Saturday, July 12, 2008

To Parle Français

In a number of my posts written before this trip to Paris, I talked about how ill prepared I would be this trip to speak decent French. The trip before in 2006 followed an intensive summer course I took at Oregon State and that gave me a bit more confidence because of the guided and diligent practicing. Back in January of this year, I did really well with my Rosetta Stone lessons and watching French in Action videos (thanks to La Belette Rouge's recommendation). I had returned to my textbooks and was listening to French radio online while working at home.

Then, I grew distracted and er, lazy. And here I am in Paris trying to speak French after little to no practice for months! However, it really is true that the French here in Paris, for the most part, are very accommodating and patient with you if you try to speak French. It is usually obvious that you do not speak French and they will often speak in English or slowly repeat whatever necessary until you do understand. I have found there is also a lot of gesturing: pointing, nodding, other non-verbal cues which include hand gesturing on my part that really only complicates the "conversation." What I also really appreciate is the fact that they can tell when you want to try to speak French (even after they willingly respond in English) and they will do so rather patiently.

Being back here in Paris, I have rekindled my interest in being bilingual, yet again. I've long had the desire to speak French fluently and have always enjoyed the challenge it poses to my aging brain. It is also a beautiful language that holds so much culture and meaning in its words. But alas, life back in the States doesn't necessitate its use and over time, the slow progress becomes somewhat dejecting and exhausting. And so I find myself putting it aside. But we can't do that with language studies. True, it is easier to pick up on a language with past experience, even after years of having studied/practiced. However, there is a lot to a language.

Enjoying a menthe à l'eau (very refreshing green mint syrup with water) with Chicamericaine on Thursday afternoon in Montmarte, she so graciously brought me some treats and tips where speaking French is concerned. She brought me a dual-language copy of Colette's "Chéri" and told me that when she moved to Paris, she bought the weekly edition of Elle magazine and read through it weekly. She shared with me her short attention span for learning language and I concurred that it happens to me too easily as well. I can be very intent about learning French for a few weeks maybe and then POOF... attention wanes and I stop.

The Elle magazine idea is a great one. So, today, on my way back from strolling through the city for a bit (and picking up macarons at Ladurée...what a day!) , I stopped at a magazine kiosk and picked up my first copy of French Elle. A magazine is less daunting than many other forms of written French and the photographs and advertisements help break up the challenge. Yes, I realize how sad that statement makes me sound and feel!! Although I could pick up very little upon first glance, I could understand how this weekly practice would build upon itself. A word here and there combines with another and I slowly get a sense of what is going on.

This practice reminds me of one that Carra introduced me to before my 2006 adventure to Paris. Carra sent me jpegs of French cartoons. Perfect... images and words for the child-level reader! The images on the pages combined with a word or two understood, helped put everything else in context. And gradually, I picked up more French that way. My brother even found and gave me a French children's book recently and it was such a great language boost because I could figure out what was going on without repeatedly consulting a dictionary.

I know I have said (and will say) this time and time again but I really hope that I will follow these little French "lessons" more diligently. The big thick textbooks and verb practice guides are great but overwhelming at times. I can go back to those now and again, when I'm up for it. But just to pick up a weekly French Elle and/or look through French cartoons, without looking up every word in the dictionary is such a better introduction to the language. It really limits that dejecting and exhausting element.

Also, as I've heard from many other Francophiles including Chicamericaine, that listening to French radio is so helpful. It really is a huge help! Your ear becomes accustomed to the accent and pronunciation of words. I will have French radio on in the background while working sometimes and occasionally a phrase will stand out that I know or have heard repeatedly. I feel that as I am listening to what might on the surface seem like absolute mumbo-jumbo, I'm really absorbing so much. When I go to speak, there is some audible knowledge of how my mouth should form and what the words/phrase should sound like.

I'm curious, after my month here, if I truly will have improved to any degree my ability to speak and understand French. I hope so. But then, as many people likely feel, I also have this wicked fear that I am somehow one of those people that might never learn basic French enough to even communicate easily with shopkeepers!


Bill Chapman said...

You might enjoy learning a language specifically planned for ease of learning. I would like to argue the case for learning Esperanto. It is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states.

Take a look at

Esperanto works! I've used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years.
Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I've made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there's the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries.

carra said...

For me it was my monthly Vogue in French, I just worshiped that magazine, the photographs, the stories! Reading without a dictionary is a way for me as my memory is more written than visual, so all the new words I learn I write them on air and I never forget them again! Actually if you're talking about cartoons, there's the thing, cartoons are a part of French culture for adults and children alike (I must admit I found this a bit weird grown up men reading cartoons does look funny)but they do it a lot there and if you pay a visit to a French bookshop you'll find loads of those books. I only like one story but apparently Tin Tin is really good, give it a try, as it so very French. (After writing this I'm off to study English grammar, as funny things are happening to me these days...)

Randal Graves said...

Whatever works should always be the way to go. Picking up a magazine (I try to glance at the online newspapers now and then if I remember) is much easier than if we had picked up some literature!

Simply hearing it all the time is going to help immensely. As you said, since we don't 'need' to use it here, it's tough, unless you've found some kind of French club or are lucky to know someone who is bilingual. I have a friend who lives in France, but because of the time difference, we only get a couple of hours a day during the week to practice.

By the time you have to leave, you'll be able to, if not haggle, buy au marché no problem. :)

chicamericaine said...

I have long thought about writing "The Lazy Girl's Guide to Learning French." Hélas, I am "trop paresseuse" to write that book. Also, I think it would be a pretty short book. In addition to reading French Elle weekly and keeping France Inter on the radio in the background at home, the only other thing I did on a regular basis was to develop my vocabulary by reading the ads in the Metro. I kept a small dictionary and notebook in my purse, and I would look up unfamiliar words and add them to my vocab list as I waited. As small and silly as they may sound, these practices really helped me develop my reading, oral comprehension, and spoken French. My accent, however, will never be as good as yours, B. Lucky girl!

Je ne regrette rien said...

great tips! PS-I'm here! oh, and I do love the ELLE magazine idea. I'm going to call you just to say hi soon ~

Richard said...

Ah wel, I think you need to take your cue from Mark Twain:

The people of those foreign countries are very, very ignorant. They looked curiously at the costumes we had brought from the wilds of America. They observed that we talked loudly at table sometimes. They noticed that we looked out for expenses, and got what we conveniently could out of a franc, and wondered where in the mischief we came from. In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language. - Innocents Abroad, Chapter61

La Framéricaine said...

In France, cut yourself a lot of slack. Like you would for someone just off the plane in Des Moines (that's French for "some monks") who only spoke a dozen words of English. Then just go out, or stay, in and see which words "stick" in your mind over the course of each new day.

Learning French in the USA is a question of personal priorities and one's intention relative to the language. It can be a simple as learning cooking vocabulary or as complex as learning to read Foucault in the original. It all depends upon what you would like to do with it over the long haul.

In my opinion, there has never been a better time to set one's self the goal of speaking French because you have access to French radio and TV via the Internet; French TV via cable subscription to TV5; DVDs of original French films and DVDs of American films with French dubbed soundtracks and subtitles; video lesson programs that correct pronunciation; Internet subscriptions to the French newspapers Le Monde & Le Monde Diplomatique; online universities; and every town has some French person willing to exchange French conversation for English conversation.

I feel lonely when I can't speak French. Just soak up those words and keep on practicing your spoken French!

PS..."Tin Tin" is Belgian--important distinction--although it is, indeed, written in French.

Bonne continuation!