By June Ramli
Simon Leprince has always been fascinated with the French language since childhood. Born and bred in Malaysia, Leprince admiration for the language grew even more acute after watching his cousins speak fluently in the language whenever he visited his parents’ hometown in Pondicherry, India.
“We used to go for visits every year and that was when I saw how fluent my cousins were in (speaking) the language,” he said in an interview with dailystraits.com recently.
Pondicherry, a state in Tamil Nadu, India, was a French colony up until 1954 and was also featured prominently in the movie Life of Pi directed by Ang Lee.
As a child, Leprince remembered the houses in Pondicherry being huge and how things worked differently there.
“I knew they received financial support from the French government.
“Even my grandfather had a French name. He was known as Jean Michel Leprince,” he said.
But the learning only took off for Leprince when he was selected to attend a church conference for youths in Paris, France.
“It was in 1997 and I was in my 20s when I decided to stay in Paris for three months, ”he said.
“That was when I got my start in mastering the language.
“You see, I am a very shy person, but being shy has its downfall. I decided to do away with that and made use of my time in Paris by speaking in French to just about anyone I met,” he said.
He remembers practising and putting his French-speaking skills to good use at the boulangerie (bakery).
“I would memorise the lines with my cousin before heading to the bakery alone and sometimes I would forget to say the ‘si vous plait’ at the end but the baker would help me by adding that in, ” he said.
As soon as that sojourn ended, Leprince returned to Malaysia but this time with a huge vigour to continue learning the language.
“I used to ask myself this question a lot. Why French?”
But the strong affinity, he felt towards the language just couldn’t be brushed off.
“No one else in my family spoke the language.
“As soon as my grandfather migrated to Malaysia for a better life, that aspect of keeping the language alive wasn’t carried on, because, in Malaysia, we don’t need to speak French,” he said.
But upon returning from France, Leprince continued the learning process by mingling with the French community here and enrolling for classes at the Alliance Francaise in Kuala Lumpur.
“I got to know these families through church and I would spend a lot of my time speaking French with them,” he said.
Another thing that Leprince did was to teach his colleagues a few words of the language through emails.
“I worked in human resources with an international company in Malaysia and decided to teach my colleagues some French words. It was a small group of people which soon grew,” he said.
Leprince decided that a desk-bound job wasn’t his calling and soon left the company after five years to pursue a full-time career as a language teacher.
“I was teaching English at an institute in KL but still kept going for French language classes at Alliance Francaise,” he said.
Days went by and one day, Leprince mustered enough courage to ask the director of Alliance Francaise for a job.
The director, he remembers, was rather forthcoming with his response and had asked him for his resume and covering letter, instead.
In a matter of days, Leprince said he received a call from the centre’s assistant director who told him the delightful news that they were willing to take him in as a part-time French language teacher.
“It was once a week, every Saturday at the newly opened centre in Bangsar.
“I said okay because I was teaching English on weekdays somewhere else,” he said.
As soon as Leprince aced the job, he got nervous and went back to the director for help.
“I told him I needed help and he assured me that it would be available. He made sure that the assistant director would coach me.
“Every time, I had a class I would show her my lesson plans and she would then guide me,” he said.
“She coached me for two years until I got to the point to where I am now,” Leprince said.
Today, Leprince is not only fluent in the language but has also written a book in French.
“I spent about RM10,000 of my own money to publish the book,” he said.
“I am not really good at marketing my book, so there are still over 900 books left for purchase,” he said.
Leprince has now moved on to teaching students via bite-sized lessons on YouTube.
“My most famous student is Malaysian singer Nourul Wahab Depp who is married to a Frenchman,” he said.
“I am now in the midst of setting up a website and I plan to offer packages for people to purchase so that they can learn the language this way,” he said.
“I have also decided to conduct more lessons online because it is easier.
“The students can see how the word is pronounced by looking at my mouth without a mask,” he added.
Asked whether he had received any resistance while learning the language as a foreigner?
Leprince replied in the affirmative.
“Everyone has been very helpful and I cannot thank them enough.”
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