“Qu’est-ce que vous avez fait ce weekend?”
As ever, I sit and silently perspire. I try to remember, think back the four days it’s been since Sunday.
The question progresses round the class, circling like some genial predator. Our teacher waits, then dives, closes in with a name attached to the interrogation.
“Et vous, Philip? Qu’est-ce que vous avez fait ce weekend?”
One by one, the others rattle off their activities, their hobbies, their lives. There are trips to the cinema, visits to museums and parties, outings to festivals or exhibitions. People reveal themselves to be cinephiles, doting grandparents, fitness obsessives, pretentiously cultured. Weddings are being planned, families seen. Life, in halting, primary school level French, goes on.
The guy sitting to my left has just gone on for five minutes describing his trip to Newcastle to watch Scotland play Samoa. I’m still racking my brains trying to think of what I did that weekend.
“Uhhh…” I growl from the back of my throat.
Saying it with a comically ludicrous French accent always sounds a bit better when you’re trying to fake it. Or maybe everyone I ever talk to is just too polite to comment that my French is shit.
I was forced to take French lessons up until I was 15. I say forced because it’s a requirement of the Scottish curriculum that every student pursues a modern language to a certain level before they leave school, and where I was, it seemed easier to take the factory approach for students who didn’t want to be there. There was a certain resemblance to mass production, in churning out passing grades by volume rather than being concerned with the individual quality, fit, or usefulness of each individuals education.
Not that I blame anyone. To be honest, I’d probably take much the same approach. Confronted with an enormous mass of surly teenagers who plainly couldn’t be bothered asking where the library was, that approach is probably the only realistic one. Individual attention, tailoring a course to something pupils can actually gain something from and enjoy, necessitates that the student in question actually wants to be there.
Of course, engagement can be somewhat manufactured by an enthusiastic, committed teacher. In the end, though, some intellectual curiosity over the subject matter, or some desire to learn, is probably necessary to actually get anywhere.
It was that desire to learn that I lacked when I was 15. Not a desire to learn in general, just a desire to pursue certain avenues. The issue of girls being put off science or maths subjects in schools because of their macho, gendered image is a genuinely pressing one. Gender roles are especially oppressive for teenagers constantly trying to fit in with everyone else around them and discover their own identity. Kids are being forced to make choices about their lives before they know who they actually are, or are comfortable in their own skin.
It works the other way round, as well. I didn’t want to take French and didn’t really want to study English despite being, even if I say so myself, quite good at them. In the end, I kept going with English because it was rumoured to be necessary for all sorts of university courses. French, on the other hand, was boring and useless and for girls.
The problem with that approach was that I turned out to be decent at English, and, after quite a lot of nudging from a teacher, took it right up to my last year of school. Whereupon I had my first creative writing class and promptly fell in love with words. Being in a class full of people who were interested and wanted to learn, away from my friends complaining that poetry was stupid and that Shakespeare was hard and that nothing happened in literary books – well, to put it another way, I still read Thomas Hardy.
All of that ultimately led me down a path which rendered my accumulated chemistry and physics and maths knowledge utterly redundant. I kind of fell into a field in which being able to speak at least one other language was suddenly necessary.
Thus, taking French classes as an adult. Amongst people who wanted to learn, indeed, who had paid to be there. It’d be perfect.
“Oh, wow, super interesting weekend you had then. Was it not a bit rainy for going to visit Loch Ness?” I ask.
“Oh, no, I just made that up. I spent my whole weekend working and watching the new series of Orange is the New Black.”
My partner and I are at that stage of awkward small talk, having run out of words to describe what we’d been up to. That particular “So, what do you study? Oh, really? That’s immensely interesting and I would genuinely like to hear you talk about it!” stage of proceedings. You know a face, but aren’t willing to use a name because there’s the creeping suspicion that you might be thinking of someone else.
“Ah. Well, points for creativity, at least. And for saying it all better than I could, I think.” I was stumbling, stunned by that enormous revelation.
You could make stuff up? When asked a question, to talk about yourself or describe your hobbies or what you did at the weekend or where you went on your holidays or if you had plans for Christmas or any of the other tedious minutiae that people discuss in language classes, you could simply lie?
