Learning French Is Not for the Faint of Heart

We were walking alongside the port in Marseille on a cultural excursion for my two-person afternoon intensive class, when one of my five French teachers in the last month raised the question.IMG_0329

“Are you dreaming in French yet?” Marine asked.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’m not close.

I gave a more honest answer when a different teacher asked our class earlier in the week how long we thought it would take to learn a language.

Roger, a Swiss businessman, jumped in first.

“An hour or two,” he said.

He meant, of course, to say a year or two.

Then it was my turn.

“At my age, I think it will take a lifetime,” I replied.

The more I learn about the French language, alas, the harder it gets. Learning a language I’m discovering is so much more than mastering that it’s au printemps (in spring) and en hiver (in winter), so much more than sorting the array of relative pronouns and figuring out which comes when, so much more than learning the wide variety of verb forms and tenses, including those literally used only in literary writing.

To speak French, I’m coming to understand, one has to think French, which, in a way, requires one to almost be French, or at least to have some innate grounding in the approaches of French culture. Like the French themselves, the language is nuanced. It offers, for example, many ways to express opinions and yet these opinions often are delivered discretely, or at least indirectly. Twenty-first century Americans take “selfies” and, as often as not, celebrate the instant culture of “me.”  (Think about all those times we put up new profile pictures on Facebook.)

In contrast, I think it’s no accident that many French sentences shy away from first-person constructions, in essence take the “I” out of personal statements by starting instead with the all-purpose “ca.”

This is one of many things I’ve yet to entirely get a handle on, but an example would be “ca me fait peur que …” as in, “it concerns me that.”

Such phrasing exists in English, too, but it’s not nearly as pervasive.

Why is this? Let me take a guess: In France, I’m beginning to divine, the point itself takes precedence over the individual making it, just as the State, as a collective entity, is more important in many ways than “we” or “me.”

Mind you, this could well be malarkey, which, should you be unfamiliar with the word, is an American term for “meaningless talk, nonsense or foolishness,” its linguistic roots unknown.

Even on a good day, my perceptions are shaped by absorbing perhaps 50 or 60 percent of what I hear and watch on rapid-fire radio and television.

On a bad day, my syntax is apt to produce such stellar phrases as: “We is going to movies yesterday.”

Yes, it can get ugly fast, speaking — make that trying to speak — another language. Is age a factor? I think so; 64 years stuff a lot into one brain. My lack of formal training hurts, too. I had but a year of French way back whenever when I was a freshman in college. But just as big a factor, I’m convinced, is culture and how it shapes language. That fascinates me. But it also, more often than not, confuses and frustrates me.

After a month of intensive French conversation, I told my class on my last day that, “I now understand how much I don’t understand.”

I do finally realize that I can’t learn French – probably any language – by learning vocabulary or translating sentences into what I think they should sound or look like.

Instead, somehow, somewhere – by studying grammar, by assimilating the language from what I read, hear on the radio, watch in the movies and on TV – I have to somehow become something other than an English thinker let alone speaker.

That, to me, is difficult, really difficult. But I’ll shoulder on. Because if I have any hope of interviewing real people in France who are trying to retain their culture and traditions in innovative ways,  I’m not going to score points by starting our conversations with small talk like, “it is rain today. No?”

That simply won’t do.

2 Replies to “Learning French Is Not for the Faint of Heart

    1. Hi Mary, Lovely to hear from you. Glad you’re enjoying our travels. Love to hear in an email offline how things are settling in for you.

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