Masculine vs. Feminine

DSC01570 I started learning French when I was 29 years old. In my day, foreign language education began in high school and we only had to take two years. In college, my major (microbiology) had no foreign language requirement.

Funny story: I really wanted to take French in high school, but my mom said to me: “You’ll never have any occasion in your life to use French. We live in Arizona. You need to take Spanish.” So I did. Then I married a Frenchman. I love to remind her of this whole event sequence.

After finishing grad school, I met a few French people, fell in love with the language, and decided to take night classes at a small conversation-oriented school to learn how to say “Bonjour” and “Paris” so it would rhyme with “Whee!” A couple immersion programs in France, some private lessons, and a French husband later, and my French is, overall, decent.

Because my “formal” education in French has been minimal, I have holes in my knowledge. Sometimes they are big and gaping, like the issues I have with masculine vs. feminine. Already a difficult concept for the Anglophone, I spent a lot of years whatever-ing the whole thing until I had to admit it actually does matter.

I can’t be the only one who struggles with this in French. Why oh why can’t it be easy, obvious, like it is in Spanish?

Here are a few references I’ve found helpful:

http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/genderpatterns.htm

http://www.pimsleurapproach.com/resources/french/grammar-guides/masculine-feminine/

http://www.french-linguistics.co.uk/grammar/le_or_la_in_french.shtml

I love my Visual French-English dictionary, too. It's fun to thumb through, and I do learn from it!

I love my Visual French-English dictionary, too. It’s fun to thumb through, and I do learn from it!

The best/worst advice I’ve (often) received: You just have to learn as you go.

Because there are so many rules and exceptions to rules, learning as you go, from the beginning, is the best route.

I tried to do note cards the other day, based on some of the patterns listed in the websites above. That lasted about 5 minutes before I threw all the note cards I’d worked so hard to create into the recycle bin. Does anyone ever really learn that way? For something other than a cram session for an exam where all the info will be forgotten in a week or two? I’m a complete grammar nerd, but I still recognize a futile attempt when I see it.

Part of my research into bilingualism and teaching languages has shown that our understanding of how best to acquire new languages has evolved greatly, and continues to evolve. It’s much more of an organic process than our typical teaching methods (i.e. rote memorization and recitation) allow for.

I'd rather have my brother stick his foot in my face while I'm posing for a sweet picture with my dad in France than study from notecards.

I’d rather have my brother stick his foot in my face while I’m posing for a sweet picture with my dad in France than study from notecards.

I need to build associations and habits, not stare at cards. I need to think and speak in French when I go to the grocery store so that I know it’s “la” banane and “le” brocoli. I need to look around my house, think about, talk about the objects I use every day. Le livre. La cuillère. Le four. La table. And so on.

I just want a simple rule or two to follow, but that’s not how French works. It’s going to be a long process before this whole gender thing comes naturally, and accurately, for me.

Yet here are couple that have stuck in my brain for years: problème is masculine and solution is feminine. Hmmm.

 

Passport to Paris: A touch of France in Denver, Colorado

Denver Art Museum

Denver Art Museum

Last weekend we visited the Denver Art Museum’s Passport to Paris exhibit, advertised as “More Monet in Denver than ever before.” I love the French Impressionists, so there was no doubt we were going to go, even if it meant dragging a three-year-old and an eighteen-month-old through an art museum. Between pushing buttons on the audio tours for the kids to keep them entertained (“Mommy! She stopped talking again!”) and pulling my daughter’s curious fingers away from priceless works of art (“NOOOOOOOOOO! Off limits! Eyes only!” Cue hyperventilating  Mom all too aware of angry glares from other patrons) we managed to see most of the works displayed in the show’s trio of rooms.

