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.

Please Forgive Me, I’m an Anglophone

How is this for an ego crusher: as I was reading a poem by Verlaine in preparation for my French class, my daughter said, “Stop Mommy! You’re hurting my ears!” then clapped her hands over her ears to emphasize her point.

Ouch.

I’m telling myself that she wanted a quiet breakfast rather than my French being so abominable that even a two-year-old couldn’t take it. But still.

From my first words, usually “bonjour”, I have an accent. My husband assures me it’s a cute accent, but I’m self conscious about it. My French class is causing me to second guess everything I thought I knew about how French words are pronounced. I’ve decided that’s a good thing – I’m tearing out my bad habits and rebuilding with better fundamentals.

In France, the locals know I’m foreign, but often they don’t recognize that I’m American because my accent is less obvious. One of my most memorable experiences happened when I was studying in Paris. I traveled to Strasbourg one weekend to visit some friends and we went to a huge party where I was hit on repeatedly by French men of varying levels of charm. It was the accent that seemed to draw them to me and I started to feel pretty sexy and charming myself right up until this encounter. A French guy approached me and said something that I didn’t understand, so I said, “Pardon?” My accent immediately made it clear that I was not-from-around-here.

So he switched to English. “Where are you from?”

This was 2004, the height of America-hating, and not 10 minutes before I’d had to endure a diatribe about why Americans suck (from a guy who was simultaneously doing everything he could to get into my pants), so I wasn’t too eager to reveal my origins. Instead, I said, “Paris.”

“No, really, where are you from?”

“I’m from Paris.”

“You look Irish. Are you Irish?”

I shook my head.

“British?”

“No.”

“Scottish?”

“No.”

“Welsh?”

I laughed and shook my head.

He tried a few more English-speaking countries, then finally, exasperated, said, “Well then, where are you from?”

“I’m American.”

“An American girl?” He wrinkled his nose. “Ugh!”

And he walked away from me. Classic.

I don’t know that I’ll ever pass for a local. That ability with a language is a rare gift. I always laugh at movies and TV shows where some spy or official is pretending to be a native, talking in the native tongue, supposedly fooling everyone. It just so rarely happens; our Anglophone tendencies will always creep into our language. It’s a rare and gifted person who can speak a foreign tongue without an accent. My French teacher at SDSU is one of those people, which gives me hope. There’s a fuzzy line between improper pronunciation and simply having an accent. I’m working on it. If only so that my kids don’t make fun of me.

Former Posts about learning French in my family:

Progress in My French Education

Rue, Rit, Roue

French Customer Service

My Daughter Started Preschool

My Daughter Speaks French

Progress in My French Education

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:

Rue, Rit, Roue

French Customer Service

My Daughter Started Preschool

My Daughter Speaks French

Rue, Rit, Roue

Sunset on the Seine from Pont Neuf, near where I studied French in Paris

Sunset on the Seine from Pont Neuf, near where I studied French in Paris

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?

“No.”

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.

My Daughter Started Preschool

My daughter started preschool at a French American school recently. I’ve been so excited about this. It’s important to my husband and me that she be exposed to both of our languages and cultures. There, all classes are taught in French by native speakers.

Still, taking her to school that first day was gut wrenching. She’s been my constant companion since her birth, or technically, since her conception. I chose to set aside my career, temporarily, so I could stay home with her and her brother. Something I never thought I’d want to do, but life changes us all, often in big ways. I’ve had babysitters, but never had I taken her somewhere and left her there. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of emotions as I turned away from her and walked out the classroom door, alone.

Sadness. Right away, I really, really missed her. Relief. I had a little more freedom for the day. Pride. My brave little girl was flustered when I left, but she hardly cried at all. Guilt. Was I doing the right thing? Was she too young for this? Would they be kind to her? She should be with people who love her, not strangers! Am I a horrible mother for feeling relieved right now? Excitement. She is going to learn so much and do so many cool things that I could never come up with for her. Curiosity. What will she experience today? Happiness. We are entering a stage where she’s becoming her own person and able to do so much more.

I’m so used to stooping just slightly so my hand can reach hers, accustomed to shortening my steps so she can keep up with me. Life suddenly felt too quiet without her little feet tap tap tapping along next to mine or her tiny voice chattering away. As I walked away, my arms swung loose, my back stretched and straightened, and I felt a piece of me returning,  the piece that is just simply Carol; not mom, not wife. I thought: This is a good thing. For both of us.

Then I started to cry.

My Daughter Speaks French

 It’s strange, in a good way, to hear my daughter speaking in a foreign tongue. After surveying other bilingual families and doing a bit of research, we decided that the best approach would be one-parent-one-language. So my husband speaks to our munchkins in French and I speak to them in English. I do throw the occasional French song or French book in there from time to time.

Her first French word was “papillon,” which is butterfly. She said it with such a cute intonation that we went overboard pointing out every butterfly just so we could hear her say it. With her first words, her pronunciation was already better than mine. The French word for bear is ours (sounds like: oors), and while typically the “s” at the end of a French word is silent, it isn’t in this one. So when my daughter pronounced it, I looked to my husband and asked, “It’s ‘oor’ not ‘oors’, right?” He gave me a sympathetic smile. “No. She’s got it right. Not you.”

Well then.

When she was eighteen months old, I realized that her newbie brain had already begun to separate the two languages. She pointed to a toy car and said, “voiture.” I knew that she knew the word in English, so I said to her: “Yes, it’s ‘voiture’ in French. What is that called in English?” She answered, without hesitation, “car.” Thus began a fascinating game for me of pointing things out to her and asking for the French word and the English word. She does confuse things occasionally, like applying English grammar rules to French. It’s an amazing insight into how a young brain learns a language.

She quickly decided that only my husband could read French books to her, and only I could read English ones. She apparently doesn’t approve of either of our accents. But when she mistakenly handed my dad a French book, he went with it.

A few words on my dad and French. He doesn’t speak it. At all. But he pretends to, with great enthusiasm. Poor kid; as my dad crashed through the words with gusto, using a strange mixture of Spanish and Italian pronunciation complete with wild hand gestures, she first looked confused, then like she was about to cry, then she took the book from Pops and wailed, “Pops no read it! Mommy read it! In English!”

It’s both fascinating and humbling to watch my daughter becoming bilingual. She’ll be able to speak two languages fluently, with no accent. Wow. I can only dream of such a thing. I’m working on my French, now with greater determination, so that my husband and daughter don’t end up with a secret language.