We’ve been talking a lot this week about language skills (or lack thereof). So I thought it would be fun (though it might simply prove traumatic) to share some of our more egregious mistakes in French. Let’s call it ‘Faux Pas Fridays” (though my ‘false steps’ happen every day of the week).
When I first moved to France, instead of going the common route of teaching English, I decided to teach Pilates. You might remember that I had a brief (failed) stint dancing in New York. One valuable skill I picked up along the way (aside from mimicking statues in postmodern movement pieces) was Pilates.
Turning up in Paris with no job leads, I advertised in English-speaking places (bookshops, expat forums, etc) offering private classes. I had a few clients (I have a few tales about them, too), but only three weeks into my stay, a French studio contacted me to see if I could teach at their studio.
I explained – in painfully broken French – that I didn’t actually speak French, so it might be difficult to teach in French. “Don’t be silly. You can show what you’re doing,” the owner kept insisting. “And your French isn’t that bad.”
Yes, she was hard up.
Having no other options, I decided to go for it. I had four days to prepare. Not only would I be teaching in French, but it would actually be my first time teaching. Ever. That’s right, I had a mat certification, but I had never actually taught before.
How can I possibly do this? I thought. I was going to have to memorize a full hour’s lesson, word for word.
For any of you who have taken Pilates (or yoga, for example), you know that these disciplines have a unique language all their own, never mind translating the lingo.
Besides a crash course in anatomy vocabulary (pelvis, glutes, ‘core muscles’), I also had to figure out how to say some pretty tricky phrases – and see if they actually meant anything.
“Pull your navel to your spine,” I tried out on Jerome.
“What?” he asked, staring at me blankly.
“It’s an image to help people with an exercise. Did I say that correctly?”
“Um, I guess those words are correct,” he said doubtfully. “But I really don’t know if people are going to understand.”
‘Relax’ was the name of the studio, but I was anything but relaxed when I turned up that first Monday. Exercise isn’t such a big thing in France, so the students in my class were not only, well French-speakers, but they also had no idea what Pilates was. I, with my sorry French skills and an oversaturated brain would have to introduce Pilates to them. Oh the poor darlings! They had no idea what was coming.
I’m pretty sure the students in that class got barely 10% of what I said. Or, let’s be real – it was not their fault – I probably made sense less than 1/10 of the time.
I had a cheat sheet of exercises scribbled on a sheet next to me. I knew I would be so rattled, that I would need some reminder of what to do next when panic set in.
Now we’re going to roll like a ball! I’d say, going into one of the most classic Pilates exercises. If you’ve never heard that before, I’m sure it sounds insane. (The students couldn’t decide whether it was because I couldn’t speak French – true – or because it really was what I wanted to say – also true).
An unconventional education, but learning French for me consisted of living with a boyfriend who didn’t speak my language and teaching Pilates to people who had no idea what I was saying. I learned to get by pretty quickly that way, but not correctly. If my French still seems bizarre (it is), blame it on those factors.
I could fill a book with examples of how ridiculous I sounded in those classes, but here are a few choice examples:
“Keep your hips still” (immobile). I was under the impression this is what I was saying for a few months. That is, until one of my regulars quietly pointed out – oh, after about the 100th time of repeating it – that I was actually saying something closer to immeuble (building). “Keep your hips building, people!”
I also paid special attention to tell people to “lower” their leg (baisser), rather than (sorry! excuse my French!) “f***” their leg (baiser). A very, VERY dangerous similarity, especially for someone like me, a lost cause as far as French phonetics goes.
Some of those first students, bless their hearts, became regulars and stayed with me for a year. I’m sure it was for the entertainment value, as well as the exercise. (“Build your hips! Hump your leg!”) I can’t tell you how grateful I was for their kindness, though. Those lessons could have been the ruin of me – the shame, the humiliation too great to bear. Instead, they gave me confidence. Sure, I sounded like a fool, but I was leading a class and people were actually listening! (Who’s the fool now?)
When I get embarrassed about my French (often) I remember those as my daring days. If I could stand up and teach in French when I barely knew how to speak it, who am I to be so timid now?
How about you? What are some of your worst French faux pas? They can either be social blunders (the true meaning of the phrase faux pas) or language mistakes like I’ve offered. I’ll give a shout out on Fridays to some of the best examples!