In continuing with my quest to ensure my French is fluent enough that my husband and kids don’t end up with a secret language, I enrolled in another SDSU French class this semester. Phonetics and Oral Proficiency.
“That sounds horribly boring,” said one of my girlfriends. Really? I’m already loving it. I’m counting on this being the course that takes my French to the next level; shoves me out of my bad habits and gives me a sexy accent rather than an eardrum-rupturing American twang. Because really, it’s all about sounding sexy, right?
My instructor opened with a lesson on the subtle difference between vowel sounds using the words rue and roue. Little did she know the humiliating, hair-pulling relationship I have with these horrible little words.
It all goes back to the spring I studied French in Paris and a particularly nasty teacher named Catherine. She spoke to us in a condescending snail’s pace and had the stereotypical French teacher’s approach that relied on confrontation and humiliation. The class that day was focused on pronunciation, an excellent idea before she got her hands on it. She asked us to say, “rue, rit, roue.” (street, laugh, wheel). Dead silence followed her request (I wasn’t the only student who felt her teaching style discouraged participation), so after a few awkward moments I gave it a go.
“Rue, rit, roue.”
The second the words left my mouth, Catherine and the entire class burst out laughing. I did, too; I sounded like a cat choking on a fur ball. Catherine asked me to try again. And again. And again. The class stopped laughing and instead looked on in horror at the train wreck that was my pronunciation crashing head-on into Catherine’s mocking. I kept trying, face flaming. No matter how many times I repeated the words, I just couldn’t get them right. Catherine, in a rare moment of kindness, told me that these subtle vowel differences were particularly difficult for Anglophones.
Then she asked me to repeat them again.
I tried. Failed. So I said, in French, “I just can’t do it.”
She said, “Carol, once more.”
“I’ve tried 15, 20 times. I can’t do it.” I wanted her to move on, allow my tongue to unravel and my face to return to its normal color.
She had other ideas. “Once more, Carol, for my amusement.”
Are you kidding me?
She continued to insist. I continued to refuse. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at me. It got so awkward that I finally tried once more. She laughed.
She finally moved on, but throughout the class asked me to repeat the words, “for my pleasure,” or “for my amusement.”
Even when I started to say the words correctly, she couldn’t let it go. All day long, just when I’d think we were moving on, she’d come back to me. “Carol: rue, rit, roue! Répete!” Then she’d say something like, “It’s a fun class today, isn’t it, Carol?”
Comment dit-on, “heinous bitch” en Français ?
Even today, I can do a rolling French R and I can make the vowel sounds, but putting them together proves an impossible feat. I think I’m so traumatized by my experience that I have a mental block. But that’s just dumb pop psychology to the French. Luckily, my professor is American. She makes learning French, even in its hardest moments, fun. I’m inspired by her flawless French. I’m determined to conquer this ridiculous language and all its annoying nasal and hacking and gagging sounds.
Lookout, rue, rit, roue. I’m coming for you.