2008: the year of learning French, intensively, under the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (CSDM). It delivers quality lessons, and an introduction to Québec French and culture, to adult learners, practically for free. The students must make a time commitment and fortunately I had the luxury of doing so.

My class is a portrait in immigration patterns to Montréal. The largest contingent of students is from Mexico. Students from Latin-American countries out-number other immigrants, including allo and anglophones from other parts of Canada. The presence of the Latinos is a blessing, because they are often more comfortable speaking in French, rather than English, strengthening the immersion experience.

The CSDM sensibly stresses speaking and oral comprehension first. There is some reading and writing involved too. We start reading local newspapers fairly soon and write short letters and texts.

By the 6th and final course, we are reading short stories by Monique Proulx and other Québécois authors. We listen to French songs sometimes, see a film and visit a couple of historic sites in Montréal.

The 4-month, French Writing, evening course I am now taking demands much more in terms of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, usage, spelling and a grasp of “the exceptions”, which are nearly the norm in French! It’s challenging and interesting.

All this time we nearly drown in grammar! We practice our strokes – present tense, passé composé, imparfait, futur proche, futur simple, conditionnel. Linguists will scoff at this one, but I believe there is a common word origin for tense and tension. The confusion caused by French conjugation can be considerable!

Take for e.g. the subjunctive, which is no longer used in English. It expresses an action that is dependent upon a subjective idea, opinion or condition. And of course you need to have a whole tense for that kind of thing. It would be used, for e.g. to make a sentence like:

– The father wants his son to become (= infinitive) a doctor. Le père veut que son fils devienne (= subjunctive) médecin. Get it?!

Then there are those other marvels: reflexive verbs. It seems that the French are either really introspective or totally narcissistic. Possibly both. In English you merely remember something, in French you remind yourself of something, in English you just plain go off to sleep, in French you put yourself to sleep, in English you get up, in French you get yourself up, and so on.

You may say big deal, so what? Just learn the reflexive verbs Veena and get on with it. But wait, it gets worse!

Not so long ago Marc-Antoine tells me proudly: “We have a whole tense – passé simple – which we use only for writing – literature mostly.” “Pray why?” I respond. I mean honestly, does that make any sense?

Sense is the first casualty in encounters with language. All languages are illogical, in varying degrees. They are human creations that become their own creatures, and evolve by popular will. (Save French, which is regulated by an Academy; but it plays hooky all the same.) We did create a comparatively logical language – Esperanto – but it never caught on in a big way. Go figure!

“I would have expected them to say this… like this…” says one of my classmates, deeply pondering a sentence. I sigh. It is only my second course, but I have grown wiser. “You don’t get it, because you’re thinking in English,” I offer. (Another “illogical” language, but of course.)

This is a cliché, but I begin to think of French as a beautiful tease, who you must pursue and pamper endlessly, before she will even allow you to hold her hand. (You have got a good grip on the adjectives, the adverbs are easy but you’re stumbling over the partitive article.) A few weeks pass. Now she will permit an occasional light kiss. (You figured out the partitive, sort of, and are immersed in the direct and indirect object pronouns – le, la, les, lui, leur, y, and en. Your progress is slow and steady.) You are beginning to feel pleased with yourself, when suddenly, she stops returning messages. (You have got your relative pronouns all mixed up; the application of ce qui, ce que and ce dont is unclear.)

You contemplate your choices. Suicide does not feel quite right. You could re-immigrate, this time to the U.S. of A., where they barely speak one language, apparently. Spanish is creeping upwards, but you could avoid those states. Obama has a good chance of winning, while Harper’s no Humpty Dumpty.

The phone rings. It’s her! She wants to meet. Nothing that special. Just coffee at the Second Cup. (You are over the hump with the relative pronouns and are coasting through the different types of hypothesis formation: if + present tense gets along with simple future; if + imparfait likes to hang out with conditionnel present.)

The romance continues. Or so you think! She’s vanilla and ice. (You get an A- in a French conversation course, but double-meaning, reflexive verbs double cross you the very next day. Ennuyer means to annoy someone, s’ennuyer means to miss someone or something.)

The year having passed without incident, as you have witnessed, the CSDM deems that I am now ready to tackle Français Écrit.

Alas, red marks dot my first assignments, like Chinese lanterns strung along the streets of Beijing, to celebrate the New Year. I am demoralised, but Marc-Antoine comes to my rescue, telling me that even he had difficulty learning to write in French.

He is no ordinary mortal. He trumps grammar (grammar in general, not just French grammar) and his abstract conjectures on this topic leave me dizzy. He is on intimate terms with COD and COI – (complement) object direct and (complement) object indirect. Give him a long sentence and he’ll spot these two gentlemen tout de suite.

I picture COD as outgoing and dynamic, COI is somewhat shy and self-effacing. I have to stare at a sentence on paper and pose those questions – Qui/Quoi, Who/What or À qui/À quoi, To whom/To what before I can decide who’s who.

Tell me, how many of you remember grammar rules? You cannot take part in this study if you are:

  1. A genius
  2. Good at learning languages
  3. A parent who has been supervising homework
  4. French.

Because if you are French, you have pored over your grammar books, kept them at your bedside like bibles of yore, while the allophones were in the gym, or cafeteria, having, like you know, fun with English.

The phone. Her! Calling off the engagement, but wants to remain friends. Oui, certainement.

You cannot be equally intimate with four women. One mother (English), two ex-wives (Hindi, Marathi). Oh well. You will continue as a good friend of French. And as you go along, you will find your ease, with this beautiful tease (allumeuse, French French; agace-pissette, quaint Québécois).