brainwashing straight out of 1984.

For the French 1 know now came after listening fourteen hours a day to a relay of instructors as they shouted, whispered, pleaded and even cursed me in French. It may not be the best way to learn a language but it certainly is the fastest.

A year ago Berlitz, a New York-based company doing a booming business in Quebec teaching French to les Anglais, began to search for quicker ways to turn all those English executives into hilinguistes; one hour a day just wasn't fast enough.

Berlitz at first experimented w'ith keeping people awake for twelve then up to fortyeight hours, all the time pumping French into them through a relay of instructors. Most of guinea pigs were journalists and though soaked up a basic vocabulary of about

1,500 words they found it an exhausting experience. And as Jean Piton, the director in Canada, explains. "The forty-eight-hour course was not commercially feasible. It would damage most people psychologically. But what we found out in those experiments we now use at our total-immersion school in Quebec."

After I had accepted Piton s suggestion to attend the school for two weeks he warned me, "It's not a holiday. You have to surrender your mind to our own special brand of brainwashing.”

The Berlitz people do their brainwashing in a small and isolated villa in the Laurentians called Le Châtelet, about forty miles north of Montreal. The cuisine is French, the servants are French, the newspapers are French, and so are the TV programs. The use of English is forbidden.

The only way you can speak English is to go outside when it is dark and mumble softly to yourself. But even this secret vice becomes impossible after you are conditioned. ( I reached this state on the third day — I found myself thinking in a mélange of English and French.)

I arrived at Le Châtelet Sunday evening to be greeted in high-speed French by Madame Paquet, the formidable proprietress of the hotel. After she had asked me the same question four times, I realized she wanted my name. I gave it to her and she ushered me into the lounge where a dozen people were grouped around a bar listening to someone 1 at first took to be a middle-aged spastic.

“Je . . . su . . . suis . . . soif,” he was saying, forcing the words out at tortured ten-second intervals. Someone in the group offered a gentle


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“I badly needed a Scotch...But what was French for ‘ice?”

“Ahhh . . . oui . . . Jjj ... ai .. . soif,” spluttered the spastic. There's a courageous guy, I thought, trying to learn a language with an impediment like that. Later I discovered he was the president of a manufacturing firm. There was nothing wrong with his vocal cords. The tortured manner of speech is a reaction every student suffers through. After a week at the school the French was suddenly starting to come out of the businessman. And this evening he was really rolling. We all waited through another forty-five seconds while he told us it was raining outside.

It wasn't, and this time we all looked at him a little oddly. And for the first time I began to feel a little anxious about taking this course. Then 1 realized he had forgotten to include the negative form in his sentence.

During the puzzled silence Madame Paquet introduced me to Madeleine Garneau, the chief instructor of the course, who introduced me to the group. There were six other students, and a teacher for each student. Since all English was forbidden, handling the introductions was a little like playing a multiple chess game while blindfolded.

The five men were all business executives, either from companies in Quebec, or Ontario-based companies that did business in Quebec. The lone woman student was a supervisor

for a computer-programming department in the Bell Telephone Company. Nobody was taking this course for fun. But that was most probably because the price ($750 for a week) excluded the triflers.

“Est-ce que vous venez de Montréal ou de Toronto?" asked Alain Chatal, one of the teachers.

"Toronto,” 1 replied briefly, after a moment’s thought.

"Ah, vous parlez avec un accent français," said Chatal with that deadpan expression I was to get to know very well in the next two weeks.

I badly needed a Scotch-on-therocks. But I couldn't remember the French for ice . . . neige? No, that was snow. 1 couldn't very well order a Scotch and snow; better to stay dry. So after 1 had turned down an invitation to a drink and refused a cigarette, Madeleine Garneau — who has that evocative charm that makes all French women fascinating — asked, “Vous êtes peut-être un puritain, Monsieur Adams?"

1 raised what 1 hoped was an eloquent eyebrow — but she was already turning to someone else.

