Daniel and I spent a weekend in Montreal recently, at the North American Polyglot Symposium (NAPS) -basically a group of people who are really into learning languages. Conor Quinn, of Portland renown, gave a really excellent presentation called How to Not Speak English (he’s launching a book soon of the same title.) In his talk, he mentioned the importance of finding speakers of your target language who won’t keep trying to speak English with you: “The very old, and the very young.”
On the flight from Montreal to Orlando we had a thoroughly amusing experience of language learning from the “very young.” Flying tends to make me a little queasy at best, and as it turns out, the best distraction ever is to be seated next to a nine-year-old kid trying to teach you French.
We sat down, aisle, middle. There was a boy at the window seat. We reassured him that if he needed to get out, we’re happy to get up at anytime.
“Quoi?” He says.
His dad, who is seated somewhere else on the totally full flight, shows up to check on the boy. We get him to translate the message, because, like most Montrealian adults, the father speaks perfect English.
I tell the boy something like, “Nous comprends francais, mais ne parlons pas…”
I ask if he has English in school, which I figure he must. About that point, the boy decides to teach us French.
Soon, Daniel is doubled over laughing at the kid correcting my pronunciation of horloge.
Then the boy asks, in French, “Do you know the languages of a IT?”
“Technology?” I say.
“No! A IT!”
“No!!!” He gestures for me to hand him the piece of paper we’ve been passing back and forth for spelling. On it he writes HAITI.
“Ah!” I say. “Haiti!”
“Non! a IT!” He responds.
At this point, the bilingual couple seated in front of us turn around and tell the boy that the Americans are pronouncing it correctly in English.
Then the boy mentions Louisiana, and we understand he’s started the lesson with an overview of the French-speaking regions of North America.
As we near Orlando and the city comes into view, he grows more excited, pointing out the window and saying loudly, “Foirwme du mal! Foirwme du mal!!!”
I ask what this new phrase means. He says something like, “You know, petite cirque. Avec gangsters.” He mimes a gunfight. Daniel and I are totally confused.
Foirwme du mal! Foirwme du mal!
Once we’ve landed and are taxiing, I ask the boy to type this phrase into google translate, because he’s probably said it 30 times now, and I must know what it means.
Foirwme du mal! He types. Fair trouble google spits back. Not very helpful. The boy then sets google translate to voice and joyously says a whole string of quasi-nonsense, followed by some malignment of the intellectual fitness of one of our presidential candidates, and then laughs victoriously when the ludicrous translations come through on the speaker.
When the plane finally stops, he quickly says goodbye and leaves to find his family before the aisles fill up. We ask the couple in front of us for a translation of foirwme du mal. They say, “I think it’s something he made up, like a bad fair, or amusement park.”
In the airport, we run into the boy’s father in the elevator to baggage claim. I describe how the child kept saying foirwme du mal and ask, what does it mean? Is it from a tv show?
The dad says, “I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense…” I can tell he thinks I’m pronouncing it wrong. 30 seconds later, we see the child again. I say as a greeting, Foirwme du mal! The father asks his son what it means.
“Oh.” The father calls out as we walk towards the taxis. “It means nothing, actually!”
Kids and made up words!
But that was the first flight we’ve been on in a long time where I didn’t spend the entire flight thinking about the airplane.