When I’m surrounded by French speakers, I equate the feeling to wearing a veil over my eyes. My comprehension (vision) is obscured; there is a distance between me and what is going on around me, a distance that I struggle to overcome. Initially, the veil was thick; I got hints of the big picture but I missed all the details. Gradually, that veil has become more transparent. I went from being able to only decipher a message from tone of voice and hand gestures (i.e., Wow! That guy’s really pissed about something…. Oops. It’s me. He’s pissed at me.) to picking up the gist of a conversation to where I am today: One-on-one, I understand 90 to 95% of what is said. In class, I don’t miss much. Sometimes I even feel like the veil is gone. But sit me down at a dinner table full of French people who all speak at the same time faster than a high speed TGV and I’m lost. I need the subtitles (in French is okay) turned on during a movie. Lyrics are tough. And my brother-in-law, with his mumbling and slang, is impossible.
There are so many subtleties in language – specific word choices aren’t just about vocabulary, behind them exists a history of usage and color developed through cultural evolution. Often pop culture influences our language; think, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” from Seinfeld, and how knowing what is underneath the simple meaning of those words deepens our understanding and appreciation for the expression. By the way, it took my husband years of living in the U.S. to finally understand the humor in Seinfeld. Emotion, body language, points of emphasis – it all can be culturally specific. I was treating a Romanian patient once (I’m a physical therapist) and every time I checked in with her to make sure I wasn’t hurting her: “Is that hurting?” she shook her head. After several minutes, her daughter stepped in to tell me that her mother was in a lot of pain. She (finally) explained to me that in Romania, a nod means no and a head shake means yes. I felt terrible, but how was I to have known?
Already I’ve taken some leaps forward with my French class this semester. The crazy thing is that it’s the seemingly tiny tips that help me the most. Here are a few I’ve learned:
- T’s and D’s:
In English, we place the tip of our tongue on our hard palate for “t”s and “d”s. In French, they place the tip of the tongue on the back of the upper teeth. This makes a huge difference in pronunciation of the vowels following these consonants.
- Syllable breaks:
In English, we break our words up by consonants, always searching for that next consonant (albeit subconsciously) when pronouncing a word. In French, syllable breaks occur at the vowels more often. Example:
gé né ra li té (French)
gen er al i ty (English)
So all these years I’ve been chewing on my consonants instead of opening up and letting those vowels sing!
- Accentuation: English has a complicated and nonsensical way of accenting certain syllables in certain words, and it plays a phonetic role. Imagine how complicated this is for the poor foreigners out there trying to learn our language! Look at the word defect, and notice how the meaning changes depending on which syllable we accent. In French, the accent is always on the last syllable, it’s really more a prolongation of the vowel than a true accent, and it doesn’t change the meaning of the word. Thank you, French, for finally making something less complicated!
Seriously loving this class I’m taking.
Former Posts about learning French in my family: