Could this possibly be the reason for my daily struggle with spoken French?
Here is a little something for all you non-native French speakers who may be feeling alone in your attempts to master your tongue and contort your face as you brave life in France. Grab some aspirin and take a peek at the Top French Words You’ll Never Pronounce Right as reported in THE LOCAL FR last month. Go ahead, sit down with a teabag and a steaming mug of hot water from your bouilloire (kettle), if you can pronounce it, that is…
As in any language, French has a large and rich slang vocabulary which only makes things harder for us French learners. Mais it is what you hear in every day conversations en France, so sometimes you have to head to the Urban Dictionary and try to figure things out.
Here are five slang phrases I’ve heard a lot lately and finally sat down to decipher:
À la côte: On the rocks. (living on the edge, not a drink served on ice!)
J’ai envie de bouffer. I’m ready to eat.
C’est trop relou! That sucks!
Je kiffe ton frère. I like your brother. (romantically)
Oh mince! Oh, my gosh!
The lovely Geraldine of Comme une Française has also been thinking about French slang and foreigners lately. Here is her petite vidéo with five of her favorite slang phrases.
David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is a must read for any expat in France, especially those of us who have taken too many French classes to count, and are still longing to “talk pretty” one day. In this particular excerpt, Sedaris and his global classmates are asked to explain the religious significance of Easter to an Islamic student who has never heard of the holiday. Without having the vocabulary for “cross” or “resurrection” let alone, “He gave His only begotten Son”, the conversation, and I use that term very loosely, quickly degenerates to trying to explain the Easter Bunny, and understand how and why the French Easter Bells fly in from Rome.
Take a listen (or read the transcript below).
It is a dead on and excruciatingly accurate (and hilarious) portrayal of those cringe worthy moments in French class when your dismal vocabulary and tenuous grasp on grammar leads you to say things like:
“He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber.”
Jesus Shaves by David Sedaris
“And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day?”
It was my second month of French class, and the teacher was leading us in an exercise designed to promote the use of one, our latest personal pronoun. “Might one sing on Bastille Day?” she asked. “Might one dance in the street? Somebody give me an answer.”
Printed in our textbooks was a list of major holidays alongside a scattered arrangement of photos depicting French people in the act of celebration. The object was to match the holiday with the corresponding picture. It was simple enough but seemed an exercise better suited to the use of the word they. I didn’t know about the rest of the class, but when Bastille Day eventually rolled around, I planned to stay home and clean my oven. Normally, when working from the book, it was my habit to tune out my fellow students and scout ahead, concentrating on the question I’d calculated might fall to me, but this afternoon, we were veering from the usual format. Questions were answered on a volunteer basis, and I was able to sit back, confident that the same few students would do the talking.
Today’s discussion was dominated by an Italian nanny, two chatty Poles, and a pouty, plump Moroccan woman who had grown up speaking French and had enrolled in the class to improve her spelling. She’d covered these lessons back in the third grade and took every opportunity to demonstrate her superiority. A question would be asked and she’d give the answer, behaving as though this were a game show and, if quick enough, she might go home with a tropical vacation or a side-by-side refrigerator-freezer. By the end of her first day, she’d raised her hand so many times, her shoulder had given out. Now she just leaned back in her seat and shouted the answers, her bronzed arms folded across her chest like some great grammar genie.
We finished discussing Bastille Day, and the teacher moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a black-and-white photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds. “And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?” The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?” Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”
The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain. The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability.
“It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and . . . oh, shit.” She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid. “He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber.”
The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.
“He die one day, and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”
“He weared the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”
“He nice, the Jesus.”
“He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”
Part of the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “To give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.
“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One, too, may eat of the chocolate.”
“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked.
I knew the word, and so I raised my hand, saying, “The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”
My classmates reacted as though I’d attributed the delivery to the Antichrist. They were mortified.
“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wiggling them as though they were ears. “You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”
“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have the basket and foods.”
The teacher sadly shook her head, as if this explained everything that was wrong with my country.
“No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by the big bell that flies in from Rome.”
I called for a time-out.
“But how do the bell know where you live?”
“Well,” she said, “how does a rabbit?”
It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes. That’s a start. Rabbits move from place to place, while most bells can only go back and forth–and they can’t even do that on their own power. On top of that, the Easter Bunny has character; he’s someone you’d like to meet and shake hands with. A bell has all the personality of a cast-iron skillet. It’s like saying that come Christmas, a magic dustpan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks.
