The Trouble With French…

 … is all those vowel sounds. Oh, and the “r”s. And the faux amis. Maybe I should just quit now.

The thought of quitting enters my head on a daily basis lately. My Phonetics and Oral Proficiency class wrapped up this week. Yesterday I listened to a recording of myself reading Enivrez-Vous by Baudelaire that I made the first week of class, and I cringed and squirmed in embarrassment. I know I’ve improved since then. The vowels that were once a mystery to me are now decipherable. The rolling “r” has improved, slightly. But rue and roue still elude me (read here about my experiences with these petit mots). Every time I say one of these words and my husband smiles and says, “You’re so cute,” I want to throw my textbook across the room and shout, “I quit!”

I have to remind myself how far I’ve come, and that progress is now measured as fine-tuning rather than huge leaps. My comprehension and pronunciation is much better than it was four months ago. Let alone when I first met my husband. We occasionally spoke French together on our first dates, and on one of these I was explaining to him that my neck, mon cou, really bothered me sometimes, but when I rested it or got a massage, it felt much better. Cou, phonetically, is [ku]. Not far from [ky], or cul, which means ass. I often confused the two. So as I spoke, he nodded and fought a smile, then laughed and told me he hoped massage and rest would help my aching ass.

More recently, when our daughter sang her French song about a hen sitting on a wall, as she got to this part: lève la queue et puis s’en va, I nearly choked on my water à la Jon Stewart style. Queue, the word for tail, is again close to cul to the untrained ear. I asked her to repeat what she’d said, and then realized that she wasn’t, after all, singing about a hen who sat on a wall and then decided to pick up her ass and leave.

I’ve spent a lot of time practicing vowel sounds. I think I’m finally distinguishing well between deux and douze (two and twelve), and I might even be able to order un croissant without waving one finger in the air (or a thumb, as one finger also confuses the French) to make it clear how many I’m asking for.

My face hurts after I speak French. There’s a lot more movement and tension in the jaw and cheeks in French than in English. You can tell a French person from a distance by the way their mouth moves when they speak and the tension in their facial muscles. English vowels are kind of lazy, really. We warp them to make it less of an effort for ourselves. Don’t believe me? Try the words “can” and “than” on their own and then in a sentence or two, and see what happens to those poor little “a”s. Our professor jokes that we must exercise our mouths to tone up our speaking muscles for French just as we would exercise our bodies for a sporting event, but it’s true. It’s a completely different way of using our face and tongue and vocal cords.

As my vocabulary improves, my confusion over faux amis lessens. When we got married eight (!) years ago, we wrote our own vows in both French and English. I, not wanting to humiliate myself in front of his family, read them to him before hand to make sure I hadn’t made any huge errors.

Thank God for that.

As I explained that I was so happy to be starting our lives together and excited for our future and that I hoped I could make him as happy as he’d made me (these sappy words were the only ones I could manage with my rudimentary French), he nodded and gave me a wolfish smirk while wiggling his eyebrows.

“I hope so, too,” he said.

“What? What did I say?”

This is how I found out that in French, the word excité is only used in a sexual sense. Turns out I was about to announce, in front of all of our friends and family, that I was horny and hoped I could satisfy him.

When I remember these things, and how far I’ve come, the thought of quitting seems preposterous. A friend recently pointed out to me that I’m an overachiever and I should cut myself some slack. The thing is, too much slack and I get antsy and bored. So I might as well keep on with this French stuff.


39 thoughts on “The Trouble With French…

  1. How much I like your thoughts on France and French! It is so funny and so true. But I also understand your frustration… Please don’t give up!
    When I spend some time in France, I tend to say “excitée” in a daily situation, because german would allow me to say it :s

  2. I told my French conversation partner in Aix-en-Provence that “I don’t know what happened in my bed last night but I woke up with a huge pain in my ass.” She couldn’t correct me because she was laughing too hard.

  3. I found this really interesting; your problems are all too familiar to a fellow Anglophone learning French! I’ve been learning French 10 years now and I still have difficulty distinguishing [y] and [u]!

  4. Il ne faut pas perdre l’espoir 🙂
    And when you really feel discouraged just listen the French speaking English.
    Or listen the chief inspector Jacques Clouseau trying to pronounce ”hamburger” 🙂

  5. Accents are super charming, remember when you first met your husband and you still heard his French accent? That “excité” thing is so funny. I teach at an all boys high school. Every year they love the day when I have to give the “excité” speech as diplomatically as possible.

  6. Brilliant! I am told all the time that I sound ‘cute’ in Portuguese. This is partly because so few foreigners ever bother to learn Portuguese that Brazilians are just not used to hearing it mangled by foreigners. It really does annoy me, though.

      • Unfortunately I don’t speak German either. Not fluently at least.
        This kind of error never occured to me, but the fact that so many German words sound so similar to one another is indeed a problem for me and for many in learning the language.
        Your guess is probably right.

