The Results Are In: My French Ain’t Half Bad!

Turns out my French is better than I give myself credit for, at least according to the Alliance Française and the test I took there!

The exam was two sections: the first on computer, which started with very basic French and quickly progressed to complicated phrases and vocabulary. In one of the sections I had to answer questions on women’s hairstyles depicted in basic drawings. I wouldn’t know what those styles were called in English, so I’m pretty sure I bombed the French part! Points were awarded for correct answers and removed for incorrect answers. Intimidating.

For the second section of the test, I spoke with two native speakers. In our first conversation, I had to pretend to be interested in buying a home in the southwest of France. Not so hard to pretend I wanted that house! In the second conversation, I had to convince one of them to give up using her cell phone for 24 hours.

Here are my results:

 

French Placement Test

Here’s how those levels are defined, according to the Wiki article on the CEFR (Common European Framework) for determining language levels:

B2 is Upper Intermediate:

·Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.

·Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.

·Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of

various options.

C1 is Effective Operational Proficiency, or Advanced:

·Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning.

·Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.

·Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.

·Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive        devices.

 While these results mean we can move forward with my nationality application, they also mean that I need to be less self-conscious in speaking French. I’m at a level where I’ve passed those first few huge hurdles of the learning curve, but I am very aware of the many things I haven’t yet mastered, so too often I tend to not speak rather than risk making mistakes. I want to be completely bilingual. To watch a movie without any need of subtitles. To understand song lyrics without help. To not make grammatical errors. To maybe, even, someday teach French. (I need a back up plan. Being a physical therapist is hard on your body!)

These results were just the encouragement I needed, as I’ve been doubting whether French is something I can ever hope to master. This reenergized me, and made me start dreaming again of spending a summer, or two, or three, in France, going to language classes, and of one day being so fluent that maybe I even fool a French person or two.

Lost in Translation: Menus and Restaurants

I see these restaurants in France all the time:

326 Only in France

Because all Asian food is pretty much the same, right? And no, this is not some trendy fusion restaurant. Out of curiousity, I tried one once. It was a bland, fast food type of cuisine that amounted to soggy vegetables and meat bathed in either soy or teriyaki sauce. Nothing like the widely varied and often spicy dishes that could be offered from any of these countries. For a country so renowned for its food, France has a lot to learn about the cuisine offered outside its own borders!

Poorly translated menu items are part of the charm of traveling abroad. We had some classics in China; I lost track of how many times we said, “What the what!?” Here are a few gems:

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Then there was the beachside restaurant in a small Cote d’Azur village where I’m pretty sure they weren’t really serving “wolf” and where I decided to avoid the “crusty of salmon” altogether.

Here, in the U.S., we find plenty of mistakes. There’s the most obvious: the use of the word “entrée.” It means the first course, entering the meal if you will. But in the U.S. we almost always use it for the list of main dishes. Then there’s a restaurant near us called “La Café.” Decent food, but my husband gets a nervous tick every time we pass it because “café” is masculine, so it should be “Le Café.” Gender mistakes don’t bother Americans much because we don’t use them. But imagine the irritation that those of us grammar lovers experience when someone uses a double negative: “I don’t have no bread,” and you can see how my husband must feel.

At a nice, upscale San Diego restaurant my husband ordered the bouillabaisse. He used the French pronunciation, boo-ya-bais, or for the phonetically inclined: [bujabes]. The waitress asked him to repeat himself several times, then exclaimed:

“Oh! You mean the bool-a-bass-ey!”

Yes. That’s it exactly.

It can be a challenge, trying to order a croissant or any other French food here. My tongue wants to use the French pronunciation, but then I get looked at either in confusion, or I get a big eye roll because clearly, I’m being pretentious. Using the American pronunciation ensures that I will be understood, but it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

I’d love other examples people have experienced with menu items that got lost in translation. Bring them on!

French Nationality, and More Bretagne

 

My husband and I are working on getting my French citizenship. Surprise: there are many complicated steps to the process and the instructions are difficult to decipher. At times, the steps seem convoluted simply for the sake of being difficult. So we emailed the man in charge at the local embassy. He will only communicate via email; he will not accept phone calls or appointments. In our email, we tried to clarify a few points we were confused on after our research on their website. He sent us a form letter back, politely inviting us to refer to their website for answers to our questions.

 

Oh, the French.

 

Today, I go to the Alliance Française to take an exam that will determine if my French is at a level adequate enough to become a citizen. Will I be worthy?

 

The hope is that if I am a citizen, our family can easily go to France for extended periods during which I can work there, and that all of us will have the right to move freely, or stay, in France and Western Europe. Plus, I think it would be really cool to have dual citizenship.

 

So, I’ll post some more photos of my beloved Bretagne, and then get back to the stack of paperwork that is French bureaucracy at its finest!

One of the great things about traveling in Bretagne, especially when you get away from the bigger cities like Nantes or Rennes, is that much of Bretagne is visited mainly by French tourists, if at all. It’s off the beaten path enough that it remains more authentic, untouched.