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The rooms: Court to Cafe, Nature as Muse, and Drawing Room, focus on French art from the late 1600s to the early 1900s and include a fascinating look at how art and society mirrored each other through these dynamically evolving centuries. The show incorporates 50 masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, 36 landscapes from the impressionist artists from the private collection of Frederic C. Hamilton – on public display for the first time, as well as drawings on paper from master artists of the period. Here are a couple of my favorites (no photography was allowed, so I had to scan them from postcards I bought):

Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Beach at Trouville, 1870 by Claude Monet

The Beach at Trouville, 1870 by Claude Monet

If you are in the Denver area and interested, the show is here through February 9, 2014, and tickets can be purchased online or at the museum. Click here for more details.

An American Teaching French – One Child at a Time

This post is written for this month’s Multilingual Blogging Carnival, hosted by Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes. Check out the link for more great posts!

I got lazy last year. Having our daughter in a French immersion preschool made it so easy. French surrounded her. Everything she learned was in French. French was cool, because everyone else was doing it.

Now, I have to step up my game. I’m trying to find ways to keep French active in our lives. But my fears are coming to fruition: my daughter is starting to resist French.

No one around us speaks it, here in Colorado. Her schoolmates all speak English, and now that’s all she wants to speak. We haven’t connected with the French community here, though we remain hopeful about finding it.

Bringing Up Baby Bilingual has been my reference bible for French activities in this area. I know there are a surprising number of opportunities here, we just have to look a little harder than we did in San Diego. Here’s what we’re doing so far:

We have attended story times. I feel like a desperate twenty-something dude in a club on a Saturday night, frequenting these story times, eavesdropping on conversations, trying to find another mom, hopefully speaking French to her kids, who might be willing to fork over her digits and set up a play date.

Meanwhile, since we don’t have any French-speaking friends here yet, and since my husband is putting in a lot of hours at work, it’s on me to make sure French is a part of our kids’ daily lives. Here’s the real kicker: I’m resisting it. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. Because I’m not truly me in French (see this post). My affection for my kids comes in the form of “honey” and “sweetheart”, not “mon petit chou” (my little cabbage. Ewww.). A French teacher once pointed out to me that “honey” is gross to her, because it’s sticky and messy. I suppose I can see her point. I do find myself, for whatever reason, resorting to French when I need to be stern with my kids. “Assieds-toi !” When my son stands in the bathtub and starts jumping around.  “On y va ! Vite !” When we’re late. French sounds scarier to me, and they jump to attention when I speak in French where they ignore me in English. I can already see their conversations as adults: “And when Mom started in on us in French, that’s when we knew we were in trouble!” Come to think of it, perhaps this is not the association I want to build….

Our bilingual bookshelf

Our bilingual bookshelf

We have plenty of French books, and I struggle here too because I focus too much on making sure I’m pronouncing everything correctly rather than immersing us in the story with an animated reading, the way I do so easily in English. Still, I’m trying. The more familiar each text becomes, the more fun I am when I read it, and the more attention my kids give me when I pull one of these books out.

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Music. We listen to French music all the time. My daughter asks me to play, “Dansons la Capucine” every time we get into the car. French music is her music, anything in English is “Mommy music.” Sometimes she’ll tolerate a Mumford and Sons song or two before saying, “Mommy, I want French music! Dansons la Capucine!”

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I’ve ambitiously (Naively? Stupidly?) offered to do French activities and story times at my daughter’s preschool for any kids who are interested. I’m scaring myself with this one. The mere thought of trying to put together a French lesson for a bunch of 3 and 4 year olds is giving me performance anxiety. If you know me, you know I don’t do anything half-way. I’m all in. Type A perfectionism overachiever at its most intense. I don’t cut myself any slack. I’ll nitpick at myself for mispronouncing one of those ridiculous vowel sounds until I’ve convinced myself that I’m unworthy of even attempting French. Stuart Smalley, care for a session in front of the mirror with me?

I know they say a language can’t be taught through TV, however, my daughter adores La Maison de Mickey and asks to watch it daily. So, a few times a week, I turn on an episode (Thank you, Roku). She does, in fact, pick up a few new words each time. We talk about the show in French, then we all do the Mickey dance together.