“Une femme comme Simone Signoret,” hoarsely whispered a vicepresident of sales at my elbow. For a moment Madame Garneau's amused glance flickered back over us. 1 smiled the weak smile of a puritain.

That evening was the most I was ever to see of my fellow students.

From then on we would pass each other in the corridors, exchanging a helpless nod. or sit opposite each other at the dining table, mute and stunned, our minds reeling from the verbal shock we received daily.

The brainwashing began at eightfifteen the next morning and didn't stop until nine-thirty at night. Every forty minutes there was a five-minute rest. Every eighty minutes we changed instructors. There was a forty-fiveminute break for lunch and an hour and a half for dinner.

Question, answer, question . . .

The lessons were given in a rabbit warren of cubicles in the suhhasement of the villa. Each classroom had just enough space for two people to sit down with a desk between them. The claustrophobia was relieved by small square windows that looked out over a lake.

The teaching technique was almost ludicrously simple. The teacher would pick up a pen and ask, “Est-ce que c'est un stylo?” Then he would give the response, “Oui, c’est un stylo." He would ask the question again and the student, if he remembered. would give the reply. And so it went . . . Who has the pen? . . . The teacher has the pen ... 1 do not have the pen ... Yes. I am in the class . . . No, 1 am not in the corridor. Over and over, question, an-

swer, question, answer. On, on and on.

At the end of eighty minutes of instruction the teacher wrote in a purple plastic-wrapped file the details of the lesson he had given and then passed the file on to the next instructor. Most of the teachers were from France. They were in their twenties, and only two were women. In a sense they were all amateur actors, for they all had their own little tricks of demanding and getting a befuddled student's attention.

After the first six hours 1 began to experience a bubbly sensation somewhere at the top of my skull. It was a feeling that wouldn't leave me until a week after I had finished the course.

During the first afternoon I noticed a microphone in a corner of the cubicle. “Qu’est-ce que c'est que ça?” 1 asked, pointing to the mike. The teacher immediately wrote something very rude about Berlitz on a piece of paper — in English! Later, I found out that, as la directrice. Madame Garneau spent the greater part of her day in a little cubicle, taping and listening to the lessons. During the fiveminute breaks I would see her advance with a predatory prowl upon a teacher. And while he gazed with profound interest into his coffee cup she would whisper into his ear what 1 imagined to be a criticism of the lesson he had just given.

Dinner that Monday night was a quiet affair and set the pattern for most meals. The students sat in silent desperation, wondering how they were going to get through the next day, let alone the week. The teachers


Montreal was ready—but not for me

gossiped in a desultory way about their colleagues in Montreal. Only Madame Garneau chattered gaily on, trying to charm the students out of their depression.

By the third day I was conditioned. I answered questions with that spastic slowness that maddened my instructors. But by then we were into the use of French pronouns which for any Anglophone are particularly painful.

“Est-ce que vous avez des livres?” André Labbé would ask. “Avec le prénom correct s’il vous plaît, M’sieu Adams," he would add with the desperate smile of a secondhand - car salesman who hasn't made a deal for three weeks.

“Je .... n’en . ... ai ... . pas,” I would reply.

“Parlez vite, plus vite,” Labbé would almost scream, nervously clawing at his moustache.

By the end of the first week I had the present, past, future, the perfect present, immediate past, and the immediate future tenses of about fifty verbs drilled into me, plus a vocabulary of about five thousand words.

But could I use any of it? No. Everything whirled around in my head and when I tried to use any of it the garbled confusion that came out only aggravated my frustrations.

Classes finished at 7 p.m. Saturday and we were told we were free until 6 p.m. Sunday. I decided to sneak down to Montreal to try my French after one week of immersion complète. It was a disaster. I tried to rent a room at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. But for some inexplicable reason I kept using the past and future tenses of verbs. When I tried

to correct myself I used the imperfect: “Je voulais une chambre.” (I was wanting a room.)

With a masklike expression the clerk asked me in English, “Do you have a reservation, sir?”

