Saturday, October 14, 2017

Learning French

Bon jour!

Very soon my wife and I are heading off to Paris. I am trying to learn some French. I do not speak French. I speak just one language. I've tried to get really good at it though. Mostly I am, but sometimes I panic and sort of, like, you know...

As for the foreign languages, what like the foreigners speak, I spent five years in Middle and High School learning just enough Spanish so that it can stick a foot in and muck up any attempts to learn any other language for the rest of my life. In five years of classes I learned the same amount of Spanish in school that I now know of French after three hours of listening to a recording in a car.

How much French have I learned? I have graduated from "I will not understand or be able to say anything in Paris" to "I will not understand or be able to say anything in Paris, but it really seems like I should be able to", which I feel is an impressive leap.

Listening to our French for travelers CD I am most surprised by how simple and easy the language appears to be. It's fun to try and speak, like one is making fun of something, but not, which is a very familiar relationship to things for me. It looks like every fourth word or so of French is a great deal like its English counterpart. That's quite a head start and yet strangely useless. "Dinner" in English is like "Dinner" in French, except to say it in French you have to do it while making fun of how French people talk. Just say "Dinner" like you're an exaggerated slightly absurd French person and it comes out just right! "Soup" is like this as well, and a few thousand other words. But then there is an alternate to "Soup" apparently, "Potage", which is familiar from restaurant menus and the eight million food books I have read. And actually there is another quarter of the language right there. All those words I've read, that I've seen in so many contexts, and it's all so familiar!

So I already know half of all French!

Oddly this does nothing for making French intelligible to me. Maybe you have to know 75%? Nevertheless I am thinking it may be enough to be able to make myself understood when I offer simple greetings. At least after a couple of days. I mean, if I don't accidentally say them in Spanish.


  1. I totally get how one language can interfere with another. I had 3 years of French in high school (plus 4 of Latin, but that's another story) and a bit more than a year of German in college. When I visited Switzerland in 1973 I found that I couldn't say anything very comprehensible in either language, because words from the other language kept butting in.

    I did, however, manage to visit a Girl Guide shop and buy "zwei liederbuchen" without resorting to English. The high point of my bi-lingualism. It's been all downhill from there.

    In my day, French was almost totally reading and writing; speaking French was limited to struggling through conversations that we read from the text book. Not terribly useful. German was somewhat better.

    1. Perhaps it's the curse of the unfocused? If I'd just stuck with Spanish, for instance, I'd, by now, no, who am I kidding, I wouldn't be able to speak Spanish either.

      What then is "zwei liederbuchen" ?

  2. Years ago you chided me for my inability to master either my Italian or Japanese studies and I'm still carrying that around. Perhaps now that your eating cheese burgers it's time to just shrug that ol' thang off.
    "Student of all languages and master of none" indeed.

    1. Oh, please do shrug it off. Surely I was just teasing affectionately. If only I were better attuned then to how clear I should have made that!

  3. I think I'm okay now. Older, grizzled, yes.


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