83: Language lagunas – A topic about which we never tire

When we learned we would move to Switzerland, Dave and I approached the impending language lapses in different ways.

I bought a “French for Dummies” book, logged onto a fabulous Youtube French language tutorial, pasted post-it notes of useful French words and phrases all over the house (such as “Why are you being so mean to me?” and “Your country is not as great as my country.”) and spent hours everyday expanding my French vocabulary and working toward mastering at least a four-year-old’s level of grammatical expertise.*

Dave, in the meantime, went out and bought a pocket Franklin language gadget.

While my process seems more laborious, it turns out it is much better than the gadget. I cannot speak French well at all, but arguably, I don’t speak English well either – nevertheless, I have an instantaneous grasp of what the French-speaking Swiss are saying to me as long as they stick to a preschooler patois. It’s a helpful skill that enables me to discern whether to stand in place or run like heck. While I am absorbing the message, Dave has not even whipped the pocket translator out of his pocket.

All of which shows that even though my French pronunciation is an offense to French-speakers everywhere, the hours of studying were not wasted. I highly recommend it because a fractured understanding of a language is better than a big black hole of incomprehension.

But we have no linguistic illusions. We cannot speak the language and that confines our social world along very tight borders, not to mention that the Swiss are a pretty reserved lot.

And yet, yesterday we seem to have passed a threshold.

Our neighbourhood has a “dog lady;” you know the type: A slightly batty dishevelled older woman who talks loudly to her dog, and then about her dog to anyone who will stop long enough to listen. I see this woman numerous times everyday, but she never gives me the slightest acknowledgement. That is okay. I have enough batty people in my life already. I’m full up.

But yesterday, as Dave and I were about to pass her, I pointed out to Dave how I am non-persona to this woman, whereupon she turned on us and delivered a truckload of French liberally spiced with the word “chien.” One could suppose she had not made her canine-convo-quota and decided to try to top up with us, but more likely it was because her poodle leapt up at Dave and demanded an ear scratch.

Have passed muster with Fifi, the woman turned exceedingly friendly and gave us the lowdown on her seven-year-old dog who is mostly deaf and prefers men to women, although in this instance the dog did seem to like me, but her owner could not figure out why, all of this in French that to my ear sounded quite garbled, but I’m not one to stand in judgement on this point.

All I could do was tell her what a charming, lovely dog she has, but as it turned out that was enough to earn a pat on the arm and a warm farewell. Now I’m afraid of our next impromptu meeting, and what I will say to her to move the conversation along, but maybe I am lucky in that as long as her dog likes me, whatever I say will be just fine.

In the meantime, our hotel’s wonderful cleaning staff have completely given up on schooling me in French, something they’ve done whenever we’ve passed in the hallway over the past 12 months. This week, they’ve switched over to Portuguese/Spanish, but already I am failing them. At least they will only be disappointed for 83 more days.

* I failed. My Gaulish grammatical grasp is somewhere in the 12-to-20-month-old range.

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