WHY STUDY FRENCH?
I can’t think of a better way to explain this than to give you the benefit of my personal experience. When I first went to Geneva, I was thinking the same thing that you’re probably thinking right now: that the whole world speaks English; and that Geneva, being home to so many international organisations, would be cosmopolitan to a fault. When you get to the ‘palais des expositions’, everyone does speak English. But the process of going from the airport to the ‘PALEXPO’ happens in French. And it is that process I want to focus on for a moment.
I needed my French language skills to get out of the airport; all the sign posts in the Geneva International Airport were in French. Out on the street, taxi drivers pull up and say, “Bonjour Madame. Taxi?” Piece of cake. But you have to explain to them (in French because each one of them says, “Je ne comprends pas l’anglais”) that you have just arrived from Kenya for the EIBTM and would like to get to a hotel. More importantly, you need to understand how much you’re going to have to pay for the taxi ride. Of course they will tell you, in French, the same thing that taxi drivers around the world say: “On ne sait jamais, Madame. Ça depend de la distance entre ici et l’hôtel, mais surtout du temps qu’on y met, dans la circulation, vous comprenez? ”
This, even if you understand French, does not tell you very much until you notice the metre he’s pointing at inside the vehicle, which starts running (not at zero, but at five Swiss Francs) the minute he switches on the ignition. So let’s just say I got to the hotel in one piece. Metre reading: fifty Swiss francs. I had to pay the taxi driver. It was going to be my first expenditure since leaving Kenya. Sunday morning. Banks not open. I had been told, and I had believed, that the US dollar was universally acceptable. All of my foreign exchange was in US dollars, in hundred dollar bills!
So one hour into Switzerland, freezing outside the Hotel Bernina on the Avenue Lausanne, I heard swear words that are not printed in any French text book, that none of my French teachers had ever used. In between the swear words, the taxi driver gave me three options: one, pay him in Swiss francs. Any denomination, and he would be happy to give me change; two, pay him in French francs, on condition that I would accept change in Swiss francs at the rate of one-to-one; three (and he went out of his way to make sure I understood just how much of an inconvenience this option would be to him), give him the hundred dollar bill, end of story. No change, no questions.
Now, I have always been an ‘A’ student. And when it comes to money, my Maths is ‘A+++’. I was not about to pay a hundred dollars (American) for a taxi ride worth only fifty Swiss francs, even if I was going to write it off as a business expense! But I can tell you it took a whole lot of French (and tact) to get the angry taxi driver to help me with my luggage into the hotel. And still more French to explain the situation to the guy behind the counter, and sweet talk him into paying fifty Swiss francs to the taxi driver, and keep my hundred dollar bill as security until the following morning when I could go to the bank and sort myself out. For me, it was the supreme test of all my French language skills.
And so I say to those Kenyans who have the opportunity and the aptitude to study French in high school, “bon courage!” One day your investment will pay off.
First delivered as an assembly speech, then published in the Laserite school magazine of November 2009