My Life in French

Seven months to learn a new language. That is my current job, my life. It’s not the sort of process you can shut off come 6:00 pm. Weekend breaks equal weekend leaks—le français flutters away.

I didn’t want to learn a new language. I knew it would be nearly impossible. I just wanted to relearn my old Spanish. That I knew I could do. But the decision came down from above. French it must be.

Butterfly2I settled into the idea and for several weeks I even convinced myself I’d have a bucolic summer with little to do except enjoy a few hours of class each day, watch French movies, and wander the lavender fields of Provence, butterflies circling my head—even though I wasn’t in Provence nor anywhere near the Francophone world (the whole idea was a delusion so why not go all the way).

I figured I’d have plenty of time to write and study, I’d find myself some French friends and the words would just slide in slowly and magically until I woke up one day a speaker of le français, fully prepared to go forth into life tossing out bons mots with a clear superiority over lesser mortals. How lucky was I?

My delusion ended my second day of class when my professor screeched in French, “Attention!”, at my continued inability to pronounce the letter “e” correctly. Nineteen weeks and many tears later I still do not pronounce “e” correctly—something to do with Spanish interference they tell me. I think it’s more likely English interference, but what do I know. Je suis stupide.

My first six weeks were not much fun. By each Friday my brain was so overstuffed I could barely complete full sentences in English. But I survived it and one day, thanks to a particularly great new teacher, the words emerged.

Whole phrases were forming on my lips. And for a full month I enjoyed class. I wandered the purple hills of Provence and the butterflies danced in the sun. I decided to have a life, to go out, I began submitting my second book to agents again and all was right with the world. I was a proper, if only beginning, speaker of le français.

Butterfly3Then I was switched to a class that began each day at 7:40 am and the butterflies scattered in terror. Or possibly they were just sleeping. Certainly my brain was still sleeping.

I prefer not to speak at all until around 10:00 am so discussing the latest chemical attack in Syria, in French, at 7:40 am—this is not my idea of fun. And that’s when I get a solid eight hours of sleep. When I don’t get enough sleep*, which is often as it’s taken me a long time to get used to a 5:30 am wake-up, I can barely form sentences much less learn new grammar. But my pleas to move to a later class have been ignored.

The popular recommendation/solution is Ambien (it turns out the world is on Ambien). But I’ve skipped that for now as I haven’t had enough time to find a doctor and I’ve heard/seen too many horror stories.

So I hated my morning schedule and I was still horrible at the grammar drills, but for nearly six weeks I thought I was still a legitimate speaker of le français. Surprising mostly myself, I was doing okay. I was on track. I wasn’t the complete moron of those first six weeks.

Then a new teacher arrived—a very nice woman (truly) who had some unpleasant news:

Chérie, your accent is an abomination to my delicate French ears, you have that Spanish interference (yeah, I do, I wanted to go to Latin America), your tenses and prepositions are a tangled mess, you have the vocabulary of a three-year-old, and you do not comprehend the subtle nuances of our deeply profound and layered writing. And oh yeah, we don’t care what you think about Syria, we care that what you say is grammatically correct, so please learn how to talk about Syria inanely but grammatically correctly (I do not know how to talk about Syria inanely, truly).

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_BWSo the lavender fields are dead and brown. I cannot speak, I cannot sleep, apparently I cannot have a life and learn le français, and it’s also possible I am simply too old or too stupid or too unmotivated.

But there is always hope, I’m going to 1-on-1 instruction, which I hope will work better for me. Although the consensus is it only gets more difficult going forward—so I’ll see you on the other side, whenever that comes.

*  I did hear a very helpful story on NPR for getting to sleep without drugs:

  • Get hot then cold—for instance, drink something hot, like caffeine free tea or take a hot bath right before bed, then make sure your room is very cold. The hot to cold signals that your body is ready to sleep.
  • Don’t read anything on an iPhone or laptop, unless it has a special light filter, right before bed—the light keeps you awake. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep don’t keep trying to sleep, read a book for a while, but never a computer unless it has the light filter.

6 Comments on “My Life in French

  1. Edith, I can so relate. I took 6 months of Hindi whe in India, assuming because I could sing correctly in multiple languages that I would have a good ear for it. I totaly sucked at it. But you will prevail! XXOO from Aunt Mary

    • Thank you and yes, I do not have the ear, certainly not the delicate French ear I keep hearing about.

      • From studying art songs, I am a master at mimicking, and can pronounce the lyrics in multiple romance languages beautifully. But just the ear doesn’t mean a lot when you haven’t mastered the actual language! And when I studied Hindi, even the accent and pronunciations were a challenge, because of the way the tongue is used. And Hindi, like German, has a gender for everything! At least French grammar is a bit more logical? To me, anyway. Can’t wait to hear more of your adventures. In French, perhaps? :-)) Mais oui!

  2. Not to deter, but I spent 4 years studying said language and hot to the point of reading novels and even a few of their wonderful philosophers, Alas, I was warned to keep this excuse at hand – Pardon parle Francis com une vache espanoil…or something on that order. 😌

    • It is definitely very easy to lose a language. I lost a lot of my Spanish even with living in Miami, but when I go to a Spanish speaking country it comes back after a few days and then seems to go away again when I leave.

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