 

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Sunset at low tide

Sunset at low tide

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

St. Cado, one of the most photographed homes, because the tide isolates it

One of the most photographed homes in St Cado because the tide isolates it

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Benodet

Benodet

Concarneau

Concarneau

German bunker from WWII

German bunker from WWII

Hay! Hey! (That's for my brother)

Hay! Hey! (That’s for my brother)

Fresh caught oysters

Fresh caught oysters

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

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Mmmm

Mmmm

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Catch of the day at the outdoor market

Catch of the day at the outdoor market in Locmariaquer

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Papillon

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One of my daughter’s first French words was papillon, or butterfly. In her small toddler voice she carefully enunciated each syllable: pa-pi-llon. She would start high, with the first syllable, then descend down the scale as she spoke the rest of the word, like she was singing. We found any excuse we could to get her to say papillon; whether it was showing her a photo, a video, or saying it ourselves, we turned her into a performance monkey.

She still loves butterflies and last weekend we went to the Butterfly Jungle at Safari Park. The long line to get in: worth it. Walking into that aviary filled with fluttering multi-hued butterflies is a magical experience, especially for kids.

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This beauty landed on my hand and stayed for a while:

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Friendly butterflies! Everyone wanted a picture of this guy and his new friend:

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Vole, vole, vole papillon

Au-dessus de mon village

Vole, vole, vole papillon

Au-dessus de ma maison

-Comptine française

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Would You Like Pepperoni on That?

Pizza in the south of France

Pizza in the south of France

According to my husband, the true test of language proficiency is whether or not you can order a pizza over the phone.

We’ve all been there. Room full of friends, maybe studying together, watching a game, or just hanging out. People get hungry. Someone suggests ordering a pizza. One person shouts out, “Mushrooms!” and another, “Pepperoni!” while a third person says, “I’m a vegetarian. No meat!”

As anyone who has tried to learn a second language can attest, when more than one person speaks at a time, conversation becomes tangled and it can be impossible to comb it out and discern what’s being said.

Then there’s the phone call. It’s hard enough to understand your non-native tongue in person, let alone over the phone. Add to that the fact that the person working at the pizza place is often foreign as well. So, two people are trying to communicate with each other in their non-native language over the phone. For my husband here in southern California, that means a French guy talking to a native Spanish speaker in English. For me in France, I often found myself talking to north Africans whose native tongue was Arabic. Chances are you’re using a cell phone, too, which despite our advances in technology still can’t compete with a landline in terms of quality.

My husband describes it this way:

“The trouble starts when they ask for your phone number. In French, we always say: eighty-five, nineteen, etc. In the U.S., phone numbers are stated one digit at a time. So the person on the other end of the line ends up confused. I’m trying to understand what the pizza guy is saying while everyone in the room is shouting their likes, dislikes, what size pizza, etc. I have to ask the pizza guy to repeat everything three or four times and now he’s annoyed. People keep yelling out ingredients. The pizza guy asks if we want pepperoni. I heard someone say they were vegetarian. But pepperoni, that must be the same as the Italian word: peperoni, which is a type of pepper. That’s not meat, right? So I say, ‘Yes, pepperoni.’”

Miraculously, the pizza arrives. And it’s not the pizza that anyone wanted.

Vieux Antibes

Vieux Antibes

I had a similar experience in Antibes, the south of France. My friends decided that my French was the best among us, so I should order the pizza. We knew of one place that delivered.  We’d been there in person before to order and hadn’t had the most… positive experience with the guy there. So, crossing my fingers in hopes that someone other than the guy we’d dealt with would answer the call, I dialed the pizza place. Mr. Personality answered. His Arabic accent was thick and he had a short fuse. I did my best, ordered two pizzas, one “Reine” (olives, mushrooms, and prosciutto) for my friend and I to split, and a second pizza covered in meat for our other friend (she was 8 months pregnant, adorable, and ravenous).

Then we waited. And waited. He finally showed up. With one pizza. It wasn’t either of the pizzas we’d ordered. He also claimed he had no change. We argued with him. This isn’t what we ordered! Why would you come here without any change? He became irate and insistent that the mistakes were ours and not his. My pregnant friend was about to pass out from hunger, so we took the pizza and he took a hefty tip.

We never ordered pizza from his store again. Pity, they made good pizza. Thin, crispy crust, flavorful cheese, fresh toppings…. The south of France has the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, outside of Italy. Even when they get the order wrong.

Ordering food in a foreign language is an adventurous undertaking. Even something that seems as simple as pizza. The day I can confidently order a pizza over the phone in France, I’m popping open a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Now I’m hungry.

Happy Spring! Here's me in a lavender field in the south of France.

Happy Spring! Here’s me in a lavender field in the south of France.

