I recently decided to take Moroni’s self-improvement advice from Ether Chapter 12 and ask the Lord to show me my weakness. In brief, the Lord says that my French language skills are somewhere between non-existent and seriously pathetic and I really ought to do something about it.
Like most people around the world, I was shocked and saddened by the terrorist atrocities earlier this month in Paris and closer to our world in Mali, but I’m pretty sure the Lord isn’t asking me to show solidarity with France by acquiring the capability to track the global warming conference in Le Monde, or to impress the waiters at the local bistro. It turns out that my limited language skills are getting in the way of fulfilling my assignment here in West Africa, where three of the countries we deal with (Benin, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire) are French-speaking, as are three of our sixteen regional audit coordinators.
The semi-good news is that I learned Portuguese about forty years ago while serving a mission in Brazil. Like, French, Italian and Spanish, Portuguese is a Latin-based romance language that uses many of the same Latin roots for a wide swath of the vocabulary, employs many of the same grammatical rules and provides a good segue into learning those languages.
While I never took Latin and haven’t done much to keep up my Portuguese since the mid-seventies, whatever remnants survived those decades of dormancy came in handy over the past several years with San Antonio church callings. It wasn’t anything you could label the gift of tongues, but I was able to communicate at a fairly basic level with forgiving leaders and members of the Spanish language wards and branches. That said, I vividly remember extensively preparing for and rehearsing my first talk in one of the Spanish wards without using a translator. I was elated after the talk until a sweet little sister came up, patted my hand and said I was always welcome to come and talk to them in Portuguese or whatever that was.
Two of our three French-speaking coordinators are quite fluent in English, so we get along fine, but I have some struggles communicating with Fabius. We manage pretty well with email, though one exchange left me scratching my head at first. I had asked him about the status of some lingering audit issues in a Cote d’Ivoire stake and he replied that he would shortly fix the Red Roof. It finally dawned on me that Fabius cuts and pastes my emails into Google Translate to read, writes his response in French, and flips it back through Translate before sending it to me in English. Sure enough, he had all the Toit Rouge Stake audit issues cleared inside the week. Telephone conversations are a different matter, in no small part because of the transmission quality of international calls in West Africa. After a couple of strained attempts to talk on the phone with Fabius, I brought in a translator from our office and was amazed at what a difference that made in the quality, depth and effectiveness of our conversation.
In addition, Michelle and I volunteer on Tuesday mornings at the Accra Temple, which happens to be one of the days when the local Missionary Training Center brings in their missionaries for weekly temple visits. The Accra MTC handles all missionaries headed to West Africa, and all missionaries headed to any French-speaking mission on the continent, so usually a third of their one hundred missionaries are native French speakers. Two weeks ago, I was assigned to oversee a temple session with twelve French-speaking missionaries on their very first temple visit and last week I had only five of thirty patrons who spoke any English. Language head-sets make it possible, but still leave the English-only leader scrambling to ensure that everyone understands what they need and has a meaningful experience.
So I borrowed some French language textbooks from the MTC and downloaded the Duo-Lingo and Translate apps and am undertaking a self-taught crash effort to transform myself from the gringo who tries to communicate with foreigners by speaking English very slow and very loud, to one who merely butchers the language that they hold dear.
I have no illusions or aspirations at anything approaching fluency or really anything beyond basic tourist-level conversation, simple financial terms and some specifics to help temple patrons. I have been able to get Michelle involved as well, though she warned me that this better not be just a lame Trojan horse attempt to practice French-kissing. C’est Moi?!?!