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English teacher's unusual surname inspires him to master French!

New Straits Times logo New Straits Times 17/2/2019 Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal
a close up of a sign: Simon’s debut book promises to make learning French less harrowing. © Provided by Media Prima Simon’s debut book promises to make learning French less harrowing.

“I GET that all the time!” exclaims Simon Michael Marius Leprince when I express my initial surprise to the soft-spoken Indian gentleman who had, just moments earlier, walked through the glass doors of Balai Berita looking like a nervous professor.

Somehow, when he’d made the phone call to seek an audience with me about his maiden undertaking, Apprenez et Ameliorez Votre Francais Aujourd’hui (Learn and Improve Your French Today), a book that promises to make learning French less harrowing, and subsequently introduced himself, I’d somehow assumed that I was going to meet a French native! But no, Leprince is very much Malaysian. From Kepong, to be precise.

“I’m not French but my grandfather was from a place called Pondicherry in India,” begins Leprince somewhat sheepishly. Before I can interject and ask him what that’s got to do with his “Gallic” leanings, he swiftly explains that Pondicherry (or Puducherry), a union territory, was once a French colonial settlement in India until 1954. Its French legacy is preserved in its French Quarter, with its tree-lined streets, mustard-coloured colonial villas and chic boutiques.

“Whenever I introduce myself here in Malaysia, people inevitably end up asking me how comes I have a French name and initially, I didn’t actually know. It was only later that I realised my grandfather was from this place in India whose people spoke French.”

This discovery inspired him to learn the language, confides the affable 44-year-old who currently teaches French at the Alliance Francaise de Kuala Lumpur, a not-for-profit association dedicated to the promotion of French language and culture.

“Even before I joined Alliance Francaise, I participated as a youth with the church in France. I was very active with the church then and we had our masses in French. I used to do readings for the French community. And that’s where my interest grew,” elaborates Leprince, before adding: “We had a crash course here for three months and then I went to France. When I returned, I decided to continue learning the language at Alliance Francaise.”



Why should people learn French when English is the universal language, I ask a bemused Leprince. He smiles and says simply: “Because it’s a very beautiful language. And you gain more knowledge when you learn about another language. I used to ask myself why I should learn French; after all, Malaysia is an English-speaking country. But I decided to just keep going to classes and learning the language as a hobby.”

As his proficiency grew, he decided to try his hand at teaching the language. “I was able to teach with the guidance of some of the directors. They observed how I went about doing it and I learnt a lot from them. That gave me the confidence to continue teaching,” recalls Leprince.

Turning to his satchel, the former English teacher rummages inside for his book before producing it with a flourish. Slowly, he leafs through the pages, bringing my attention to certain parts with pride. “This book is essentially a French grammar guide designed for the beginner to the intermediate level users. I wrote this book based on my own experience teaching the language for 10 years at Alliance Francaise.”

His voice low, Leprince, who was also a teacher for the speech and hearing impaired, confides that he’s always wanted to find a way to help his students conquer the challenges of learning and understanding French. “In class, they’d always ask for a dictionary or guide so I realised that maybe it’s best to write it for them. What I’ve done here is I’ve prepared the explanations myself and added in examples. Students always want to know how to use the words or phrases in sentences. They also like to have some sort of quiz to test if they’ve understood what they learnt so I prepared the quizzes myself and supplied the answers so they don’t have to go looking for answers. Everything’s here.”

The most challenging thing about learning French, is, concedes Leprince, learning the grammar. “It’s nothing like English grammar. Personally I feel English is simpler,” he says, before sharing: “Did you know that in the olden days, people actually started with French but they realised it was difficult so they simplified it. And it became English!”

As with any language, practise is key, advises Leprince. What’s ideal is to be able to practise speaking it with native speakers here — if you can’t go to France. “I’m lucky because I work at Alliance Francaise so I get the chance to use the language every day. That’s how you learn,” says Leprince, adding: “A lot of people have been to France, have the PhDs but sadly, they don’t have the confidence to speak the language. This is because they’re not speaking it every day. You really do have to listen and speak.”

As I rifle through the pages of the book, delighting in words and phrases that I personally recognise from my years of learning French when I was schooling in England, Leprince shares that it took him two years to put this book together. “With the help of my French-speaking colleagues, I was working on it every day to make sure that it would see the light of day. I’d always wanted to do this because I’ve always felt that there’s a need for a guide such as this. The dictionaries you get in book stores only have the words but you’re not told how and where you need to use them.”

More than 1,000 copies of the book, priced at RM70, have been printed and Leprince is doing all the promotional works himself. Asked what else he’s planning to do to further promote the language, he shyly confides: “I have a few things in the pipelines. My next plan is to look into merchandising. I’d like to do some T-shirts complete with French words, just test the market and see how it’s going to be received. Hopefully, this will turn out well!”

Those interested to place an order for the book can email to:

© New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd

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