Friday, February 5, 2010

On Learning French

I've been learning French for a while. If we get down to numbers, it's going on more than decade, although I'm not sure if high school French counts. I love learning languages; I've come to believe that it's my "thing." But despite my late-night reading of German grammar books, my train ride podcasts in Spanish and my overflowing bookshelves (mostly made up of language books), it always comes back to French. It is my base language. I know that sounds weird--obviously, English is the language I feel the most fluent in. But I never learned English. Sometimes, I don't know why it's like that. Even though I have a degree in Journalism, sometimes, it's just..English, you know? It's like that because it is. I don't always have an explanation.

French, however, is different. I know exactly why it is that way. Seven months in an obscure village in the French Alps tends to leave you with a fair amount of time to study. I can tell you, for example, that when you use a quantity and the preposition de, you don't blend it with the gender of the following noun. Okay, that makes no sense. Look:
J'ai des (de+les=des) livres. I have some books.
J'ai beaucoup de livres. I have a lot of books. We don't say XX J'ai beaucoup des livres. No worky. "A lot" is measuring something, i.e. a quantity, which necessitates de.
And I could tell you that even though we say "A child obeys his mother" in English, in French, it's "A child obeys to his mother." Which means it's an indirect object. Which, in French, changes the pronoun from le to lui. And I knoooooow this is way not interesting to most people. But see, I love this. I love knowing why.

And so that brings me back to my point that French is my base (foreign) language. It helps me learn other languages. I can say, hey, it's like this in French, too. Or, hey, it's not exactly like this in French, but close enough that I understand. Strangely enough, knowing French grammar has helped immensely with learning the difficult German declension system. If my rough language ambitions that I've made (i.e., speaking with relative fluency 3 foreign languages before I'm 26) don't work out, I'll at least have one language I'm very fluent in: French. Sufficient Spanish and German to follow.

I take notes. Lots of notes. (Notice how I've adopted the French grid paper and underlining with a ruler! The French are serious about good note taking. Although I'm sure my print would immediately be tsk-tsked. Cursive is the only acceptable method of writing.)
at the bottom: un étron--a turd. Of COURSE I randomly chose a page to photograph that had TURD scribbled on it.

There's a 30-page document on my computer called "French Notes." And then another version on my iPhone called--wait for it--"Mobile French Notes." And then there's the post-it notes. Everywhere. My French family gave me a noteblock for Christmas, and although it's touristy--Paris and an Eiffel Tower on the side and all--it's probably been the most useful gift I've received in a while. I am an avid list-maker, and when watching TV, reading a book, or basically just living in France and listening--I write down any words I don't know. Always. The teachers I work with make fun of me for it because I sometimes ask them how something is spelled--something obscure they mentioned five minutes before. "You're taking notes of my conversations?" Yes, yes I am.

So, has all this studious work paid off since my arrival in September? I'd like to think so. I learned a lot of French in that first 18 months I lived here a few years ago. The first year is the hardest. It's said that about 2,000 words is enough to make you fluent on a day-to-day basis, and so I spent that time learning the words I came across the most often, plus some. I immersed myself in French culture, trying to read books only in French (couldn't resist a few English ones), talking only in French (except to the kids), and writing down as many words as I could. It paid off; I left France with an exponentially larger vocabulary than what I came in with. Suffice to say, my last two years of French classes at university were much, much easier.

Fast forward to September of last year--Paris, continued. I'd already learned a lot of the words that we use on a daily basis and pretty much had the grammar down pat. Since then, I've just been learning vocabulary. You're not supposed to do it my way--write down every single word. I know. So somedays, I don't let myself do it. I tell myself, if it's important, I'll see the word again. Then you can write it down. This especially helps when I'm lazy. Most days, though, I figure that a quick little note on my iPhone won't hurt me. Even if I don't know the meaning, I just write the word down. is my best friend, especially the forums, where native speakers help to pin down the exact meaning of words and expressions. I try to go through my lists every few weeks to tie loose ends--words and/or expressions I didn't get clear definitions from solely from context--and I neatly write them in my notebook (see above), where they are officially part of my newly-acquired French. It's not like I remember every single word I write down. No way. I'm not that good. But if I see it again, I'll probably recognize it. Using it--that is, making it a part of my active vocabulary (vs. passive) is much more challenging.