1 came up with another garbled version of how I would, no wanted . . . eh . . . would not have a reservation.

For the next four minutes the clerk told me in mellifluous and resonant French the half-dozen reasons why he couldn’t rent me a room if I didn’t have a reservation. It was a small consolation that I understood everything he said. Defeated, I caught the next bus back to Le Châtelet.

I began the second week feeling extremely tired. And my instructors had to work even harder. Then on Monday afternoon a strange thing happened. For seven days the French thought patterns in my mind had been built solely upon response — answers to the instructors’ questioning. Suddenly. here was Pierre - André Beligond insisting that I learn the interrogative forms. My mind just refused. For eighty minutes we went over the forms, but my mind just wouldn’t assimilate them.

Other things went easier. The softspoken and gentle Gérard Olivier took me at a breakneck pace through the conditional. Alain Chatal rushed me through the past and future use of the conditional. “Don’t stop to work it out,” he would say, “just follow me.” So I would plod along: “Si j’avais eu assez d’argent, je serais . . . eh .. . quoi?” But Chatal had his fingers in his ears, wincing at my pronunciation.

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The grammar dropped into little watertight compartments of my mind that would immediately seal themselves up. Then other compartments would open up to receive the neverending flow of French. But it was during the second week that I started to use much of what I had learned during the first week. Days and even weeks were to pass before the grammar I learned during the second week would come out.

On the last Saturday 1 was hit hard with the subjunctive, a form that has almost disappeared from English. “It may he that I could . . But French being a language rich in nuances, the subjunctive is used in expressing doubt, uncertainty, emotion, or the will. It was on this day that I scored a small but sweet victory.

“Donnez-moi un exemple avec le verbe faire,” asked André Labbé.

“Est-ce que vous seriez, content que je vous fasse nettoyer mes chaussures?” 1 asked, using the subjunctive to imply that it wouldn’t make him happy if I made him clean my shoes. Perhaps it was the content that made him reject it at first. But after a few minutes he conceded it was correct.

On Saturday night I fled Le Châtelet. I checked into a Montreal hotel and slept for 14 hours. After I awoke I went to the first restaurant I found open on St. Catherine St., and ordered some breakfast.

1 gazed idly out of the window. Somewhere in the back of my mind a little bell jangled. It took a few minutes for it to sink in, but then . . . My God! 1 had spoken French without even thinking about it. When the waitress came back I asked her, “Quand je parie, pouvez - vous tout comprendre?” She backed away a little. “Bien sûr,” she murmured, “pourquoi pas?“

I spent the rest of the day talking my head off. I made a lot of mistakes and certainly people looked at me strangely at times. And there were moments of complete paralysis when I couldn’t remember the word I was reaching for. But instead of trying to force the word out of my memory, 1 quickly adopted the technique of trying to find another way to say what was on my mind.

I felt a liberation that I had never experienced before in Montreal — I could understand for the most part what people around me were saying.

Two days later when I caught the Rapido back to Toronto, 1 sat down and started to read La Presse. The

man beside me asked a question in French. For one brief moment I panicked. I had understood nothing. But there I was, caught redhanded with La Presse; it was no time to chicken out.


“Pourquoi un bon Québécois comme toi-même va-t-il à Toronto?”

I laughed and told him what I had been doing for the past two weeks. My traveling companion turned out to be one of those formidable new young men of Quebec, fluently bilingual, sûr de lui-même, he gave you the impression he knew exactly where he was going.

He was an engineer who worked as a salesman for a U. S. computer firm. At the same time he was an ardent indépendantiste. For the next five hours we discussed Quebec’s prospects of becoming a republic.

During that time we spoke only about two dozen words of English. And most of those were used when we parted at Toronto’s Union station.

“You know,’’ he said, “your French swings wildly from being incredibly bad to excellent. But it’s always understandable. Keep it up and in the fall we'll give you a membership in the Rassemblement pour l'Indépendance Nationale.”

What could I say but “Merci”! ★