Why I can’t speak French

The worst element of PE classes in school was not that it forced physical activity on otherwise bookish, Nintendo-based children, such as I was. It wasn’t the ritual humiliation. It wasn’t the prison style showers. It was that no would tell me the rules. It was one of the oddest paradoxes of school that an institution set up specifically for the distribution of knowledge and learning should be so resistant to explaining the rules of the games they required us to play. In all my other classes the dynamic was exactly as I expected it to be. We didn’t know things. The teacher told us things. Hopefully we would remember those things in order to write them back down again later, under exam conditions.

Somehow though, PE had a different set of requirements. The rules of football, rugby and basketball were considered so fundamental that they didn’t need teaching. They were supposed to have been as intuitive to me as breathing, or delivered seamlessly into my brain via cultural osmosis. But they hadn’t been. I didn’t know what offside was. I had no idea what travelling meant. And even when I did know some of the rules no one could tell me what purpose those rules served. I knew I couldn’t throw the ball forward in rugby, but no one could tell me why.

This lack of understanding of the rules, coupled with a lack of self-esteem resulting from my wobbly legs emerging from a pair of thin shorts led to a total lack of confidence while trying to play these games. I would somehow find myself standing over the goal-line clutching a rugby ball completely unable to recall whether I was supposed to drop the ball or place it on the ground. Instead I stood there uselessly, trying to work it out logically, until someone ran up and took my legs out from under me. I was told I was supposed to be a defender, but with no further tactical instruction I spent the entire time stood motionless on the six yard box while everyone else ran around playing football.

So in the third year, when we were offered the chance to drop PE in favour of taking French lessons, I jumped at the chance. I had no real interest in learning French, but the prospect of never having to stand in a field while a man in a tracksuit blew a whistle at me because I had picked up the puck in order to make it easier to hit was reason enough for me.

It seemed only right that I should be given the chance to drop PE for French. For years I had fought against the notion of a ‘sports day’, insisting that with no parallel ‘literature day’ the school was exhibiting an unfair bias. Finally it seemed someone had seen sense and allowed the least physically able of us to put our time toward more suitably academic pursuits.

It bolstered my self-esteem a little. Where previously I had come face to face with my limitations on a weekly basis as I made futile attempts to climb ropes or dive in a swimming pool in a way that didn’t leave savage red welts across my stomach, I would now be learning two separate foreign languages. I had already been studying Spanish for two years and was fully capable of telling total strangers how many brothers I had and holding conversations about train stations in the present tense. Soon I would be able to say such things in French as well. I was going to be better than bi-lingual, I would be tri-lingual. I would be a picture of academia, going directly from Spanish to French class while the athletes sprang like majestic gazelle out on the sports field.

When the first class came though I was disappointed to discover my first French class was not a hive of intellectual bustle. It was populated by the same kids that spent the old PE classes pointing at me and trying to stop laughing whenever I looked over at them. It never occurred to me that those kids would also see French lessons as a route out. They played football at lunch times, why wouldn’t they want to play it during lessons too? What reason could they possibly have for sitting where they now were, scrawling football crests onto the front of exercise books and staring vacantly out of the window?

The teacher turned up and was unexpectedly attractive. She was French and, I realise with hindsight, in her early twenties. This was possibly her first teaching job. It didn’t occur to me that teachers might be nervous, but trying to imagine myself standing in front of thirty bored teenagers I can’t imagine how teachers are ever not nervous. She opened with classic day one vocabulary. We learned to say hello and goodbye. We learnt to ask how someone is, but not how to tell anyone how we are. And she took a fair stab at teaching us how to count to ten.

“One is spelt ‘un‘, but it is pronounced ‘uhh‘.”

There was a short pause, a small patter of tittering, and then someone raised his hand and asked her to repeat it.

Uhh,” she said.

We were thirteen and still freshly fascinated by masturbation. Suddenly we had found ourselves sat in front of an attractive French woman who was making what distinctly appeared to be sex noises.

Uhh,” she repeated again, for emphasis. “Two is ‘deux'”

“So one is ‘un’,” someone else deliberately mispronounced.

“No,” the teacher said, “listen. ‘Uhh‘.

A lot of people started laughing now, and she looked like she had no idea why.

The following week it was remarkable how many of the class couldn’t wrap their heads around the dropped ‘n’ in ‘un’. She said ‘uhh’ over and over again, getting angrier and angrier, which inevitably made everyone laugh that much harder.

“What is so hard about this? It is ‘uhh’,” she said, in her thick Parisian accent. “Uhh, uhh, uhh!

As the weeks went on she would randomly be asked again to confirm the French for ‘one’. We would be in the middle of conjugating the verb ‘to go’ and suddenly someone would once more need it clarifying. She would be in the middle of correcting our application of gender to a noun, and a hand would raise innocently up and ask that same question that now sent her into a small rage.

She cottoned on to why after a while. In any other work environment she would have had a good claim for a sexual harassment case. In a school all she could realistically do was walk out of class one day and leave us to our infantile jokes. Which is precisely what she did do.

Our cover teacher treated the class with a mix of suspicion and disdain and wisely never attempted to teach us any French. My career as a tri-lingualist was over before it began and I felt a hint of bitterness toward those that, in my opinion, should never have come in from the sports field in the first place.

It was my mistake of course. The genuine athletes didn’t surrender their PE lessons for French. They were still out practicing to be Olympians. The kids that came in from the cold to pretend to learn a foreign language didn’t know the rules to those games any better than I did. I see that now. As an adult I discovered football and have developed an interest in it my younger self would never have understood. When my French classmates played football in the playground, they didn’t really play football. They just tried to replicate what they had seen on television the previous Saturday. Whenever anyone scored a goal everyone on the opposite team would just instinctively shout ‘offside’. It didn’t matter where the shot had come from, or where anyone else was positioned. Everything was offside. Lunch time games finished with nil-nil score-lines that were actually seventeen-twelve. No one played defence. Whoever had the ball ran full pelt at the goal while the rest of the team shouted at him to pass because they wanted to be the one running at goal. It’s not football, it’s just kids. And kids will take French to get out of those shorts and the prison-style showers.

The French teacher never came back and the following year I stopped taking the lessons. I learned almost nothing from my one year of French. The only words I can remember now are ‘canard’ and ‘uhh’

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