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Reform Magazine | November 28, 2020

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Editorial: How I learned to not speak French

This summer, I made a French shop assistant laugh out loud. I’d love to tell you the witty joke I made in masterful French, but sadly it was merely my attempt to pronounce the name of the Breton delicacy Kouign Amann. Never mind, I successfully bought it and successfully ate it. Yum.

The same day, I reduced a waitress to complete befuddlement by asking for ‘twenty fifteen centilitres’ of Belgian beer. As they didn’t have any 2,015cl glasses, between us we worked out that I probably meant 25cl, so that’s what I got. Also yum.

I studied French for seven years at school, and was one of the better students in my year, so it was quite a disappointment to visit a French family as a teenager and discover I couldn’t speak a word, and understood less. I’d completed thousands of exercises, using all the tenses, conjugating irregular verbs and making sure all the word endings agreed, but our teacher never seemed too bothered about our speaking it. These days, things seem to have progressed.

At 23, I travelled across Europe with Faith, who had studied German, and Gary, who had studied nothing much. Faith and I would start conversations in our respective second languages, painstakingly construct perfect sentences, fail to be understood and founder. Gary would walk up to strangers and start conversations like this: ‘Parlez-vous francais?’ ‘Bien sûr.’ ‘OK. Uh, what does that mean?’ And somehow, to our bewilderment and annoyance, he made friends. Gary seemed to assume he could speak French and German, and never noticed he couldn’t. While he was making a fool of himself and making himself understood, Faith and I were making sure we didn’t lose marks for bad grammar. We were so focussed on avoiding mistakes we got nowhere.

Which, I think, with a little grinding of gears, is what Martin Luther was talking about when he gave his notorious instruction: ‘Sin boldly, but trust in Christ more boldly still.’ He was not telling his friend to be nasty presuming on God’s forgiveness, he was advising someone who was anxious about trying to work out what God’s rules are. Don’t worry so much. Go ahead. Make mistakes. God is gracious to those who make a mess, not so impressed with those who are too scared of doing wrong to do anything at all.

In my 30s, I returned to France, worried that I had forgotten the little I ever knew. Abandoning all hope, I pointed and blurted, and found that that worked rather well. I’m hugely impressed by those who can get it right, but I’m very glad I’ve learned to get it wrong.

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This article was published in the September 2018 edition of  Reform

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