  7. You just reminded me of the time when I told someone that my long distance relationship was so difficult because I was so horny… when I thought I was saying that I missed him a lot. And then, of course, there is the classic “thank you nice ass” that I said at the dinner party. I still remember the look of disgust I got when I asked if I could borrow or see their underwear – I thought I was saying PJs. And finally, I made a 3 year old cry when I complimented her lovely trashcan (belle poubelle sounds better than belle poupee, non?)

  8. You just reminded me of the time I was telling my new french friend that my long distance relationship had been difficult because I was so horny… when I thought I was saying because I missed him so much. “Thank you, nice ass” was a hit at a dinner party. And I pissed off a 3 year old when I complemented her lovely trashcan (belle poubelle sounds way better than belle poupee, non?). And I will never forget the look of disgust when I asked if I could see or borrow a girl’s panties–I thought I was saying PJs. That was the worst! I felt like a pervert, total #FrenchFail.

    Loved your vows and I think most men would shed tears hearing his bride say those words.

  9. i really enjoyed this blog ❤ honestly i find learning french really hard! i live in bordeaux and i am 16 so when i make a mistake it gets noticed by all my friends and i get the piss taken out of me!! cul and queue are one of my worsts especially as on va faire la queue pour le bus…on va faire le cul ? the guy looked at me like i was crazy but even funnier was that he said yes !!!!! so now it is just awkward 😀 my accent is "SO CUTE" and that just makes me angry!!! ❤

  10. Two cents from the opposite side of the fence : for native French speakers the american “r” sound is also a problem. At least it is for me, words like “error”, “rare” always make me feel awkward and self-conscious,… Your teacher is right, it is a gymnastic of the mouth muscles, I took a Russian class in the US and many sounds were a lot easier for me and the other international students to reproduce than for the american kids. Their tongues and lips had just never bend to make some sounds before.

    • Yes – our “r” is made in a completely different spot than the French one. And for you poor Frenchies, there is the english “h” and the “th” – I threatened to name our girl Heather once, just to give my husband a hard time!

  11. Hilarious. You have more French books on your shelf than I have German books on mine (I’ve lived in Germany for almost two years). And you still have the brainpower after that to read Eats, Shoots and Leaves??

    Schwanz, by the way, is a colloquial term for penis. I can’t even say, “Ich will Schwanz,” because I start laughing too hard.

  12. The French are so rude – they want people to speak their language and then just take the micky when we can’t do it. I’ve given up. There is no good reason for the French to be so stuck-up about their language, after all it is only the eighteenth most used in the World, Chinese is first, followed by Spanish and then English. More people even speak Portuguese (sixth) and worst of all German (tenth). The French, it seems, need to come to terms with the balance of linguistic power. The Spanish and the Germans are so much more tolerant and that makes me so much more confident about trying to speak their language.

    • Sounds like you’ve had some bad run ins with the French! My experiences have ranged from outright ridicule to French people genuinely appreciative of my efforts. I love the language so much, that to me it is worth the effort. And I’ve traveled in non-French speaking countries where my French came in more handy than my English! (Peru and Italy)

  13. I understand how frustrating learning French must be. I wouldn’t want to have to learn it. The grammar rules can be very confusing.
    My husband (he’s Australian) can hear the difference between cul, queue, que et cou. It’s pretty obvious to me but I’m used to these sounds. He also tends to say all the letters (like in the word requin)Most learned can’t differentiate un and a. Your husband is right, it’s very cute and you can try to train yourself but you might never be able to send native. Neither will I (although now, people notice I have an accent but can’t tell where I’m from) We, French, love when someone is making the effort!
    By the way, does a French accent truly pubs sexy?

    • I think it’s a sexy accent, yes 🙂 My husband says the vowel sounds are obvious to him, too, but for an anglophone they tend to run together. I’m working hard at trying to master them, but it’s a challenge!

      • I teach French to Anglophones here and I can guarantee you the sounds aren’t that obvious because from a certain age, we lose the ability to hear and pronounce sounds we are not used to (I mean we can hear them but probably not the way they sound). Everyone is born with the ability to learn any language (you weren’t born programmed to learn English, had you been born in France, you’d be able to speak French without a problem) but we seem to lose that ability along the way.
        My father said something that made me chuckle. He said that French is easy, you just need to say what you see. What about the final -ent for the third person plural? And that is only one example.

  14. French – easy? Nope. Say what you see? Definitely not! Right now I listen to the vowel sounds and practice them while I drive. I’m starting to be able to hear them and determined that I will be able to pronounce them. Please tell me there’s hope!

  15. Carol,
    I love ur blog! I am French and my husbandis Anerican we used to live in Houston and now we are in Brazil! I laugh so hard with your comments ! You are sooooooo right about the French! And I think you and the French have something in common: the free spirited and rebelious attitude. Keep writting it!

  16. Hah your blog just cracks me up. I love it and I’m so enjoying reading your posts. I fell in love with France, the people, in fact everything French when I was 17 and visited on a school exchange – could have had something to do with an adorable Frenchman too but that’s another story – anyway several decades later I’m still crazy about them. Vive la France.
    PS thanks for stopping by my blog too.

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