Friday, January 14, 2005

The French, it is not for the beginners

So tonight we started French for Travellers class at a local community college. The fact that Brett has deigned to allow himself to be registered for said class is something of a minor miracle - having pretty much exhausted himself in the 80s and 90s with the earning of a PhD, he's basically done with classes, of any kind. Ever. Period.

But we're going to France in something like 13 weeks, and I've been telling him how great it would be if we were able to speak enough to show basic politeness, and we're going to be out in the middle of nowhere trying to read road signs and drive a car and reserve hotel rooms on the fly, so he finally saw the wisdom of this idea and agreed to sign up.

I've taken a lot of language classes in the last five years - three rounds of Italian, two Spanish classes, and one great class in Pig Latin. (Ok, not really on that last one.) These "Such-and-Such Language for Travellers" classes are usually ridiculously easy and way fun - more game playing than conjugation, with some memorization usually being the hardest work required. And they help! I scooted around Rome on my first trip to Italy after six weeks of an eight week intro class and didn't do too badly. I came. I saw. I sampled cheeses.

Not a bad method of introduction to a language like French that I really have no interest in mastering. Give me Spanish or Italian instead, particularly Italian. I love Italian. I wish every nation in the world spoke Italian. It's both logical (one simple rule: pronounce everything you see) and fluid on the tongue, and they just don't waste all those pointless letters that French does. Why end a word in three perfectly good consonants if you're not going to use any of them? Why all the silent t's? Why put in whole syllables (est-CE que) you're going to ignore? We decided that certain members of the French alphabet must be pretty unhappy with their lot in life.

This particular class: fun, yes, but not quite so easy as I'd expected. Thank god I was doing French CDs in the car a few months back and know some basics of pronounciation and vocabulary. The teacher speaks very little English, and she talks SO fast that you can hardly keep up with her, even when you're repeating words and phrases. The poor folks in the class who were obviously stone cold beginners who never spoke a word of French before in their lives were quite befuddled. Me, I found I could understand a lot of what she said, but as always, I can't pronounce it much. The French language and my vocal cords are not les amis. I said horses, apparently, when I meant to say hair. Glad I figured that one out before I try to visit a salon in Paris.

And Brett? Mr. I-Don't-Know-Any-French walked into class with a combination of a fourth grade french class and high school latin and blew the whole class away on basic vocabulary. Here's how class went for about the first hour:

Teacher: Ok, how do you say January?
Whole class: stare blankly. This is the first class! We don't know French yet!
Brett: Um, Janvier?
Teacher: Ok, how do you say foot?
Whole class: Stare blankly. Was there a reading assignment we were supposed to do?
Brett: Um, pied?

He also told the whole class that he was residing in Hotel Megan for his entire stay in France, which was met with much laughter. Vocabulary = good. Comprehension = in progress. Humor = priceless.

On the way home, we laughed about the speed of it, the hurt feelings of the ignored letters, and the way that intro italian courses were so much easier to understand. "The French, they do not want you to understand," Brett said gravely.

Oui, monsieur.



(Many apologies to a couple of French folks who occasionally read this- I love your country and your people and WILL be swallowing my 'n' by April, come hell or high water. It's a lovely language. It's my deficiency. But really, talk to the letter 't', will you? He's feeling bad.)

1 comment:

JMBalaya said...

French from natives is hard, yes? Yes, but in the end it is the best. This is how people talk and when you travel that is what you hear. It is a hump at first but it is all patterns. At day will come when you just hear them.

You can say the CE est-CE que if you like. In fact, when you do, you will sound like every Italian who speaks French.

As one of my foreign frieds would say to me, "Life didn't MEANT to be easy. Eh?" Then he would rough me up in that "WE are MEN" way that Euros do.

BTW: here is a word you should say often to reward the "t" for its quiet service: crevette.

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