Monday, June 8, 2015

Parlez-vous Anglais?

The clues were all there... I really had to learn how to speak French because I never know when I'll find myself in a French-speaking country.
  • My academic supervisor at the University of Queensland speaks French.
  • I used to housesit for two French postdoctoral fellows in Sydney when I first began to study for my PhD.
  • I found myself in Hanoi, where a lot of people speak French.
  • During the GRISP leadership course, I wound up with a group of African francophones whose attempt at teaching me to speak French led to me remembering tout de suite (roughly, this is French for right now, immediately, ASAP... you get the picture).
  • Matty and Val have been switching to French when they talk with each other while I watch with a blank face. (And they jokingly told me that when they tell me something in French, I just answer Oui).
  • I bought (on a whim) a Lonely Planet European languages phrasebook right after graduating from college and, naturally, there's a section in it about French sentences.
  • In Thailand, I ended up watching Gerard Depardieu's movie (French) without subtitles.
  • I studied short courses in culinary arts, a field in which much of the jargon is in French.
  • I was a resource person during a training course in which African Francophones were the students.
At the end of the day, I only got a few French words with me. So when I was told that I was going to the French-speaking region of Switzerland early in June this year, I was caught unprepared! I have no idea how I was supposed to communicate there if English isn't used as widely as in the Philippines. 

And so with a very limited French vocabulary, I flew halfway around the globe to be in one of the most expensive countries in the world. But, I did bring one very important sentence, which I picked up after reading a Nancy Drew mystery story: Parlez-vous Anglais? (Do you speak English?). Well, the sentence did not prove to be useful in the Geneve-Aeroport train station, it turned out, because I bought a ticket from the vending machine and because I couldn't find the English version of the instructions screen. I misinterpreted a question in which I had to answer 1 or 2... and I thought this was about how many tickets I was going to buy that day. 

(Turned out I was being asked whether I'd be buying first- or second-class tickets.)

I found myself alone struggling with ordering food, several times. Of course, my first question after the requisite Bon jour greeting in the restaurant, I just had to ask: Parlez-vous Anglais? The waitress promptly said no (uh-oh!) so I had to dig deep into my very limited French vocabulary and non-existent knowledge of grammar with one goal in mind: I get understood enough to get my food. Good thing that the boys taught me the French translation for numbers (although I can only go up to five right now); all I had to figure out was what to order. Payment was a different thing altogether because I didn't know how to ask for the bill. An English-speaking guy taught me a new sentence: C'est combien? (How much?); the internet dished out Je voudrais l'addition, s'il vous plaît. (I would like the bill, please.). These sentences both came in handy.

Then there's the transportation. I kept wondering how'd I know if I already have to get off the bus. I kept hearing an announcement overhead saying, "Prochain arrêt" just before the bus halted. The disembodied voice in the bus continued to say it each time; but the announcement kept ending with a different French word, or two. I finally figured out that this meant "Next stop".

I finally gave up, one afternoon, deciphering the French language without help. So I got myself a Lonely Planet  French phrasebook and has kept it in my bag since. We never know, I just might find another reason to speak in French in some random part of the world.