The Godfather: Peter Corris on learning French
I failed French in the 1959 Victorian matriculation examination. This failure had been looming for some time. I passed the subject narrowly in fifth form but in the final year the degree of difficulty went up and with it my ineptitude. In the final school exam I got 30 per cent.
Knowing almost nothing about the rules of English grammar, I found the attempt to learn a foreign language through grammar had me in trouble. For a time I managed through having an excellent memory and being able to memorise certain structures, and acquired a wide vocabulary, but when required to translate English passages into French or to compose something in the language, observing rules I was unfamiliar with, I was all at sea and eventually it showed.
This caused the Melbourne High School headmaster, renowned ex-Australian test cricketer WM ‘Bill’ Woodfall, to write on my final report, ‘Keep after this French. If Arts is your course this must be done!’
Arts was indeed my course, so my failure was a potential disaster. To earn an Arts degree at the University of Melbourne you had to pass a subject in a foreign language. I had gained high honours in other subjects and a Commonwealth scholarship, and apparently I had earned enough marks in French to allow me to enrol in French 1A. This was a simplified course designed to allow the linguistically challenged like me to get the nod.
In those days, the exam at the end of the year determined the result for most subjects, but not so in languages. There were three dictation tests, one each term (this was long before semesters became fashionable for reasons I’ve never understood) and candidates had to pass two out of three to gain credit for the subject.
I knew that the examination would be a breeze. All you had to do was translate a fairly simple passage of French into English – this I could make a fair, if stumbling fist of – and answer in English questions about some French novels which could also be read in English. No problem. But the dictée …
The lecturer, one Madame Berger (how could I ever forget her?) read out the first passage to be written in her native language. Her voice was clear, her accent no doubt perfect and she spoke quite slowly. I was baffled and failed lamentably.
Someone told me that at the Secondary Teachers’ College, a building on the campus, practice dictations were conducted at lunchtime for trainee teachers pursuing degrees who, like me, were struggling with the dictées either through lack of ability, poor teaching at school, or both. Although not the holder of an Education Department scholarship (diabetics were then excluded from the public service), I snuck into these sessions and did so week after week through the rest of the year. Somehow I acquired the knack, I can’t put it any higher than that, of capturing enough of the spoken word to get a reasonable transcription of it down.
I passed two official dictées, was able to leave French and Geography (Arts students were also obliged to do a science unit and Geography was one I could handle) behind and get on with English and History.
I’m proud of my persistence but still regret, I might say am ashamed of, my inability to learn languages. After graduating and casting about for a topic for an MA thesis, I became interested in Latin American history and made an attempt to learn Spanish, without success. Later still, when researching the Pacific labour trade for a doctorate, I hastily curtailed the field to the Solomon Islands because to cover (as I should have) the New Hebrides I would’ve had to manage documents in French.
So I remain monolingual, still with an expansive French vocabulary, but unable to communicate in the language on my visits to France or to construct a grammatical sentence much beyond La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle.