Five posts from this blog were recycled to provide five ‘thoughts for the day’ for East Coast Radio for the Sundays during August- this is the first.
We leave for France for holidays tomorrow. We have been there each summer since 1986 and each summer I have taken from the shelf a book called “Living French”. I have never got further in the book than being able to say that Mrs Dubois has a pretty hat. In twenty-odd years, there has been no progress beyond Lesson 5.
I was in Rwanda and Burundi last month and being able to speak French would have been useful as I travelled from one to the other. Pasteur André, the Anglican priest delegated to see me safely to the border, spoke no English and I made the mistake of saying , “Vous parlez Francais?” This brought comments on many matters as we journeyed; not having a clue about most of what was being said, I mumbled a meek ‘oui’ to questions which left me completely lost.
Handed over to Clement, my Burundian friend, on the Rwandan side of the border, being able to converse in English came as a great relief. As we crossed the bridge over the river marking the border, Clement turned to me. “You didn’t study at Mukono in Uganda, did you?”
“No, I’ve never been to Uganda in my life”.
“You told Andrew you had studied there”.
“Ah”, I said, “that will be my French. Well, more precisely, my lack of French.”
I did not attempt to explain Madame Dubois’ pretty hat to Clement. He speaks at least three, probably four, possibly more, languages fluently and slips seamlessly from one to another.
“Where did you learn French?”
“I didn’t. I did it until I was 13 and never learned anymore. There was never much need for it. I can cope on holiday”.
A shake of the head, and we walked on.
Many Africans require three languages just to get through daily life. Being monoglot would be adequate for life in rural villages. Education, business, the media, travel and numerous other activities, demand knowledge of at least one European language.
Perhaps it’s a lack of exposure to other languages; more honestly, perhaps it’s just plain laziness. In France, a stab at saying something in French will generally bring a sympathetic response from the waiter or the shopkeeper, who will draw upon their reserves of English to avoid hearing their national language being spoken so badly.
What would compel progress beyond Lesson 5 of the book would be knowing that there were to be more journeys with Pasteur André. If a 45 minute car journey was sufficient to allow me to mistakenly claim that I studied theology in Uganda, any further travel could be a severe embarrassment. Necessity is a very efficient master.