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HERE'S A little verse.

Un, deux, trois:
Où est le roi?
Quatre, cinq, six:
Avec son fils.
Sept, huit, neuf:
Il mange un oeuf
Dix, onze, douze:
Sur la pelouse.

Translation? What

HERE'S A little verse.

Un, deux, trois:
Où est le roi?
Quatre, cinq, six:
Avec son fils.
Sept, huit, neuf:
Il mange un oeuf
Dix, onze, douze:
Sur la pelouse.

Translation? What do you mean, translation? You don't need a translation. You're perfectly capable of doing it on your own. You're just going to stare at it blankly until you get one, you say? Like a child with an unappealing helping of tapioca pudding? Oh, all right then. I give in. Just this once. Then maybe we can get on.

One, two, three: Where's the king? Four, five, six: With his son. Seven, eight, nine: He's eating an egg: Ten, eleven, twelve: On the lawn.

Wasn't worth it, was it? No great insights into the human condition, no gnomic truths, no transcendental revelations. But for me it was the start of the adventure of learning French.

When I was six, along with the occasional helping of the hated tapioca pudding (marginally more appetizing than sago, however) the infant class started learning French from a book, famous in its time, called Madame Souris, Mrs Mouse. Before that, as a very small child I had a French alphabet book. All I remember of it is being rather alarmed by I for incendie (fire) with a picture of a burning house. But on the same page was I for infirmière (nurse), who was presumably on hand to lend comfort and succour to those who managed to escape the flames, so maybe things weren't so desperate after all, especially as the next page had J for jongleur (juggler) on it.

French at that age was more than Madame Souris and Un, deux, trois, où est le roi. We learnt verbs by rote, without the slightest idea why we were being required to do it. Eventually Madame Souris disappeared into the wainscotting and we were treated instead to the adventures of Armand and Denise, a couple of French kids who were, to use the Molesworthian idiom of the period, utterly wet and weedy. Their feeble adventures were mercifully brief, although you felt that the wretched person who'd written the book couldn't wait to finish with the story and get on with the really important stuff, the grammar exercises.

Here bizarre ideas surfaced continually, floating blissfully in an ether of irrelevance to anything in our everyday lives. The idea that adjectives had to agree in number with the nouns they qualified, so that in English you would say the vehicles fasts (les véhicules rapides) or some sunnies days (des jours ensoleillés). The idea that I to him of it have given (je lui en ai donné) had any kind of logic. The idea that we not want step to go to Nice (nous ne voulons pas aller à Nice) could express something we didn't want to do. Above all, that for no apparent reason, everything on this earth was either masculine or feminine: what logic determines that 'knee', for instance, should be masculine (le genou) while 'thigh' should be feminine (la cuisse)? Or that la mousse (feminine) means moss or foam while le mousse (masculine) means a ship's boy or midshipman?
 
But we soldiered on. At least ninety per cent of the thrust of learning was directed towards fluency in reading French. Speaking French was almost an irrelevance. There were no oral exams. Our accents were terrible. To this day, having lived in France for fifteen years and speaking French every day, I've never yet been taken for a native. (Belgian, now and again, but never for a Frenchman.) A friend, a former teacher of French, used to bless the day when the Pink Panther films appeared, featuring Peter Sellers' immortal creation, Inspector Clouseau. 'Speak French as though you were imitating Inspector Clouseau', he used to tell his pupils. Their accents were excellent.

This emphasis on written French delayed enjoyment of the sort of oral linguistic jokes I have a terrible weakness for. The cough-ridden World War I general, for instance, who, when asked for orders spluttered 'Ma sacrée toux!' (My dreadful cough!) which the officer took to mean 'massacrez tous', 'shoot them all'. Oh well. Or the British World War I pilot who crash-landed in a field in France, extricated himself from the wreckage and hurried off to find the farmer, to whom he announced excitedly 'Monsieur, j'ai craché dans votre champ', not knowing that in French cracher means not to crash, as you might expect it to, but to spit. 'Monsieur, I've spat in your field . . .'

Maybe the 1914-18 ambience of these little gems gives a clue to the antiquated nature of language learning and teaching as I experienced it. Easily the most exciting moment in learning French came when I was 13, and discovered that the women behind the baker's counter understood Bonjour; une baguette et deux croissants, s'il vous plaît. Wonderful, a miracle - and, what's more, a miracle that owed very little to anything I'd ever been taught. After my time a long-overdue revolution came, with a greater emphasis on spoken French, in the form of progressive learning programmes like En Avant and the introduction of language laboratories. Even so, to judge by the generally feeble level of French we overhear in British tourists and fellow-expats, something's gone horribly wrong somewhere and huge amounts of effort and money have been misdirected. Maybe Madame Souris got it right after all.

* * *

THE POINT of all this was going to be that it seems to me that French language teaching, especially of English, hasn't advanced much either. This was to have been followed with a swingeing attack on the poverty, the insularity, indeed the chauvinism, of French foreign language teaching, pointing out the foolishness of selling the world's major vehicular language short. But instead I'm going to leave you with this little gem, which says much the same anyway. It was a letter to a British client whose car had broken down, but before they posted it the garage faxed it to us to check it for correctness of expression. Have fun. We did.

Mister, April 5 last your vehicle registered *** is for us deposited by an engineer. This last specify that it is not having any number telephone and not any address you concerning but that you must contact the day for very us. Out to this day do not have us always had again of your part . . . Also we confirm as your vehicle for you is immobilized in our workshops with a noise motor and the collapse torn. Thank-you of to well want to do us to know your the quickly possible intention. In the waiting of a response receive, Mister, the expression of our feelings distinguished.

*  Mon frère est masseur (my brother is a physiotherapist) sounds exactly the same as mon frère est ma soeur (my brother is my sister). Ho ho.