French Lessons

French Lessons: Bad Days

by Jackie D on February 17, 2017

Jackie DesForges Petit PalaisYou will have bad days where you can’t remember the right word for anything.

I’ve never had to tell myself something like this before. I’ve always been able to find a word — or, more likely, thirty words and several commas — for whatever it is I’m trying to express.

When you’re normally pretty great at words and you’re trying to learn a new language, the good days feel normal and the bad days feel BAD. The good days feel normal because you expect to be good at it — you go into class with confidence and maybe even (dare I say it?) excitement. Class! Homework! You are great at these!

But when you have a bad day, you’re almost indignant about it. You thought you knew that rule. You never mess up that type of conjugation. The rule must be wrong, not you. ALTERNATIVE FACTS!

I had a bad day last week. I’d been so proud of myself before I arrived at class that day because I’d been taking the initiative to do some exercises in my workbook BEYOND what had already been assigned, because I am forever the annoying kid in class who does things like that, and because I find the workbook exercises very soothing. I think maybe they are my version of sudoku.

But when I got to class, I couldn’t remember the word for anything. Every time I tried to guess the gender of a noun, I was wrong. Every time I was sure I had just said a sentence correctly, it turns out I’d used the completely wrong article after the verb, and these are errors that tourists commonly make, so I knew I sounded completely like a tourist. My pronunciation was off, I was forgetting conjugations I already knew. It was 90 minutes of straight mistakes.

I’m usually fairly gentle with myself when I’m trying to learn something new. This is because I’m not a fast learner — I was one of the last on my volleyball team to learn how to overhand serve after what seemed like countless hours of swatting volleyballs at the garage door night after night; I often pre-studied for study groups in high school and college because it takes longer for me to memorize dates or get the hang of certain concepts.

But language has always come so easily to me. I got straight A’s in Spanish in elementary school and straight A’s in French in high school. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a bad grade in an English class because if I had, I might have thrown myself off a bridge — I’ve also always been quite adept at melodrama, which I guess is its own language in a way.

But now, on my bad days, a French toddler could better express to you my weekend plans than I could.

It’s humbling and frustrating at best; it’s reduced me to tears in the bathroom once, at worst. On my bad days, it feels like I’m never going to reach a point where I can call myself fluent in French. On my good days, it’s comforting to remind myself that I probably already know much more than I think I do.

And anyway, on my bad days, these feelings of frustration allow me to rage-eat these coconut cookies I recently found at the grocery store near my apartment, so at least there’s always that.

(Speaking of coconut and mistakes: once I tried to say coconut in French, which is noix de coco, but I accidentally said nuit de coco, which means night of coco, and so now if I ever become famous and make a terrible celebrity perfume, you’d better believe I’m calling it Night of Coco)


French Lessons: To Be (or not to be) Verbs

by Jackie D on February 10, 2017

This week, my teacher decided that we should brush up on my past-tense skills. In French you either form past tense by combining the verb to have (avoir) with a past-tense verb, or by combining the verb to be (etre) with a past-tense verb. How to decide whether to use avoir or etre?

There are 14 verbs that use etre, and they’re fairly easy to remember because 1.) they all have to do with physical action in some way, and 2.) all but one have opposites:

Entrer/Sortir (to enter/ to exit, go out)
Arriver/Partir (to arrive/ to leave)
Monter/Descender (to go up/ to go down – people use these words to describe going up or down stairs or in an elevator)
Venir/Aller (to come/ to go)
Naitre/Mourir (to be born/ to die — the ultimate to-be-or-not-to-be verbs)
Passer/Retourner (to pass/ to return)
Rester (to stay)
Tomber (to fall)

For some reason they’ve stuck in my head as to-be-or-not-to-be verbs — thanks Hamlet.*

Referring to them as “to-be” verbs makes sense because, literally, they use the verb “to be” in their past tense, but I think saying that they are”not-to-be” verbs also makes sense — these verbs are all opposites. To come and to go. To arrive and to leave. To be born and to die. Seven ways to express what is essentially the same single process. To be and not to be.

I’ve used books and literary references to learn how to do a lot of things (especially in that weird faraway time before YouTube tutorials), so it doesn’t surprise me that when I am trying to learn a different language, the French words make more sense to me if I put them in the context of something I’ve read before. I just wish that this time it was a true crime book rather than stupid Hamlet.

*I am generally quite enraged by Hamlet and I blame it for a lot of things that have happened in recent history. Long story.


French Lessons: How Much

by Jackie D on February 3, 2017

jackie travels odette parisSo, I started French lessons. I have them once a week at 8am before work, and it’s an hour and a half of me speaking only French with my teacher. She lets me speak for a little while and takes notes of mistakes I make as I go along, and then after I’ve made enough mistakes she’ll stop me and we’ll go over them, and I’ll try again.

Each of the lessons has tended to lean towards one specific topic so far. In one of my first lessons, we got stuck on articles — not the kind you read, but the kind you use to determine the quantity of something. I was trying to say I drank milk, but in French you have to be specific: I drank some milk.

It was one of the first things my teacher pointed out to me about the way that I speak French. I tend to generalize quantity rather than specify a certain amount. I imagine this has to do with the fact that my brain instinctively rejects anything having even the remotest connection to math, but I think it must also be the way I speak in English.

The articles I use most in French are all-encompassing (le, la, les) when really I should narrow down whatever it is I’m actually talking about (de, de la, du, des). Instead of telling my teacher that I was drinking some wine (du vin), I told her that I was drinking ALL of the wine (le vin), like all of the wine that has ever existed. When she corrected me, I wanted to tell her that I understood her point, but that on certain Friday nights I have, in fact, consumed all of the wine. Sometimes Wednesdays also.

I did, however, hold my ground when it came to quiche. She was quick to correct me — no, you did not eat all of the quiche in the world, you ate some quiche — and I was quick to correct her right back — no, I assure you, I have probably eaten all of the quiche in the world, quiche is delicious, I never stop eating quiche.

I guess it’s appropriate that this is one of the first things I’m learning in French: how much of this do you want? How much of this did you have? How many Nazis do you want to punch in the face? Because it’s one of the things that you learn first when you’re a kid — you have to be able to tell someone how much of something you want, need, feel, hear, see, or whatever else — because if you can’t express that, you could die.

Learning a new language is usually not a life or death situation, thankfully, but you do feel as helpless as a little kid while you’re trying to do it. You have to re-learn how to say even the most basic things. When you’re on a roll with vocabulary, you might get excited and start pointing out random things and listing them aloud, like a toddler might do. I’ve done this in public without realizing it. I’m not very popular on the metro.

You get excited when you master even the simplest of sentences: I made my dinner tonight. J’ai fait mon diner ce soir. 

In a previous life I would have been more excited about the fact that I actually made myself a decent dinner, but now I’m just excited if I can tell someone about it and they understand what I mean. They are generally less excited and, often, somewhat bewildered by my excitement, but that doesn’t derail me. My excitement about being Paris outweighs any shame.

How much do I love it here? A lot. Beaucoup. Je l’aime beaucoup.