What are they on about?

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
David Newnham says sign language beats phrase books any day I remember Madame Souris from primary school. She was the star of my first French textbook. Years later, I worked out that she was a mouse, on account of her name being French for mouse. My teacher had failed to mention this, she herself being an ass.

French at grammar school was little better. My teacher there was a Scot, and to this day my forays into the language of Verlaine come with a distinct Dundee accent.

Only on leaving the education system did I actually meet any French people. But by then I was a confirmed gesticulator.

That's right. Rather than attempt to pronounce "pneu", I tell the mechanic that my tyre is punctured by describing a flattened circle with my hands and making gentle hissing noises.

Don't think I'm one of those travellers who expects the world to speak English. Far from it. Such language as I can muster I dispense with generosity. But experience has taught me to avoid any semblance of fluency. This is where phrase books have got it wrong. Take the standard phrase book question: "What time is the next bus to Egliseneuve-d'Entraigues?" (It souns great with a Dundee accent, by the way.) If delivered in fluent French, this is likely to elict a reply which translates literally as: "The thing is, my old three-cornered hat, if you're planning to get to Elise this side of Bastille Day (snort), you'd do better getting the 11.17 train to Clermont, then hopping on the (some name ending in - euille) bus to just this side of (name that sounds like 'think-tanks') and legging it, know what I mean Jacques?" You then have to begin again, only this time wearing a foolish grin that says, "Ok, so I know you thought I spoke French, but actually I just got that question out of a book and I didn't understand a single word of your reply except for the bit about mounting an iron horse."

Better to make it clear from the outset that you are a complete beginner. Say "Egliseneuve-l'Entraigues", taking care to replace the "d" with an "l". At the same time, indicate your watch while shrugging your shoulders and imitating a bus.

If this doesn't work, try adding "ding-ding" and pretending to be a bus conductor.

Just remember: keep smiling, and don't accept any lifts from men in white coats.

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