It probably says something unflattering that I’d never even considered that before.
“Yeah, well, I just wanted to impress you,” my partner jokes, smiling confidently. “Is it working?”
“Uh, yeah, of course. I mean, going to Loch Ness, that’s…” I’m cut off from a fumbling attempt at a joke by the teacher.
Noticing that the chatter had turned from scattered, hesitant French to scattered, hesitant English, she calls for the end of our discussions. Then she goes round the class, asking people to report back on what their partners had done.
Her gaze eventually turns to us. I stumble over the words, stopping and pausing and looking for assistance,wishing everyone could just read my mind and discern what the hell it is I’m trying to say. I stammer my way through, turning a bit red.
Somehow, the words are and aren’t there simultaneously. I know what I want to say, can feel what I want to say, trickling down my brain stem towards my tongue, but somewhere in the back of my throat the words get confused and lost and disappear. There’re flowing compound sentences in my mind, grand, sweeping adjectives, elegantly witty colloquialisms. I just don’t know how to say them.
So I stutter through, firing off subject, verb, object, subject, verb, object, subject, verb, object in sentences that sounded like they’d been written by a five year old. Every verb comes with some hesitation, a questioning uplift to check the conjugation and tense and usage. Every full stop prompts an unsure glance at the front of the class to check if there was anything wrong.
Finally, I’ve done enough to earn an accepting nod. I sit back and feel the cold sweat beading on my back dampen my t-shirt.
Then it’s my partner’s turn. She launches into it, waving her arms and ploughing through mispronunciations, waving off attempts to interrupt her flow. She talks, without hesitation, with the rest of the small classroom nodding along as she takes everyone through the nothingness that had been my weekend.
The teacher frantically scribbles notes, trying to keep pace with the sheer volume of words.
My weekend, sitting around, watching TV, doing a little cooking, reading a book, playing games, suddenly takes on a life of its own. It sounds interesting and vibrant and enviable, rendered almost idyllic. My partner gestures and makes eye contact, looking all around the room. People look up from their phones and listen.
And then she’s finished. The teacher recites the litany of mistakes that she made – incorrect verb conjugations, clunky and error-strewn sentence structure, various missing prepositions – and she listens, nods, and notes all of them down.
The questioning moves onwards, and the class once again lapses into bored indifference as another person stumbles and stammers their way through a trip to an art exhibition.
The next block of classes mark the start of the regular term. I turn up on the Thursday night I was used to and walk into a packed classroom, full of faces I’ve never seen before.
It’s slightly jarring, in a way. The class I was in before was comfortable, with eight or nine people who had all got to know one another a bit over hours of class time. Now there’s a whole new room full of names and faces to learn, to judge.
But after a while, the class divides itself along much the same lines. The teacher throws out a question to the class about some nonsense or other, just to get us speaking. It hangs there in the stillness. No-one wants to be the one to make the first move.
Then after a moment of awkward silence, someone takes the burden of talking upon himself. He’s bombastic, grandiose, loud and smelling strongly of cigarettes. He’s late middle-aged, slightly overweight, and tall, large, stooping apologetically when he walks, trying to rein in his massive hands.
He talks, pausing to ask for words from the teacher then launching onwards before she’s finished answering. His booming voice fills the small classroom. We’ll later discover that he’s a professor from the local university, used to lecturing and prognosticating.
Once he’s done, the teacher again goes round the room. A division quickly becomes clear. There’re a couple more like the professor. They speak up, having rudimentary conversations, only fleetingly pausing to acknowledge corrections.
Then there’re the quieter ones, the less confident ones, who only speak when asked a question. They hesitate over words and stare at their notes when speaking, as if trying to read the answer off the page.
The teacher turns to me.
“Qu’est-ce que vous avez fait ce weekend, eh… David?”
I look down at the paper in front of me, covered with scribbles giving the meanings of random words I’ll never use. I’m not entirely sure why I took them down.
“Je n’ai fait rien,” I mumble.
“Je n’ai rien fait,” the teacher corrects me.
“Pardon,” I mutter and look away.