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The other day, she pulled out a stack of French flashcards and handed them to me. “Mommy, can you do these with me so I can learn French so I can talk to my cousins?” Again, flashcards get a bad rap, but I wasn’t about to deny her a learning opportunity. I was pleased to see that she remembered a ton of vocabulary words in French. I often ask her to tell me what different things are in French. My husband and I try to both speak French when we are all together, and when the kids say something in English, we translate it into French, then ask them to repeat it. Incidentally, my son’s first French word is, “Coucou !” Translation – a form of “hello” mainly used with families and children.

As for my own learning, I’m planning to crash a French class or two at the University of Colorado in Boulder next semester. When I’m excited about the language, I can pass that on to my kids. Taking classes always makes me happy – if someone would pay me to be a student for the rest of my life, I’d take that job in a heartbeat. I remain determined that my kids learn French, and that it is not a secret language they share with their Papa only.

I believe that plugging into the French-speaking community here is our best hope for ensuring that our daughter and son, and me too, speak French fluently. Like many things, this will take time. And I still dream of a summer in France, maybe in a few years, when the kids are older, where the kids and I all take French lessons. Actually, I’d be fine with a yearly French immersion. Complete with lots of bike rides, croissants, and crepes. That would work for me.

Trader Joe's croissants for now... whenever TJ's opens in Colorado!

Trader Joe’s croissants for now… whenever TJ’s opens in Colorado!

As always, we remain determined, if a bit daunted, to raise our children bilingually and biculturally.

The French Version of Me

Something strange happens whenever I go to France. I morph into a slightly different person.

I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not. I’m not even on my best behavior. No, it’s about the language. I can’t quite be myself in French.

In part, my French is not fluent, so I always feel I’m in a bit of a fog, not completely able to hear, understand, or express myself. But there’s more. My sarcasm and dry humor don’t often translate. I’ve tried, and more often than not I end up getting confused looks or worse, offending people. In French, I tend to be quiet and withdrawn, while in English I am extroverted, confident, sometimes even gregarious. I tend to be much more serious in French; again – my humor doesn’t translate. In English, I tease and joke with everyone and I constantly poke fun at myself. I’m not there yet with my French. Instead, I resort to a goofy, unsophisticated sense of humor that relies heavily on facial expressions and body language, whereas in English I’m known for being so deadpan people can’t always tell if I’m joking.

I phrase things differently. In English, I can be precise with my word choice, allowing myself to be diplomatic or irritated, straightforward or sarcastic, serious or funny. In French, I must rely on my limited vocabulary, gestures, and an exaggerated tone of voice, making me wonder if I come across as dense. It’s so easy to misinterpret what I hear or to say something I didn’t intend to say. Like my wedding vows or the time I announced “Je suis femme !” (“I am woman”) when what I intended to say was: “J’ai faim !” (“I’m hungry.”)

There’s also the inherent cultural aspects of a language. French speakers tend to be more animated, their voices sometimes almost sing-songy. I find myself adopting this mannerism as I speak French. I start doing the French Blow. French speakers tend to repeat short phrases. I say this is because they are always talking over one another, so they have to repeat the same things over and over in the hopes that someone will hear them eventually. In English, I would find this repetition annoying but it seems to be simply  part of the language in French.  I tend to adopt this mannerism as well.

Yet it cuts deeper than the way I express myself, it affects the way I think. Of course, there’s no direct, word for word translation from any one language to another. Getting to the level in a language where you actually think in that language is an exciting milestone to reach. Then, it has become a part of you. Language shapes our minds. So much of a culture is wrapped into its language, and vice versa. When living in a foreign language, our very core changes, sometimes subtley, sometimes more.

