Bruce and I have been trying to learn French for over three years now. We started with Rosetta Stone several months before our trip to Paris in December of 2010, having been worried that we’d not be able to communicate with the natives, and would be relegated to the dreaded status of “those awful Americans.”
Wanting to save face, we invested heavily in software, and spent many a Saturday morning learning the simplest of phrases such as “Le garçon mange le sandwich” or “Elle nage”. I couldn’t imagine a scenario in the winter where I would need to say, “She swims”, but you have to start somewhere.
As it turns out, French people were extremely accommodating, as are all Europeans. Parlez-vous Anglais? Yes, a little. Could you tell us how to find the restaurant? Well, you just head down the street and make a right, and it’s around the corner. That’s a little? To me, a little means, “See Dick run”. In Europe, a little means completely conversational, unless you want to talk differential equations or something of that nature.
One of my co-workers, who’d had years of French in college, but had never set foot on French soil, warned me. NEVER ask for the toilettes. They’ll think you want to take a bath. Always ask for the water closet or WC. I was pretty sure they would know I would not want to take a bath in a restaurant, but not wanting to risk looking like a fool, I asked a waiter, Où est double vé cé? He looked at me quizzically, and said, you mean the toilettes? They’re down the hall on your left.
The only problem I had the entire time was at an information booth in the metro, of all places. It was New Year’s Eve afternoon, and Bruce had gone back to the apartment to rest before our big evening out, but I simply HAD to fit in a trip to Galleries Lafayette, the grande dame of department stores, to see it all decked out in holiday decor. Had I followed Rick Steve’s advice, I probably would have been fine. Always be polite, and greet someone in their native language, using madam or mademoiselle, with all the finesse one can muster. But I was hurrying to try to find the metro exit for the Garnier opera house, so I ran to the window and acted like a dreaded American.
Hi, do you speak English? NO, she shouted, and dismissed me as though I had cholera, or worse. And just like that, from the depths of my mind, I was able to sputter, “Où est sortie Palais Garnier”? Out came some French, albeit slightly incorrect, and missing an article or two, but why split hairs! It was a little, and it was a start! “À droite!”, she spat, and flung her hand in the air, pointing to the right. I suppose I deserved it.
When we got back home, and back to our normal lives, I dropped Rosetta Stone cold turkey. Use or lose it, and I mostly lost it. My husband, being the academic he is, soldiered on much further. So as we began to plan for seven weeks in France for sabbatical, we picked up the software again, but I felt I needed something more immersive. I needed serious help. I began searching for evening French classes in St. Louis, and happened upon Alliance Français, in Clayton. Who knew? The French have set up offices around the world, as an outreach for French language and culture. So I signed up for a beginner’s class every Tuesday night for 2 hours.
My first instructor was Isabelle, who is from the south of France. She’s a petite woman with long, long coal black hair well beyond her waist. She wore sophisticated clothes and scarves as one would expect of a French woman, and was one of the funniest instructors I’ve ever had. A force of nature! She loved to tell little stories, one of her favorite being how she always messes up on smidgen. She thinks it should be smidget, to match midget. That would make more sense, n’est-ce pas?? And her lessons on dining etiquette … Never put your hands under the table on your lap, or they’ll think you’re doing something you shouldn’t be! Hands above the table at all times, but elbows off the table, and never touch a piece of food with your fingers, unless it’s bread. It’s ok to use your bread as a utensil, and mop up every kind of French sauce imaginable, but you cannot, at any time, allow your fingers to touch your food!
French pronunciation is a killer to try to learn. English is spoken in the front of the mouth, and French is either in the back of the throat or up through the nose. You have to gargle your r’s, she would say! Go home to your shower, or in your car, and open your mouth, as though you’re going to gargle, and let the r form in the BACK of your throat. It’s like the “ch” in Loch Ness, only you’re somehow pushing air and maybe some spit through to form a hissing H sound, sort of like Harry Potter speaking parseltongue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly gagged trying to roll this gargling sound out of the back of my throat, like I’m working out a hairball. When all else fails, Isabelle said, just use your best Inspector Clouseau accent, and say the word in English!
When the six week class broke, we moved on to Emmanuelle, who is from the mountains near the Swiss border. She would only speak French in class, which left me staring blankly into space, like watching Amelie without subtitles. T’accord? Not really. She spent a full 5 minutes trying to get me to pronounce music correctly. Moosic, I would say. No, myewsic. Mhoosic? No, m-yew-seek. Ah! Musique! Tres Bien!!
With two weeks left until we leave, my classes have ended, and I’m working my way through the excellent Coffee Break French podcast, and rolling those rrrr’s out of the back of my throat like someone who chews and spits tobacco for a living. And I’m really working on the subtle difference between the sound of poo versus puh, because “poo”, it turns out, is universal, so get it right! Puis-je acheter des pommes?
My French has certainly improved, and I can probably get by, just a little, provided the listener has a lot of patience. But I know they will simply switch to English, because it will be easier on them, and me! Merci beaucoup!
Lorie McMillin, Rolla MO, Juillet 2013