Free French IV

Mesdames G. and É. (far left)
Celebrate the Former's Birthday
QUÉBEC, Canada
June 4, 2012

After an hour-and-a-half of play the two teams were tied. There was one final question to decide which would win. It came down to me:

"What is the name for somebody who comes from Cambodia? Use the feminine form of the noun. Spell it aloud."

Madame É. had split our class into two teams for today's activity. Most of the afternoon session was spent as a challenge of basic knowledge in the vein of a TV game show quiz. Each contestant was allowed to choose amongst 5 categories of questions:

I've grown to eagerly anticipate these afternoon sessions. Some of the games aren't that different from the games I'd play with siblings back in Seattle. Of course the level of questions we play at in elementary French class is about par with the conversation a kindergarten teacher might engage her room of six-year olds with. But then we've been students of French for only one month. Even basic knowledge and constructions can yet be a challenge.

Appreciating the afternoon session is a 180° change in perspective for me. When Madame É. started one month ago as teacher for our activity session she came off as strict and dictatorial. She would shut the door the moment the clock struck the hour and take attendance. Students lagging behind were given a dressing down out in the hallway before being admitted in to class--then still marked as tardy. She insisted that it was necessary to raise one's hand to ask for permission to step out to use the restroom. Madame É. would publicly chastise the entire class whenever anybody was found in violation of her regulations.

For whatever reason, she's lightened up considerably in the past week. I suspect that she was initially inexperienced managing adults as she's scarcely been one for very long herself. She's several years younger than the youngest of my fellow students.

"Name two objects that are found in the kitchen."

Items throughout the classroom were pointed at and hypothetical rooms conjured up. "What is it? Is the noun masculine or feminine? Spell it aloud." I was impressed by the quick thinking of one student on my team when she was called on to identify two objects that would be found in the bathroom. She clearly couldn't recall any specific fixtures so offered up "a door and a window?" which Madame É. begrudgingly accepted.

"What's four-twenty-ten-seven minus two?"

The category of numbers was the one most often chosen by other students--but one I avoided, myself. (I always chose "nationalities".) Any two-digit number above seventy has its own special logic in French. Those numbers take on forms that must have been coined back before people needed to count beyond what digits they were born with. 71 is literally "sixty-eleven". Anything between eighty and one-hundred is even more ridiculous. 88 is literally "four-twenty-ten-eight" and 94 is literally "four-twenty-fourteen". I did my team a grave disservice by answering the above question incorrectly. I flubbed up, computing that four-twenty-ten-seven minus two equalled only four-twenty-five--rather than the correct answer of four-twenty-ten-five.

The difference is more comprehensible when presented as a written equation than when spoken aloud in French:

- 2

Everything is a lot harder when no language other than French can be spoken.

"This last question is difficult," Madame É. said and paused. The score was tied. "Knock on your desk if you want to answer for your team."

She delivered the final question. For the first time neither team made a sound. I thought I might know the answer, but held off knocking on my desk for a moment until I was certain. I was pre-empted by one of my teammates.

She spelled the word wrong. That passed the option back over to the competing team to select a contestant to spell the word correctly. I breathed a sigh of relief when hearing the other team's answer. Aside from other mistakes it was also missing the same critical letter that our team had left out. I rapped on my desk.

"Yes. Your team has the option to respond," Madame É. addressed me, turning away from the other team.

"C-A-M-B-O-D-G-I-E-N-N-E?", I spelled out haltingly.

"Exactly! Perfect!", Madame É. shouted out, swirling around to face the blackboard. She brought the chalk in her hand down in one stroke along the board to add one to the tally running beneath our team name. Our team won by one point.

Everybody, even those on the opposing team, cheered.