What I Learn From My Daughter

Something unexpected happened this summer. My daughter’s French took off. I had feared that being out of French school, away from the structure, the exposure, and the other kids who spoke French would cause her to lose ground. Instead, she’s now speaking conversationally. Sometimes. When I switch to French, she switches to French. And with her father, she’s about 50/50, French/English. She loves to babble French sounds; it’s almost like her French is a year or so behind her English. The great thing: she’s enjoying it. She likes speaking French.

This whole thing has made the prospect of not having access to a French school much less scary. We’ll have to devise some sort of plan to make sure reading and writing in French develop – I still lean toward summer school in France for all of us – but I’m finally relaxing about the whole thing more and starting to believe the other bilingual families who have reassured us to not worry, it will happen.

I learn a lot from my daughter, too. Like when her friends came over and one of the boys stole a toy from her and ran away with it. She ran after him shouting, “Ça c’est à moi !” thus I learned the French version of “mine!” If I had guessed, I would have said, “C’est la mienne !”

It’s so strange sometimes to hear my daughter speaking in a foreign tongue. Before meeting a Frenchman and deciding to have children with him, the thought that my children might speak a language that I didn’t speak never crossed my mind. It’s developing organically in her, whereas in me it’s taking great effort. It makes this part of her a little mystery to me.

Recently, we spent some time with one of my husband’s brothers and his family while they were visiting California. Before we saw them, we told our daughter that she would be seeing her cousins and that she’d need to speak in French because they don’t speak English. She had a lot of questions.

“Mommy what language will Papa speak?”

“What language will you speak this weekend?”

Over the long weekend, we had to coach her and translate for her with her cousins. As cousins do, though, they found a way. Cousins always seem to share a special bond, an instant connection. Even with the language difference, they had fun together. By the last day, our daughter began to spontaneously, without our interference, speak to them in French.

She likes to talk about what languages people speak. She’s exposed to so many languages; in her class alone there were native French, English, Spanish, Turkish, Hindi, and Chinese speakers. Lots of multicultural families. Every once in a while she’ll babble something and tell me that she’s speaking Spanish. She’s not, but still, the awareness of different languages at such a young age is a gift, I think. With exposure and continued effort, I believe we can get there. We can’t give up. We won’t.

Bastille Day/ La Fête Nationale

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

July 14, Le Quatorze Julliet, marks the French holiday we know as Bastille Day. Not surprisingly, the origins of this holiday are un peu compliqué. Two key events in the French Revolution share this date.

The first: In 1789, the people of Paris, fearful that their representatives would be attacked by the royal military of Louis XVI and desiring ammunition and gunpowder for a possible battle, stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris that held citizens under not so just cause and without rights to appeal. Often, prisoners were held there because of anti-royal writings.

One year later, on July 14, 1790, there was a huge feast to celebrate the conclusion, or so they thought at the time, of the French Revolution. Apparently the feast lasted 4 days and concluded with fireworks, fine wine, and running naked through the streets.

Pétanque in Provence

Pétanque in Provence

While we didn’t run naked anywhere, we did celebrate the holiday. We kicked it off with a pétanque tournament; I was partnered with a lovely Englishwoman named June and while we held our own, we were eliminated early in the tournament. It’s quite possible that my problem was I didn’t have a cool straw hat like most of the experienced players. No big deal, I was hungry and I forgot how long those games last! The French-American Chamber of Commerce sponsored a barbeque, concert, and pick-up soccer and volleyball games, so we had plenty of time to eat and play with San Diego’s French and Francophile community. It was a perfect southern California day: sunny, a cool ocean breeze, bright blue skies.

Here are some photos from the Bastille Day Military Parade a few years ago. It proceeds down the Champs Elysees and lasts for hours. The year we were there, Sarkozy was president. As he rode through, the crowd around us started whistling and my first thought was: they really like their president. Then I realized my mother-in-law was shaking her head and shocked, astonished, that people would dare whistle like that. Turns out whistling in France is quite rude; basically the equivalent of booing. So probably best not to whistle at a French girl.

