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Published February 01, 2012 More Info »
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Published February 01, 2012

My ability to communicate in French can best be described as atrocious, or as one would say in French………………………….see what I mean? Though I faithfully attended French classes for a total of nine years during my formative years, little of the lessons remained with me, aside from a smattering of phrases, such as “Mon crayon est grand”, which tends to take on a whole new meaning outside of the classroom. Though Canada is officially a bilingual country, the two solitudes of French and English afforded me sufficient protection from ever being forced to mangle a language other than my mother tongue. So, the lessons of past and present participles, reflexive pronouns and subordinating conjunctions (which sound naughty but aren’t really that interesting) all fled to the dark recesses of my brain, never to be found again, along with the innumerable passwords to my various email accounts. Confident that my language deficiencies would never be discovered provided I just ducked my head when travelling through Quebec, I merrily went along my unilingual way. I never wanted to be Prime Minister anyway.

Once outside the safe confines of Canada, though, the absence of a second language skill is a sizeable handicap in the majority of countries, as I’ve discovered over the past five years. My efforts to incorporate Hausa, Bangla and Tajik into everyday conversations have proven to be colossal failures, though my local colleagues have all ably covered for me. In return, I like to think I gave them the feeling of empowerment that comes with preventing international incidents. My arrival in Cameroon provoked a greater sense of grief regarding my lack of proficiency in another language, however. As I was reminded on numerous occasions during my first couple of weeks in the country, Canada and Cameroon share the distinction of being the only two officially bilingual countries in the world. Moreover, the two official languages are the same, French and English. I couldn’t verify whether that claim was correct, since that would require doing research, so it was easier just to accept it.

What was more difficult to accept was the presumption on the part of others that since I’m from Canada, I must be able to speak French fluently. There always seemed to be a sense of disappointment conveyed in response to my excuse that since I come from the English part of Canada, I never learned how to communicate with my French Canadian brethren. It was like I was admitting that I peed on my local Tim Horton’s (never proven, by the way). On the verge of engaging in witty French banter with me, my Cameroonian counterparts would instead shake their heads and say, “C’est dommage.” and then provide the English translation to make me feel doubly bad.

So, I resolved to once again learn the Language of Love. But where to start? Jumping into conversations with the cabbies in Yaounde seemed likely to end in me being tossed from the taxi or being driven to Nigeria by accident. And ironically, my placement was in the Northwest region, the last bastion of Anglophones in Cameroon, so the opportunities to practice French were limited. Undaunted, I decided I would teach myself with the aid of a helpful Cameroonian textbook. Acting on the recommendation of a Bamenda bookseller, I picked up the latest copy of:

The approach of the textbook was rather unique, in that half of its sections were in French without translation of any kind, leaving the learner to guess the lesson being taught. Often, one paragraph in English was followed by one in French. It was like reaching the climax of a detective novel and being told that the murderer was, in fact, ???????????. Equally novel was the text’s method of testing, consisting of 1500 multiple choice questions. Apparently, the author ran out of pages, as the correct answers aren’t provided. As a result, I’m proud to say that I achieved a perfect score, despite my lack of study and comprehension. But what the text lacked in form and precision, it more than made up for in content, providing useful phrases such as the following:



But for some reason, knowing that I have my bases covered when it comes to beating puppies didn’t make me feel more confident in my mastery of the language. So, I decided it was time to find myself a tutor.
 
As luck would have it, I had just recently met a couple from France who are also living in Bamenda. Elphie had been living and working here for some time, but her boyfriend, Stephane, had just arrived in the country the same time I did. He was eager to practice his English, so we set up an exchange of sorts. On alternating weeks, we would speak only French or English at our Monday lunch at PresCafe, the local meeting spot of choice for expats. It soon became apparent, however, that our respective skill levels were not close to being equal. While Stephane could express himself quite easily in English, I found my attempts to speak French were somewhat laboured. I had so many pauses in my speech that Stephane must have thought I was choking on my food. I could see him mentally preparing himself to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre while listening to me. He was a most patient and genial tutor, but I clearly needed professional help, so it was time to return to school.
 
Some of my fellow volunteers had been enjoying their sessions at the local language school, so I decided to enrol as well. And this is where I met the Odd Couple. My work schedule was such that I thought it best to do one-hour sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the lunch hour. As a result, I was assigned two different tutors according to their schedules. I quickly learned that they were a study in contrasts, both in their personal style and their method of teaching. My Tuesday tutor, let’s call him Felix, arrived at our first session impeccably dressed in his shirt and tie, looking as though he had just returned from a photo shoot for the Cameroonian GQ. Having been reduced to a sweaty mess by the noontime sun, I already felt self-conscious before opening my mouth. His diction proved as precise as his dress and he expected no less from me, so I soon became accustomed to him repeating words after me like a corrective echo. As a teaching technique, it is effective enough, though it does tend to make our interactions rather stiff and formal. I keep expecting him to brandish a ruler at any moment for a quick rap on the knuckles.
 
My sessions with my Thursday tutor, Oscar by invented name, are much more relaxed. Older than Felix by about twenty years, Oscar set the tone early by showing up in a baseball cap and golf shirt that were both obviously well-loved. Wiping the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt, Oscar looked as though he’d rather be conducting these sessions from the comfort of his favourite bar, so I liked him immediately. As an instructor, he is less precise than Felix and technology seems to be his bête noir. He often treats the CD player as though it’s a bomb he’s been asked to defuse. But he is generous with his praise and rejoices loudly any time I manage to come up with the correct French translation, so I tend to exit our sessions with a smile on my face.
 
Given that my French study is currently limited to two hours per week plus homework, progress is slow, but at the very least, I am improving my skill level day by day, and I’m happy with that. Achieving fluency in both languages of Cameroon and Canada remains the ultimate goal, but if it doesn’t happen, well, c’est la vie.
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