 

Merde

Often, when we learn a new language, the first words we learn are the swear words. This was true for me with Spanish – as a kid, when my dad worked on the family car, I learned all sorts of fantastic Spanish words. Perhaps he believed that if he swore in a different language, his impressionable little ones wouldn’t pick up on it.

Oh, but we did.

With French, though, it was different. I began studying French when I was 28 with the sweetest, most patient French professor ever. (Madame Loiseau – merci pour tout!) I didn’t give much thought to enriching my vocabulary in that direction; I needed to say “hello” and “goodbye” and “sorry about that, I’m a huge klutz.”

A year later, while living in Paris and attending a French immersion program, I spent mornings before school watching Inside the Actors’ Studio, broadcast in English with French subtitles. The host, James Lipton, always wrapped up the show by asking each actor he was interviewing the same five questions, one of which was, “What is your favorite curse word?”

Thus, I learned the good stuff.

The funny thing, though, is it all sounds like nonsense to me. A lot of these words have no direct translation, and since I don’t always know the connotation and I’m not used to hearing them used, I don’t have a good feel for how vulgar or tame they really are. Merde, for example, is somewhere on the scale between “crap” and “shit.” A kid will get in trouble for saying it, but an adult throwing it into normal conversation, even in a French class, will at most garner a few giggles. The word putain is listed in my French/English dictionary as “whore” or “goddam” or “bloody” if you’re British. But actually it’s France’s equivalent of the “f” word.

Enter my brother-in-law. I adore my brother-in-law. But sometimes, when he talks, I wonder if I really do speak French at all. He uses so many colloquialisms and slang words, plus he mumbles, so I can hardly follow what he’s saying. And – he’s got a potty mouth.

I learned some new words from him on a trip to France a few years ago. A woman walked off the train with his suitcase when he came from Lyon to Antibes to visit us one weekend.  Several hours later, she called him to let him know about the “mix-up.”  When he hung up his phone, he said, or rather yelled, “Grosse Conne!”  Literally, it translates to “huge idiot.”  No big deal, right?

Back in Paris a few weeks later, we were joking with my brother-in-law about the incident, and I mimicked the way he had yelled at his closed cell phone. I didn’t quite yell it, but I said it loud enough that my mother-in-law came running into the room in a state of panic and cried, “C’est Carol? Ce n’est pas possible!” (“Was that Carol?  It couldn’t be!”)  I suddenly felt like I was a misbehaving twelve-year-old. So I did what any twelve-year-old would do: I blamed it on someone else. “He taught it to me.” Turns out grosse conne is quite a bit more vulgar than “huge idiot.” Which is impossible to know unless you spend time around native speakers and embarrass yourself several times. I try to take the safe route – I want to know these words and phrases so I can tell if I’m being insulted, but I tend to not say them.

Except for merde. I like that one.

[Full Disclosure: This was originally published on my author website in 2008]

More French, Please!

Our daughter comes home from preschool singing adorable French songs like these:

It’s clear that she understands everything said to her in French. She’s also a great translator:

“Mommy, where’s my shirt?”

“Here’s your shirt, sweetie. How do you say ‘shirt’ in French?”

“It’s ‘chemise,’ sweetie.”

(Yes, she calls me sweetie.)

In her mind, there is a clear distinction between the two languages. She’ll pull a book from the shelf and tell me, “This book is French.” She’ll tell me her teacher speaks French but so and so in class speaks English.

It amazes me that at such a young age, 29 months, such a clear line can be drawn. Even my 9 month old son will pause and stare at me when I speak French. He knows something different is coming out of my mouth. Recent research shows that babies as young as 7 months can differentiate between languages. Fascinating.

Right now, though, our daughter tends to speak mainly in English or occasionally Franglais. She knows she’s doing it; she seems to pick and choose the words she likes or the words she finds easier to say. Like the other day when trying to give my husband a bite of her cereal: “Papa, open your bouche!” Or this morning, when I was failing miserably at corralling her to get her dressed for school: “Mommy, I want to play cache-cache!” (hide and seek).

Parents in other bilingual households have advised us that when she responds to my husband with English to tell her, in French, “I don’t understand. Tell me in French.” We’ve been hesitant to go this route; the last thing we want to do is shut her down when she’s trying to express herself and we certainly don’t want her to hate French. So right now, when she says something to my husband in English, he translates the phrase into French and has her repeat it back. She seems to think this is great fun.

We’ve also started speaking French more at home. My husband has been in the U.S. long enough that speaking French feels unnatural to him. We both have to put forth a lot of effort to have a conversation in French. But I need the practice, and it’s great for the kids. Lately, our daughter will even tell me, “Mommy, I want to speak French with you.” (Despite THIS)

Going to a French school helps, I have no doubt. We are in that window of opportunity, where her mind and her palate can take in our two languages and form the sounds without the flaws and struggles that I must deal with as a later in life language learner. It’s fun to see her French taking off, and fun for me to work on it with her. Our mission: more French speaking in our house, and trying to keep it fun so the kiddos (and I) don’t rebel against it.