If you ever go to the parade, get there early, bring lots of water, a snack, definitely a camera, and don’t bother to try and claim any territory like you would in a parade here – you’ll be scrunched and pushed out of the way.

Here’s my Bastille Day workout, designed to help you stand your ground in the crowd of parade revelers:

1. Medicine Ball Squats: Take a wide stance and squat down, maintaining even weight on each foot, while thrusting the medicine ball straight out in front of you, arms parallel to the ground. This will help you keep your position and should you need to, shove back.

2. Lateral Deltoid Raises While Balancing on One Foot: To help you ward off those pushers that come at you from the side while maintaining your balance. You can’t risk falling at the parade, they’ll never let you stand back up.

3. Lunges with Biceps Curls: It’s hot. Really freaking hot in Paris in July. If you are American, and as such a Water Bottle Addict, you’ll be lifting that water bottle to your mouth for at least three hours straight. The lunges are to help propel yourself forward with force after you’ve been shoved and maneuvered to the back of the pack.

Me, waiting for the parade to start

Me, tired from getting up early, waiting for the parade. We started out in front then got shoved to the back before the parade even began.

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Best seats on the Champs

Best seats on the Champs. They were drinking champagne.

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The firemen, the most popular group in the parade

The firemen, the most popular group in the parade

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The Rose Colored Glasses Wiped Clean

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I wrote this five years ago after spending most of the summer in Antibes, France. That was the summer France lost some of its magic for me, but that isn’t a bad thing. It became a real place – one with flaws as well as astounding beauty – rather than the idealized fantasyland of my European dreams (which wasn’t such a bad thing either). France still holds magic for me, and when I gaze upon her lavender fields, explore her old castles, or walk her cobblestone streets, I live some of my happiest moments.

I’m back in San Diego after our summer stint in the south of France. I’ve spent a lot of time in France and have devoted much time and effort to mastering the unmasterable French language. This recent trip was a test for us.  Exam question: Do we want to move to France? Answer: The jury is still out.

France, for me, particularly the south, has long been an idyllic escape, a locale I long for when I’m away. After all the time I’ve spent there, I still idealize the place, even if it means subconsciously denying its imperfections.

There is such joy, and magic, in being in a foreign country – new sights, smells, sounds. But part of that comes from not knowing what exists in its dirty underbelly. In seeing only the glamorous parts meant for the tourist’s amazed eyes, and not having to deal with the day to day aspects of living there. Part of that magic also comes from not knowing what is being said around you.

One afternoon, after hitting the beach, I was absolutely overheated. On my walk home past the chic private beaches and touristy shops that spilled their postcards, film (people still buy film?), beach towels, and bikinis onto the sidewalk, I didn’t pass one of the many ice cream shops. Instead, I stopped for some of that devine delicacy, a gob of gastronomic goodness, a jolt of gelato, yes – bliss on a baked waffle cone.

As I walked away with my temporary treasure, it of course began to melt, so I stopped in front of a shop window to eat some of it and ensure that I didn’t arrive home covered in telling chocolate drips. An older man, short and stocky with a genial smile, walked by and said something to me. It took a minute to process what he had said, so enraptured was I in waffle cone wonderland. So, for a brief moment, I existed in that blissfully unaware state that always occurs when I’m traveling in a country where I don’t speak the language. I saw a sweet little old local, probably flirting with me judging by the way he was smiling, or perhaps recommending a pair of shoes from the window I was absently eyeing. He stopped to watch me, and then my brain finally processed what he’d said:

“You’ll get fat if you keep eating like that.”

Jackass. I liked you better when I had no clue what you were saying.

Snappy comebacks aren’t my forté – though they come to me later in numbers. When offended, I revert to a wordless, helpless little girl.

But perhaps my actions in that moment spoke louder than words. I shrugged and took another big lick. Did that translate, monsieur?

Villa Rothschild on  St. Jean Cap Ferrat, magic and beauty in the south of France

Villa Rothschild, St. Jean Cap Ferrat, magic and beauty in the south of France