I’m trying to learn more French.

I studied French for five years in middle and high school, and then I took a French literature class in my first year at Grinnell. It became obvious to me that most of my classmates, who had spent the previous two or three years in 100- and 200-level French courses and a semester in Aix-en-Provence, were having a much easier time writing their essays and coming up with interesting things to say in class. Well, until we got to Ionesco, that is; nobody really gets theatre of the absurd, anyway.

That was my last French class. In retrospect, had I been a bit less stubborn, I might have gotten a lot out of going back to an intermediate course, and I might be in a much better place today. But I was a bit stubborn, and there were always so many interesting classes that I could take in the humanities that I was never at a loss for filling out my registration card. Life is choices.

It’s hard to hold onto language skills that you don’t use regularly. The first to go, as one might suspect would be the case, was the subjunctive. Then went the simple future and past. By 2001, when Lisa and I went to Montréal for the first time, I was pretty much down to the present and the past imperfect tenses, the passé composé, a good handle on the imperative mood, and a surprisingly decent vocabulary. (I will admit to using on a bit more aggressively than is probably acceptable: «Demain, on retourne aux Étas-Unis.»)

I did okay with those limited skills when we went to Paris in 2008 2009. Except, I didn’t know the names of any foods. «Qu’est-ce que c’est, “épaule?”» . . . “That’s ‘ham.’ Would you like an English menu?” (BTW, I suspect that most English menus in France are actually high school English class projects. “Okay class, let’s translate!”) I was determined to learn more practical vocabulary, and I did much better on the food front on subsequent trips to Montréal. When Mom and I went to France last month, I did have to ask, «Comment dit-on “medium-rare?”» but I was frequently the translator for our group when we were out on the town. (The answer is saignant, or “bloody.”)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve listened to a lot of Francophone music that I picked up in Montréal and on iTunes. I flipped through the occasional Paris Match at the library and bought a Paris Vogue or two. I followed a few French Twitter feeds. I even cracked the spine on the copy of Harry Potter et la coupe de feu that I bought at Powell’s City of Books in Portland last year. And I’ve always loved watching French films (with the subtitles on). All told, while I wasn’t exactly immersing myself in French, I was trying to get some additional skills in small chunks.

I think I did okay on the trip to Provence and Paris last month. I realized about mid-trip that my accent is pretty good. When you combine that with the fact that I tried very hard to greet everyone properly with a «Bonjour, monsieur» or «Bonsoir, madame», the fact that I’m American actually surprised a number of people. As we were checking in at the Air France desk in Paris, the agent had a look of confusion that morphed into pleasant surprise as she said in French: “You have an American passport, but you speak French.” And at the end of a marathon, half-hour-long chocolate-buying and small-talk spree on our last full day in Paris, the nice twenty-something shopkeeper said, «Vous parlez très bien français!». I think I blushed.

Believe it or not, the hardest thing for me this most recent trip was understanding numbers. Yes, those words they teach you in your first weeks of your first French class got me. The problem wasn’t the words themselves; rather it was the extreme rapidity with which they were said. People speak more quickly than normal when they say numbers, whether in a phone number, address, or price. (Listen for it next time.) Throw in a «euro» between two sets of numbers, and you hit upon the perfect recipe for confusing me.

And I got flustered a few times on those occasions when I lacked just the right word to get my idea or question across and I couldn’t think of a way to talk around it. I might have tried to revert to English only to get more stymied. (*might have*) Clearly, vocabulary—and not grammar or accent—is the thing for me to work on.

I heard recently that you need 1,200 words in your vocabulary to emulate conversational fluency. While I’m not actually going to take an inventory of words that I know—I mean, who would do that?—it’s my destination. There’s also idiomatic vocabulary, the words that take on different meaning when they’re combined together into phrases, which I’m also trying to learn. It looks like the good people at might be able to help me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Oh! and I still can’t eavesdrop.

p.s. — How much do I love France? Enough to put a French house number plaque on the front of our house:

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3 Responses to Frenchification

  1. Céline says:

    Bonjour Jeff! Savais-tu que je parle Français? Oui monsieur – tu es ami avec une canadienne française.

    Je ne parle pas aussi bien que je parlais quand j’étais jeune mais, si tu veux, on peut pratiquer de temps en temps.

    Et oui, un steak saignant est délicieux!

  2. Scully says:

    Wow, the creepy cat eyes in the picture!
    I studied French right up until grade 13 (back when we had grade 13) and really, I should officially be bi-lingual. ‘cept my french is BAD because I’ve never really used it.
    kudos to you. Language learning takes dedication.

  3. victoria says:

    If there’s anything we have in common, besides the cheese thing and the diabetes thing. it’s the France thing. Oh how I love France! I so desperately want to go there. I’m so glad you are blogging the experience, and I’m thrilled about the photographs. (Several of which I still want to buy so I can frame them in my apartment). I only took a year of France at Auburn, but it was enough for me to fall in love. I watch French films (yay Netflix), I have a French Pandora station and I still listen to my college tapes. But alas, it’s no use. My French is horrible. But my love for it is great! I’m so glad to hear you speak it so well!

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