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First person: Speaking of French letters


Julia Molony

Julia Molony

Julia Molony

Some people do fireworks, others sing Auld Lang Syne. In my household, it's traditional to have a fight on New Year's Eve.

Not a physical one - I'm not talking an end-of-year knockout. More a slow, steady, build-up of resentment, cabin-fever and blood-alcohol levels, that combine and combust in a shower of sharp words, tears and spilt Champagne, usually soon after midnight.

The main protagonists in these rows change on rotation, but the consistent thing is the conflict. It's so ingrained in me now, it's like a Pavlovian response. I hear corks popping and gongs going, and instead of partaking of the cheer, I instinctively find myself reaching for the nearest grievance as if it's a bottle of gin. After the interminable, tetchy lock-in that is Christmas, there are usually plenty of them to hand.

The only safe place for me on December 31 is probably a desert island, or an Arctic ice-field, or a medieval tower on my own. Certainly, I should be nowhere in the vicinity of my boyfriend. As my closest proxy in life, it follows that he is also my most frequent opponent - that's just natural law.

Plus, he is French. So when we have an argument, if either of us feels misunderstood, there's a reasonable chance it is because we're actually speaking different languages. Women might be from Venus and men from Mars and all that, but there are times an actual qualified translator wouldn't go astray in our house. Anger, it turns out, quite often short-circuits the bilingual part of the brain.

While his English is close to fluent, I didn't study French past the age of 15. At that point, my command of vocabulary was basic, and mostly concerned with excuses that could be used to get me away from my exchange student, Cecile, in order to devote more time to hormonal weeping and retreating into my Walkman. Non merci, J'ai des cramps.

Thankfully, things have improved since then. As is customary when cohabiting with a foreigner, I have picked up all the essential profanities, insults and expressions which defame the character of his mother. But while these all come very handy in the midst of a New Year's Eve barney, they are not much use when more delicate social skills are required. For example, when communicating with the extended family over Christmas dinner. That's when I'm reduced to employing hand gestures, grimaces and, when in really dire straits, a vacant smile and a 50-yard stare.

I find it hard enough to make a good impression in my own language. Trying to make one without the help of correct sentence construction and with only a limited choice of words is nigh on impossible. Jokes of any kind are off the menu. I just don't have the linguistic dexterity to pull off funny, except when it happens by accident.

As a language, French is booby-trapped - packed with misleading similarities which seem designed to trip you up. Not long ago, during a dinner-time discussion about food, I weighed in with enthusiasm to complain about the unpleasant taste of artificial additives, only to discover I'd actually been moaning about the unpleasant taste of condoms. Which explained the shocked faces all around. Preservatifs, I learned that day, have no place in a Marks & Spencer ready meal.

So, let the record show that this is the year I resolve to improve my French. By the end of 2015, I want to be able to convey an opinion in French without fear of humiliation. And, when occasion demands it, I'd like to be able to able to argue back in a torrent of throaty Gallic vowels - those sounds that seem to have been designed as perfectly formed missiles of verbal acid.

I want to be able to do bitchy French convincingly and confidently. Because no matter what the cliche would have you believe, a sour puss and a shrug are not enough. And English, I've learned, is too measured, too rational, too polite a language with which to win arguments on New Year's Eve.

Sunday Independent