Sunday, March 01, 2009

Mon voyage français

Melbourne is a melting pot of ethnicity (my school, Elwood High, had some 83 nationalities represented in its population). For one who takes an interest, there is something ethnic to be learnt in every second person one encounters.

I have always wanted to master foreign languages, and I have a romantic dream of learning half a dozen before I die. Language, ethnicity and cultures have always been a source of wonderment. Over many years, I have learnt a little of many languages but a lot of none. I couldn’t decide which to take up. It’s not a trivial decision, and choosing one is to the detriment of the others. Because I couldn’t decide which was the best decision I made none. This went on for twenty years.

German was one option. I’d had a teenage girlfriend (we were even briefly married, but that’s another story) who was fluent in the language and consequently I took it up in my final year of high school. I liked that it had rules that were rarely broken, but I didn’t pursue it at the time.

I learnt Hebrew through most of my childhood, as a lead up to my barmitzvah, but ended when that milestone was reached. That’s another story, involving a nasty Polish rabbi.

My partner is fluent in Greek, but I didn’t want to learn the language from her. Like many European post-WWII migrants, the languages spoken here are very different to their modern counterparts and I didn’t want to learn the village dialects that are all but dead in their homelands.

My first two years of high school were in Moorabbin, at the time a very WASPy area and the only foreign language taught was the traditional French. My teacher was Mr. Cockerill, and I noted in the recent coverage of the Victorian bushfires that a man with this name and his wife survived. He is of the age that my teacher would be, so I wondered if this was he. As a rebellious teenager, I didn’t take well to his staid demeanour and absorbed nothing.

In 1987, I spent seventeen days in Panama and was surprised how quickly I picked up Spanish. I love the sound and flow of the language, it’s phonetic structure and how recognisable many of the words are.

The idea of learning a language kept fermenting in me, and I started getting angry with myself for not having made a decision. Sometimes it’s not important that one make the best decision but that one makes a decision. Any decision. I could have mastered several languages by now if I’d made a decision twenty years ago.

Ultimately, I made a snap decision based on my cinema experiences. The French film festival had just finished nearly two years ago. I’d extensively researched the program and was very satisfied with the eleven films I’d seen (Nue propriété was the highlight, and exemplifies what I love about French cinema, though this film is actually Belgian). French cinema is my favourite and I started thinking about taking up that language. “Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in a French cinema watching French films without subtitles?” I thought.

Shortly after, Paris, je t’aime screened, and it really moved me, especially the final segment. This clumsily-spoken French, imbued with such love and affection was the final straw and I immediately decided to take up the language.

I often have lunch in Degraves Street outside the CAE building. I enquired about French classes, which were to start in five weeks. I then called Alliance Française (who present the French film festival, and advertise before each screening) and they started classes in two weeks. That was it! Knowing my impetuous nature, and the fact that I really didn’t have time to commit to learning another language, I wanted to start as soon as possible. So, afraid that I might change my mind if delayed, I committed to Alliance Française.

Two years down the track, I’m still a long way from being able to watch a French film without subtitles. But I understand bits and pieces and often detect differences between what is spoken and how it’s translated. I feel I know enough now that I could survive in France, albeit with difficulty to start, and am wondering how and when I will make the next step.

This post is a preface to my preview of the French film festival.

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