If you took French in the 1960s, chances are this dialog is burned into your memory:
Tres bien, merci. Et toi? (Very well, thanks. And you?)
Pas mal, merci. (Not bad, thanks).
This well-worn dialog is from the A-LM French course used in the 1960s. I know like a radio jingle. Back then, French seemed like a good idea. The French were such close allies, and Jacqueline Kennedy’s grasp of the language seemed so chic.
As an adult I’ve learned that the A-LM dialogs are an American phenomenon. A friend from New Jersey knew the same dialogs I learned in Illinois. I remember “écouter et répéter,” the recorded male voice toned in the language lab, listening to another silly dialog about sausages and rice or the weather or going to the library. Or a phone number, Passy vingt deux quinze. A Paris phone number: Passy 22-15. Café
A friend from new Jersey used to recite the dialogs and phrases, “En face de l’église” (across from the church) and “Le pickup ne marche pas.” (The record player doesn’t work) Or “Dis donc, ou es la bibliotheque? (Say there, where is the library?)
On a recent trip to France, I was able to resurrect my college French—not fluently, but enough to meet French people halfway.
Anyone who assumes that most all people in foreign countries speak English are sadly mistaken. My driver from Charles DeGaulle Airport knew less English than I do French, which is saying something. Somehow, my rusty college French came back to me and we were able to converse a little bit as we sped across Paris.
In the days that followed, I came to realize that I could conduct an entire transaction in French. Amazing, but true.
Around the dinner table back home, friends who’d grown up in South Florida and South Carolina knew the “Bonjour Jean” dialog. As do my brother in Illinois and a friend from Maryland, and millions more who were required to mimic the A-LM dialogs back in the day.
My high school offered one foreign language: French. And so, I recited French drills for three years.
By the time I made it to college, I learned that I needed a foreign language to earn a bachelor of arts degree. By default, I opted for French one semester my sophomore year assuming that would fulfill my language requirement.
And then came my moment of truth. I was a second semester senior at the University of Missouri. No one had pointed out that my French course taken two years before wasn’t advanced enough to fulfill the degree requirement.
It was a moment that nightmares are made of.
I signed up for “Conversational French” and found myself totally lost in a classroom of what amounted to a native speaker and students who had either grown up in Quebec or were raised by French parents. I was sinking faster than a lead balloon dropped from the Eiffel Tower.
The next day I hurried over to the Drop/Add office where “French Reading,” came to my rescue. So much for any notions of coasting through my final semester. Instead, I was relearning my French, brushing up on vocabulary and verb conjugations that had gone fallow. In the end, I made a B for the course, which proves the existence of miracles.
Did I really learn anything?
Well, I made myself understood last month in Paris and Rouen and Normandy.
Of course I wasn’t fluent, but at least being able to converse a bit with shopkeepers and bus drivers and hotel staff. I was at least making an effort, which is important when you’re traveling.
I wasn’t relying on Google translator or whatever crutches American tourists use these days. I actually knew enough French to engage people without fumbling around with my phone or thumbing through a dictionary. I could read menus, street signs, historical markers, translated the meaning of street names such as Rue de la Chat Perdu, street of the lost cat, and ponder a possible story behind that name.
Back in 1976, I wasn’t sure any of what I was being forced to read and translate was doing me any good. Now I know that it was. It came back like riding a bicycle, or more like a tricycle. Or a Vespa with a side car.
Tres bien, merci.