Paris Journal #9: Ah, to dream in French

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Paris, September 2003

Walking with my dogs in the Champ de Mars the other morning, I overheard a 3-­year­-old speaking to her mother in what sounded like perfect French — and I didn’t understand half of what she said. That was the final straw! When a 3-­year-­old speaks better French than I do, it’s time to start getting serious about learning the language.

My first experiences with French were in seventh grade. Mrs. Marshall was a great teacher and made learning the language fun. We had one special class where all of us were supposed to bring some sort of French food.

I still remember my grandmother making cream puffs (choux à la crème) for the event, and someone else brought their definition of pain au chocolat, which consisted of a Hershey bar placed on slices of what passed for French bread in America. Not quite like the flaky croissant with the little half-­melted bar of dark chocolate inside that one discovers on an actual visit to France.

I even remember my first French dialogue about two kids who are supposed to be doing their homework:

Mme Fournier: “Michel, Anne, vous travaillez?” (Michel, Anne, are you working?)

Michel: “Eh, non, nous regardons la télévision. Pourquoi?” (Uh, no, we’re watching television. Why?)

Mme Fournier: “Les Duponts arrivent dans une heure.” (The Duponts arrive in an hour.)

Michel: “S’il te plaît maman, encore cinq minutes?” (Please mother, another five minutes?)

Mme Fournier: “Pas de question. Il y a beaucoup à faire.” (No. There’s too much to do.)

Michel: “Mais nous manquons toujours la fin!” (But we always miss the end!)

Mme Fournier: “Alors, ne discute pas tout le temps!” (Hey, don’t argue all the time!)

Michel: “Bon, Anne prepare le dessert; moi, je gout.” (OK, Anne will make the dessert and I’ll taste it.)

Typical of a French boy to expect the girl to do all the domestic work while he just gets to enjoy the fruits of her labor! Still, knowing, according to my first French dialogue, that children in France were made to do chores at home by exasperated mothers when they really just wanted to watch TV, I figured it had to be just like life in America, and France didn’t seem like such a foreign place.

Unfortunately, after Mrs. Marshall’s excellent French tutelage, I moved on to high school where my French teacher was someone who would have been better employed as a window washer, or for that matter, any other profession that did not require any skill in disseminating wisdom of any type. I went from making straight A’s in French to barely scraping by with a C.

Thus ended my formal scholastic efforts with the French language. I did take other Continuing Education classes some years later, after I had been to France a few times, but since French is rarely spoken in the US, I did not have the opportunity to practice regularly and could never get beyond an advanced beginner level.

I was able to order almost anything in a restaurant and ask where the toilet was — both rather important — however, I was at a total loss if I had to explain anything that happened in the past or might happen in the future. Having only an elementary knowledge of French makes for a very Zen existence. You can only speak about what’s happening now.

My accent is quite good, but there is a problem with that, too. When I know how to say a simple sentence in French to a French person I’ve never met before, they assume I am fluent in the language and start chattering away a mile-a-minute. After they recognize my deer-­frozen-­in-the­-headlights look, they pause long enough for me to interject, “Pardon, je ne parle pas bien le français encore (Sorry, I don’t speak French well yet),” then slink away sheepishly and hope all of France doesn’t consider me a complete moron.

My friend Dennis, who has lived here for a few years, still has an accent like he’s just stepped off the boat from America. But his grammar is far better, and people at least can understand what he’s saying. He can stride confidently into the local bistro and chat amiably with the owners, sharing a laugh or a little anecdote while I stand idly by and try to look like I find great interest in the wall tiles.

So I have dragged out every French language tape, audio-­CD and book I have ever owned, hoping that something will get through my thick skull, and that one day I will wake up and be perfectly fluent. I’ve heard friends say that after a while you actually start to dream in French. I am looking forward to that first dream in fluent French. And hopefully it won’t involve cooking for a spoiled Frenchman.