I recently bought a new dictionary, and I'm in love:
I love dictionaries. Honestly, the very first thing that sells me is font. I know there are good dictionaries out there with ugly font, but I'm sorry, if I'm going to be roaming your pages on a daily basis, I need readable, preferably sans-serif, color-coded font. And voilà my new baby:
It's used and has creases on the front cover, and it dates to 2003. I don't care. It's got all kinds of useful info, synonyms, side notes, etc. It's a French-French dictionary, so I don't get the word in English, but the definitions, I find, are much more precise because let's admit it: the French love their own language a whole lot.

As a last final note, I will say that living here for nearly six months has changed my train of thought. People always ask if I think in French. I would say yes and no. When I'm speaking French, I certainly don't translate from English to French. I just..speak. I don't usually have to search for words, but now and then, if I'm looking for a specific term--say, food poisoning--I'll have to explain what it is and get the correct answer. (And in case you're wondering, it's not poison de la nourriture--no, no, that is way too Germanic-sounding. It's intoxication alimentaire--"alimentary intoxication.") If I happen to say something English-y in French,I'm understood, but it's not correct. I'm always looking for the correct, everyday term.
Other little things:
- I see numbers and think of them in French. This depends on if I've been speaking English all day, but usually, I'll see a 60km sign and think soixante before sixty.
-I hear accents in French. I can immediately hear a German, British, or Spanish accent when they're speaking French. Especially British. French doesn't cover up their accent!
-I find myself more and more saying things in English, but in a French way. For instance, "intéressant" (interesting) has the English meaning, and also a meaning of "profitable, helpful, attractive." An "interesting price" isn't so much "ahh, that is so thought-provoking and makes me think!" but more of "oh, it's a good deal, it's a profit to me." There are many of these little nuances that I accidentally drop into conversations in English.
-I have begun to forget words in English. I usually just have to prime my brain for a few seconds to get the English word, but more than once, I've had to look up the French word to get back my maternal language. Weird.
-I have gotten to the point where I can say "that doesn't sound right" in French. I'm not an expert, I know. I run across expats that have truly mastered the language (and those that haven't, might I add!) and humble me. But for the most part, I can say, hey, isn't it like this?
-I dream in French and English. More English, but often the dreams are bilingual, even in the same sentence.

As for me, I get complimented on my French fairly often. Without sounding like a braggart, I can say that I think I have a fairly good accent. I am a very, very good listener. I often come home and practice saying words. I take phonetic notes when I can, and use arrows to indicate falling and rising tones. This alone makes me think that linguistics should be my chosen field of study. Yesterday, a substitute teacher was talking to me for 20 minutes before he asked me where I was from. I told him America and he was dumbfounded! "Really?" he said, "You're American? I can usually hear accents, but you have a really faint accent. I can tell you're foreign but I wouldn't have guessed the US." And then he went on to ask how long I had been here, and was very surprised that I spoke "that well" for only having been here for around two years in all. (Me=beaming)

All in all, I'm sometimes surprised at how much French is saved up in my brain. I'm thrilled about many new words I've learned just since being here this year. I know that if I were at a job or in class where I spoke French all day long, I'd be even better. Which is why I make such a point to learn French when I'm around it--in the teacher's lounge, on the train, etc. At this point, it's more just fine-tuning and learning the correct pronunciation and context. And I love learning familiar phrases that the French themselves use with friends. The learning never stops. There will never be a point where I know all the words in French. Not possible. Day-to-day life, though? I think I get along pretty well.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Reading this made me feel like the laziest person. hah. All the effort you put into learning languages is incredible and I admire you very much. You have the motivation that I wish I had. I love learning languages too, but I can't being myself to journal and take notes, although I always tell myself I should. I understand a lot of what you mean because of Spanish, i.e. the accent, the grammar, and the hearing things that just aren't right. But I can never make myself read books in Spanish because it's just EASIER to read it in English hah. Again, another fine example of my laziness. It sounds like you are making lots of progress, linguistically, being in Paris and that is great because I know what a linguistics nerd you are. :)
    I hope I get to see you soon, since you are the only person on the continent I know from home. If you can’t make it here, maybe we could meet up somewhere or plan some travel together. I’m always up for seeing new places and I’m fairly certain you are too. Hope all is well and I love reading your posts! Always a good read, and even educational. :D