You know that old daisy petal game? He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me… that’s how I felt about my French-speaking ability over the course of my month in Paris. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from my month of trying to speak seulement (only) en français.
Oui! Je parle français!
Someone asked me if I was French! They probably wouldn’t have if they’d waited for me to speak a few more sentences, but I don’t care — it was a triumphant moment.
Non, je ne parle pas français …
I strike up a conversation with someone and things are going well for awhile, until they ask me something I can’t parse. I ask them to repeat it. They do. It still sounds like gibberish. (I feel a bit like Joey from Friends.) Eventually they switch to English and ask me where I’m from. Ugh. Why are there so many ways to ask that? And why isn’t the textbook << Où habitez-vous ? >> one of them? (<< Où viends-de ? >>, which means, ‘Where do you come from?’ is one of the more frequent ways that question was posed to me, but it pretty much stumped me in all its forms.)
Oui, je parle français 🙂
I meet up with my friend’s French cousin, who asks if I want to speak in English or French. Although she studied English as part of her college major, Margaux indulges me and we speak almost entirely in French for over three hours. I’m sure her knowledge of English helps her understand what I’m trying to say, and I’m convinced that she’s deliberately using simple words for my benefit, but I’m grateful for Margaux and emboldened by my ability to participate in the conversation and understand the gist of what she’s saying.
Non, je ne parle pas français 😦
If I had any delusions because of people telling me how well I spoke French or because of my ability to occasionally hold my own in a passing conversation, they were all shattered when I started dating Hadi. There is nothing quite like dating a native speaker to highlight the limitations of your linguistic abilities. While I may have worked out the vocabulary I needed for ordering in a restaurant or buying something at a store, dating threw me into a variety of new situations for which I had no vocabulary.
To provide some relevant context, a quick primer on French grammar:
- Every verb needs to be conjugated according to the subject, of which there are six possibilities (you, me, us, he/she/it, they, and you in the plural sense), and the tense, of which there are nearly two dozen (!), if you count moods and voices. It’s like they appointed a statistician to design a language to optimize the number of possible permutations. We conjugate verbs in English as well (I sing, I sang, I was singing, I am singing, I will sing; she sings, etc.) but there aren’t nearly as many versions of each verb.
- Every noun, including all inanimate objects, has a gender (male or female), and that gender impacts which version of the article, adjective, and in some cases even verb conjugation you need to use. So if you guess the wrong gender, you’ll make it painfully obvious in three or four different places (imagine being able to screw up “I came home to the blue house” by using the wrong version of “came,” “the,” and “blue,” because there are multiple versions of all of those words.)
Compounded with the complicated grammar is the fact that no one actually speaks the way they teach you French in high school. And since they have to spend so much time teaching you conjugations and proper grammar, you never get around to idiomatic phrases or conversational French.
Je parle français …
After our first date, I would have told you that between my French, Hadi’s English, and Google Translate, we were able to communicate pretty well.
Je ne parle pas français …
After a few more dates, it became clear who was doing all the heavy lifting communications-wise. Hadi studied English for about 14 years, and in addition to the extra decade of formal study he has over me foreign language-wise, he also watches a lot of American shows and films.
Hadi is totally amazing, and definitely the best thing that’s ever happened to my conversational French. I wonder if he would be mortified or amused to know that whichever phrases he happened to use with me will be immortalized as the way I know how to say things like ‘Are you comfortable?’ << Tu es à l’aise ? >>, ‘Don’t worry,’ << T’inquiète pas >>, and ‘Let me know when you’re on your way,’ << Préviens-moi quand tu es sur le chemin >>.
Texting was painfully slow because I had to check all of my spellings (verb endings, nouns, accents…pretty much everything) in Google Translate before hitting send. Luckily Hadi’s side of the conversation was hampered by needing to send me (per my request) corrected versions of each of my text messages, which were inevitably wrong (because I missed a preposition — they use a lot more prepositions than we do, and different ones; or used the wrong article, when I was too lazy to check the gender of a noun; or had otherwise screwed up the grammar, or spelling, or…).
Parlez-vous anglais ?
Even when I wasn’t with Hadi when an interaction happened, it was helpful that after the fact I could ask him things like, “Hey, my friend asked if I wanted to sit inside or outside and I told her it didn’t matter, but given the look the waitress gave me, I think I said it wrong.”
Hadi: “How did you say it?”
Me: “N’importe quoi.”
Hadi: “Oh, there are at least three ways to say what you wanted to say, but that wasn’t one of them.”
(For the record, << peu importe >>, << c’est pareil à moi >>, and << comme tu veux >> all would have been appropriate. I chose the one that means ‘whatever’ in the exasperated, disapproving way; my response to ‘Do you want to sit inside or outside?’ was roughly equivalent to ‘That’s ridiculous!’)
Non, je parle pas francais …
Hadi is incredibly patient, but every now and then he would say, “Try again – I have no idea what you’re trying to say.” His English and patience, formidable as they are, couldn’t always overcome my circumlocutions, incorrect conjugations, and flustered pronunciations (“Try pronouncing every part of the word,” Hadi unsarcastically suggested as I stumbled through a long word incorrectly several times over. Which would be more helpful advice for a language that didn’t insist on skipping the ends of most words and devising monophthongs like << eaux >> to be pronounced ‘Ō’…I mean, obviously…).
At the end of my trip, I asked Hadi if I’d made it more than two minutes without making a mistake at any point in the month. “Yes,” he replied, as I brightened. “In English,” he clarified.
Non, je ne parle pas francais.