Who wants to stay up all night so they can see a bell? And why fly one in from Rome when they’ve got more bells than they know what to do with right here in Paris? That’s the most implausible aspect of the whole story, as there’s no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in and take their jobs. That Roman bell would be lucky to get work cleaning up after a French bell’s dog -and even then he’d need papers.
It just didn’t add up.
Nothing we said was of any help to the Moroccan student. A dead man with long hair supposedly living with her father, a leg of lamb served with palm fronds and chocolate. Confused and disgusted, she shrugged her massive shoulders and turned her attention back to the comic book she kept hidden beneath her binder.
I wondered then if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with. In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a six- year-old if each of us didn’t believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve?
If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The virgin birth, the resurrection, and the countless miracles -my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.
I go through extreme ups and extreme downs when it comes to learning French. Some weeks I feel very confident and have great ego-boosting moments when I faire les courses, give proper directions to lost French tourists, or can have a solid conversation with my gardienne. But there are a lot of weeks, when I feel like a toddler trapped in a grown woman’s body just trying to be understood.
Learning French has been one of my biggest stumbling blocks over the last 5 years. I’ve studied hard and taken many classes. I listen to French on my iPod everyday. I keep journals of new vocabulary. I do lots of grammar worksheets. I’m fine on paper when I read and write, and I’m fine on understanding spoken French. But often when I speak, I completely freeze. My mouth dries up, my tongue gets tied, and my brain seems to go on holiday. It is a pattern I can’t seem to break.
Spoken French is the monkey on my back.
I just wish he would climb off and head back to the tropics!
2014 has to be the year that I finally stick to my resolution to stop being afraid of making mistakes and learn to laugh at myself.
Having been trying to make that resolution my mantra for the last 2 weeks, it was quite fortuitous that this (from my new favorite online teacher, Géraldine of Comme une Française TV ) showed up today, just as I was beating myself up about a rough exchange with Air France over the telephone.
Géraldine is great at making me realize I am not alone in my foibles and always encourages her students to shrug it off, chuckle at yourself, and keep on trying.
Alors, chaque semaine, dans mon cours de français, we spend 30 minutes practicing tongue twister, known to the French as les virelangues.
Les virelangues are silly slogans we are supposed to speak swiftly, satisfactorily, and seriously to assess our skillfulness in successfully saying a succession of similar sounds succinctly.
Our assorted assembly of eight adventurers from across the earth, each with an array of atypical accents, histoires, et angst, ce n’est pas an attractive arrangement.
The mental and physical gymnastics we have to perform to suitably spit out these sentences is not only monumental, madcap and manic, mais also mirthful, meaningless, and modestly miserable.
Batman tries to twist his tongue…
Oh, we try so hard! And French is not an easy language, but, alas, c’est une langue qu’on aime!
Here’s a sample of a few we’ve been working on…it ain’t pretty:
Dans ta tente ta tante t’attend. (In your tent your aunt is waiting for you.)
Lily lit le livre dans le lit. (Lily reads the book on the bed.)
Poisson sans boisson, c’est poison! (Fish without drink, that is poison!)
Cinq chiens chassent six chats. (Five dogs chase six cats.)
Un taxi attaque six taxis. (A taxi attacks six taxis.)
Même maman m’a mis ma main dans mon manchon. (Even mom put my hand in my sleeve.)
Un gros porc dors au bords le beau port du Bordeaux. (A porky pig sleeps by the beautiful port of Bordeaux.)
Je dis que tu l’as dit à Didi ce que j’ai dit jeudis. (I say that you say to Didi what I say on Thursdays.)
Trois tortues trottaient sur un trottoir très étroit. (Three turtles are trotting down a very narrow sidewalk.)
Ces six saucissons-ci sont si secs qu’on ne sait si s’en sont. (These six sausages are so dry that we don’t know if they are (sausages).)
Pauvre petit pêcheur, prend patience pour pouvoir prendre plusieurs petits poissons. (Poor little fisherman need patience to be able to catch many small fish.)
Chat vit rôt, rôt tenta chat, chat mit patte à rôt, rôt brûla patte à chat, chat quitta rôt. (The cat sees the roast. The roast tempts the cat. The cat puts a paw on the roast. The roast burns the cat’s paw. The cat leaves the roast.)
Take a listen here to hear how hard these are to say!
Alors, chaque semaine, dans mon cours de français…: So each week, in my French course…
ce n’est pas: it is not…
c’est une langue qu’on aime: it’s a language we love
histoires: stories, histories
virelangues: tongue twisters (une phrase difficile à prononcer)