Le français

Posted on January 22nd, 2012 by

It’s an incredible feat that anyone is able to speak this ridiculous language fluently.  For so long, I thought I was beginning to attain some kind of grasp on French.  I’ve taken classes for 6 years, I’ve been to France once before, and, for good measure, my ancestors spoke it.  No doubt, I should have taken Norwegian, which more of my ancestors spoke.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t offered.

I also assumed I understood what franglais was: mixtures of English and French words, such as “she parles,” which one of my colleagues here at IES Nantes said the other day (Parler is the French verb for speak).  It turns out I was mistaken.  I have now heard the huge difference between not the French words I use and the ones people in France use, but the way we use them.  Speaking French requires not only employing French words, but directing them in the fashion of a French brain.  Unfortunately, it seems the only thing French about my brain is the adamant conviction that bread is one of the foundations of life itself.  Of course, I knew there was a different way of thinking, but the gap is becoming clearer to me now.

By nature of my problem, I can’t boil down the difference between the Francophone and Anglophone brains, because if I could, it would not be a problem.  However, I can proffer some examples I do understand.  First of all, French forces its speakers to analyze everything in terms of dichotomous genders, because every noun has one.  This makes it impossible to avoid gendered language.  When addressing a group that includes both males and females, the masculine form is used.  In English, if I want to avoid the implication that God is a male, something that is very important to me, I can just repeat God instead of using the pronoun he.  However, the very word God (Dieu) is masculine in French.

In both English and in French, speakers are discouraged from using the passive voice.  However, as I have just cunningly demonstrated, you can get away with it in English.  The French, however, are so vehemently opposed to disembodied actors doing things in sentences, that in place of passive voice, they require the made up actor on.  For example, instead of saying “I was told to come here,” a francophone might say “One told me to come here” (but it sounds less silly in French).  On works very well for all of this, but it is also often used for we, as in “one talked about going out to eat.”  This actually means “we talked about going out to eat.”  Perhaps one day a long time ago, someone forgot that there was a pronoun for we (nous), and just started using on instead.  Whatever happened, it stuck, and now, one can hear French speakers left and right using on all the time.

The subjunctive.  This is a verb mood, not a tense (such as past or present), that indicates a level of doubt or uncertainty.  It is the bane of every Anglophone student to study French, because it is so rarely used in English.  I thought it was the worst of the worst, but a few mornings ago, during our refresher course we have been taking before actual classes start, I encountered something in the past tense causative.  Suffice it to say that I raised my hand to explain through flustered French that neither did I comprehend the sentence on the board by looking at it, nor did I comprehend it after some linguistic math in which I used concepts I understood; I literally had no idea how the words on the board could possibly mean what I was told they meant.

That is when I decided it is a marvel that anyone can speak French.  I had never felt like my efforts to learn this language had been so futile.  I’m sure I’m exaggerating.  I love French.  But the purpose of this blog is to give you the mud-splattered view from the trenches, and that morning, I just wanted to give up.  I know this is all normal.  It’s normal to struggle with certain concepts.  It’s normal I don’t know every word in the French dictionary.  It’s normal that I don’t have a perfect accent.  It’s also normal that my listening has improved much faster than my speaking, since I’ve been here less than two weeks.  But I don’t feel like my 6 years of French have amounted to what they should have.  I want to feel so much more advanced!  I don’t want to be normal; but then, that’s normal too.


One Comment

  1. Jill Fischer says:

    hang in there, Eric. (yes, it’s all normal) it will be fun to see how much your French has improved at the end of this journey, and how you will look back at these early frustrations!