I studied French in high school. I had four years of it. I took advanced French in college, stupidly testing into higher levels to get credits. I barely passed. I have forgotten nearly all of that knowledge. I remember words, a few basic phrases. I can ask if Phillipe is at the pool. I can say “my name is Joe”. I can count to ten. I can do the same in Spanish. So what?
Even in my visit to France back in...I don’t know...around the turn of the century, my command of the language was poor at best. I could read a few signs, ask if anyone could speak English. In fact, my German, which I never studied, was about as good as my French. A skill or knowledge not used in decades is lost.
Last week I had the need to cold call a couple of companies in Quebec. Now the French speaking people of that part of Canada are famously reluctant to deign to communicate in English. I listened to the French language phone menu and determined that I should press “2” for “Anglais”. That just led me to another menu in French. Ugh. Another 15 years removed from hearing or speaking French has done nothing but degrade further my limited vocabulary. Even when I was studying the language I could read and and translate OK, speak it a little (with a horrid accent) and understand the spoken words barely. Now, I got maybe every fifth word or so of the phone message.
I kept pushing random phone buttons until I finally got a real person. I asked him, in my best Kindergarten French, if he spoke English. He offered a reluctant “yes”. I asked for someone in the purchasing department.
We had what the famous movie described as “a failure to communicate”. After I tried to be understood in pidgin French and he pretended not to understand (hatred of cold-calling salesmen is universal), the bon homme suggested I try the parts department in their New York warehouse.
I tried the second company on my list. I understood not one word of their phone menu. I hung up before speaking to anyone. Even if I got to the right person, how do you conduct business with folks you cannot understand?
The boss won’t be happy, but I’m marking these companies off my prospect sheet.