Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Why Learning French is like Loving a Beautiful Woman

One of my teachers says that learning the French language is like loving a beautiful woman: it is difficult but worth the effort.  According to him, beautiful things are never easy. At least that is what I think that he said, but who knows … he was speaking French.

Joan and I have been taking French submersion immersion classes while we are in Paris.  It is humbling.  Joan is doing much better than I. After 4 weeks of classes, I hoped that I would magically become fluent.  More realistically, I hoped that I would be able to engage in basic communication with the French in their native tongue.  That hasn’t happened.  Mostly, I now have a better understanding about how little I understand about the French language.

I last tried to learn French in 1970.  For two years I sat in the back row of French class with Madame ________ [name withheld to protect the innocent]. I recall very little of French class because it seems to be true that bad memories are repressed. I do recall that on my last day in French class. Madame ______ promised to give me a passing grade if I promised not to sign up for French the next year. She also made me promise to never disgrace the French language again by trying to speak French, and in the event that I ever tried to speak French again, to never tell anybody that she was my teacher.  After 45 years, I decided that notwithstanding my promises I would try to learn French again.  (I guess this means that since I breached our agreement Madame ____ can now retroactively change my grade to the failing grade I deserved.)

I know that I have learned a lot in my four weeks of immersion French classes (and I have certainly enjoyed getting to know the others in the classes), but I am not sure that all of the effort (and expense) has substantially improved my ability to converse with people on the street.  My accent is so bad that most of the time the French cannot understand what I am trying to say even when my grammar and vocabulary are correct (which is rare). I seem to do best when I try to speak like Inspector Clouseau in one of the Pink Panther movies, With enough forethought and by imitating Inspector Clouseau, I can sometimes communicate basic information, but things quickly go off the tracks when the French respond.  

My ability to comprehend the normal spoken word is so bad that on the rare occasion when I make myself understood, I can rarely understand the response in French.  It is worse when the French initiate the conversation because I usually have no clue about the subject of the words hitting me.  It is like being hit by a tidal wave. It washes over me and then carries me out to sea drowning in sea of French words.

I think that my French immersion teachers find my butchery of the French language to be just as painful as it was for my French teacher 45 years ago. Thus, they keep moving me from teacher to teacher. After going through all four different teachers at the "complete beginner" level during the first week, I can only assume that no teacher in the complete beginner level would take me again, so they moved me up a level.  After one day, I was sent back to the complete beginner class.

Sometimes I have trouble with my homework
Although it might sound like I am not really trying, I am trying hard. Really. I am even doing my homework (except for last night when I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing).  I am also trying to use my French outside of class (e.g., by arguing with museum clerks in French). 

I had hoped that the damage to the left side of my brain (in my 2004 car wreck) and the resulting use of the right side of my brain for more things might make it easier to learn French today than it was 45 years ago, but that has not been the case so far. My theory was that my previous attempt at French had been doomed because I was a left brain type of person and I wanted French to be logical.  

As best as I can tell, French is not logical.  For example, there seems to be no rhyme or reason about what nouns are feminine or masculine.  Don’t even get me started on the variety of words used to refer to time, which vary depending on the gender of the object, whether you are talking about past, present of future, and (naturally) whether the word starts with a vowel or an “h”.   Of course, the most common verbs are irregular, and let me assure you that the irregular verbs live up to their name.  Even regular verbs seem to become irregular when you change tenses.

Counting in French proceeds in a typically French fashion.  Things are OK until you get to seventy. Rather than following the pattern for 30, 40, 50 and 60, 70 has a unique system.  70 is“soixante-dix,” which translates to 60 plus 10, Seventy-one, of course, is soixante-deuze (60+11) and definitely not soixante-dix-et-un (60+10+1).  At eighty, you might expect either soixante-vingt (60+20) or perhaps huitante (since 40 is quarante and 50 is cinqante), but you would be wrong.  You must know multiplication to get to 80, which is quatre-vingts (four twenties).  At 90, you must know both multiplication and addition because 90 is quatre-vingts-dix (four twenties plus ten).

Immersion French Class
French must be a beautiful language.  It is certainly difficult and it is rarely logical.

It turns out that French is still difficult even when you rely on the right side of your brain.  My latest pseudo-scientific theory to explain my ineptitude is that whatever neural pathways that are used for learning language were pruned out of my brain long ago.  Believe it or not, there is some scientific basis for this theory.

The good news is that unlike when I was trying to learn French as an adolescent, and I was embarrassed to try to say anything for fear of being laughed at, as adult, I really don’t care if I embarrass myself.  Therefore, I am not hesitant to try to speak French and I join the French in laughing at what I am saying.  It should also help that I will be submerged immersed in French for the next year. Thus, I will keep plugging away at the language until the people of France force me to stop butchering their beautiful language.

In the meantime, we continue to enjoy the sites, sounds and food of Paris. I also continue to try to convince Bronwyn to let me buy or rent a canal boat so that we see Europe by water.

Street Performers on Montemarte

A very nice refurbished canal boat

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