I am always pleasantly surprised and impressed when I hear an English-language adult speaking very good French. This is so rare that I always try to find out how that person did it.
Just the other day, I heard interviews in French of two English-speaking adults. The first was Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on Radio-Canada television. Hadfield is the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station as of March 13, 2013. Here is the link to the interview. (Note: this link may no longer work when you read this post.)
Chris Hadfield speaking with Anne-Marie Dussault
Congratulations to Chris. His French is very good. It is pleasant to listen to; the mistakes are few, and the viewer is not at all disturbed or distracted by issues of language.
I do not know how Hadfield learned to speak French this well. He is certainly to be commended for it. I also want to emphasize that this is a textbook example of the advantages of individual bilingualism, even if it is not perfect.
Although Canada has two official languages, the French-speaking Canadians have traditionally been the most bilingual. This is not surprising of course given that English language and culture are so dominant in North America,
For example, all the French-speaking Canadian astronauts have been what we would call perfectly bilingual. On the other hand, the French of their English-speaking counterparts has always required work.
Kudos then to Chris Hadfield who can now speak to all Canadians in both official languages without forcing the French-speakers to suffer through some mangled or incomprehensible French.
The second interview was with a professor of American origin but now teaching since 2001 at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He was being interviewed on the question of gay marriage that was before the U.S. supreme court.
His French was very good. Like that of Chris Hadfield, it was pleasant to listen to and totally comprehensible despite the presence of a few mistakes. I assume that this speaker learned to speak French on the job in a French-speaking university.
These two examples should be inspiration to all adults who aspire to speak French. It can be done. It just requires hard work, good tools and the right environment.
Three little mistakes of these English-speaking adults in French
As good as the French of these two speakers is, it is not perfect. If I can be allowed to nitpick a bit, I’ll look at three little mistakes.
LE véhicule not LA véhicule
If you listen to the interview with Chris Hadfield, you will hear him speak of “la véhicule” when referring to the space station. Despite its appearance, the word “véhicule” in French is masculine. This is very tricky because most French words that end in -ule are feminine.
Individu not individuel
The university professor said:
*Moi, comme individuel, je pense que… (As an individual, I think that…)
The correct form should be:
Moi, comme individu, je pense que…
Here the speaker has mixed up the French adjective “individuel” with the English noun “individual.”
Se prononcer not prononcer
The other mistake made by the professor was:
*La cour suprême va prononcer sur cette question. (The supreme court will pronounce on this question.)
The correct form should have been:
La cour suprême va se prononcer sur cette question.
Here the error is more subtle and stems from the fact that the speaker never really mastered the French pronominal verb system and verbs forms like “se prononcer” or “s’exprimer.” This is really foreign to the logic of English. In French, on the other hand, this kind of pronominal verb construction is very common.
These are relatively minor errors that do not really prevent the speaker from being understood. This is where working with a good language coach or tutor is essential. These little mistakes can be easily eliminated. Then time should be spent on expanding vocabulary and learning to use idiomatic expressions. This is what it takes to go from speaking “un bon français” to “un français impeccable.”
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.