Learning a foreign language is not easy. In fact, it can be extremely challenging, frustrating and, as I learned during my sojourn in France as an English language assistant, highly amusing. Especially for other people.
Having studied French at university, I descended on the city of Strasbourg to live and breathe all that is French.
Having endured two years of tedious grammatical study, I knew how to read and write in French with relative ease.
Now, armed with a nasal guffaw at the ready, a pocket dictionary and a brimful of confidence, I was sure that I would have the local parlance under control in no time. How hard could it be?
I found myself teaching English at one of Strasbourg’s most prestigious high schools.
I was joined by other language assistants whose native tongues were varied: Italian, Spanish and German, to name a few. We were a melting pot of cultures and languages, and together we exuded a spectrum of dodgy accents. And much to the amusement of the friendly locals, our road to linguistic competency was fraught with many a blurt, stumble and highly embarrassing indiscretion.
While we soon mastered the essential every day tasks such as ordering ridiculous amounts of croissants, we began to run into trouble when we decided to dip our toes into the pool of unprovoked conversation.
The first major linguistic mishap belonged to my Italian colleague who, joining in a conversation about the impending winter holidays, attempted to announce to the entire teaching staff her fondness for alpine sports. “J’adore chier!” she expounded enthusiastically. Her zest was met with horrified stares. Unfortunately, her intended phrase, “j’adore skier” (“I love to ski”), is remarkably similar to her actual utterance of, “I love to shit!”.
The next red-faced moment belonged to my Spanish colleague. Hailing from southern Spain, she pronounces the letter “v” much like the letter “b”. One afternoon, whilst summonsing her class of lethargic teenagers, she smiled innocently at the top of the stairs whilst yelling fervently, “Vite! Vite! Vite!”, imagining that she was telling her class to hurry up. She realised, upon the hysterical laughter that erupted, that her innocent mispronunciation of the letter “v” transformed what was a legitimate request to hurry along into a not-so-discreet repetition of a certain male appendage, “bite” (penis).
Sadly, I was not immune.
I ventured to make conversation and compliment the French on the superiority of their baked goods. With furrowed brow I began to explore the culinary intricacies which may account for such a difference in quality. “There can only be one explanation,” I proffered. “You see, in Australia, the bread is full of ‘les preservatifs’.”
An awkward silence, followed by an exchange of confused glances, quickly evolved into hysterical, tear-jerking gasps of laughter. I fumbled for my pocket dictionary. Oh bugger.
I had been well and truly booby-trapped by a language student’s worst nightmare: the false friend. This is a word which sounds and looks almost exactly like the English word but, sadly, has an entirely different meaning.
Realising my error, I joined in with the convulsions of laughter. Shaking my head, I decided that accidentally telling a table full of French people that Australia’s bread is full of condoms is all just part of the rough, rollicking but wonderful ride that is learning another language.