When learning French improves your English

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Whenever I come across French-English faux amis – words that sound or look alike but have two different meanings – I think about the relationship that the words do have with each other. Many times they share a Latin root, and each word’s definition adds an interesting nuance to the other’s – often to amusing effect.

Take for example the following French words versus their English false friends:

défunt (deceased) vs defunct (no longer existing or functioning)

préservatif (condom) vs preservative (a substance used to preserve foodstuffs and other materials against decay)

imprégner (to soak or permeate, as in these confusing matches) vs impregnate (most common definition: make a female pregnant; less common definition: soak or saturate with a substance)

corpulence (a person’s build) vs corpulence (obesity)

ignorer (most common definition: to not know; less common definitions: to have no experience of or to ignore) vs. ignore (refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; disregard intentionally)

négligé (neglected, slovenly, scruffy) vs negligee (a women’s dressing gown, typically made of a light, filmy fabric)

I just find these pairings delightful, don’t you? Not as delightful: telling people – on more than one occasion – that there are way too many condoms in American food.

Which reminds me of one last, classic faux ami that embarrasses every French learner at some point or another: While “excité” can in certain circumstances refer to nearly the same thing as the English “excited,” it is more often used to refer to sexual arousement. So, don’t go around telling your French colleagues or in-laws, for example, that you are excité to see them.

If you’ve got other interesting faux amis to add, please let me know!

Also, a PS: Once, I was pleased to find a word (well, really a phrase) in French, “mal de terre,” for which I didn’t know the English equivalent. I had never heard the word “landsickness” before, and in fact I didn’t even know the concept of landsickness existed until it happened to me.

Recently, I came across the phrase “sea legs” used to describe “the illusion of motion felt on dry land after spending time at sea,” i.e. landsickness. I had always thought of “getting your sea legs” as adjusting to the motion of a boat on the water so that it ceases to be felt, but apparently it can refer to landsickness, too. I’m learning English right alongside French!

[Photo: Ruth Hartnup]

Logical fallacies

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I tend to beat myself up about things: “Why did you say that?” “You shouldn’t have done that.” “What the hell was that about?”

I’ve made an effort to be more self-forgiving – to treat myself as I would a friend – but when I muddle things up in French, the compulsion to judge myself harshly is pretty strong.

Here are some counterarguments I’ve started making to shut down the self-flagellation. Continue reading

The French Effect

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I’ve noticed that whenever I throw myself back into immersive French after a long stretch of barely using it, I experience something like the Tetris effect, which used to plague me for days at a time after playing too much of the game as a kid. Random word nuggets will pop into my head unbidden, apropos of nothing, and I’ll silently repeat them to myself – over and over and over again – until a new strange phrase appears from out of nowhere to take its place. Yesterday it was, “On ne sait jamais ce qu’il va faire” – You never know what he’s going to do. I have no idea who “he” is, yet this phrase colonized my brain-space for the better part of a day. This morning, meanwhile, I kept saying to myself, “Tu vas avoir un petit problème là” – “You’re going to have a bit of a problem with that.” What “that” is, again, I have no idea.

Does anyone else experience this?

[Photo: Wicker Paradise]

Orelsan in New York

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About a year ago, on the very angsty eve of my 38th birthday, a song I had never heard before, but which was apparently a new French chart-topping hit, lifted me out of my malaise. It was called “La Pluie,” and Spotify fatefully served it up to me at the exact time when I needed it most. Buoyed by the words and the music, I listened to it about a hundred subsequent times while walking around Paris, which more often than not was fittingly rainy. By that point, I was just coming out of what had felt like a bottomless well of depression and anxiety. I was in the middle of battling a health issue that would require a hospital procedure to resolve. And I was staring down my persistent French underemployment, my dwindling bank account, and my lack of any clear direction. I was finally beginning to accept the inevitability of returning to the United States to become financially solvent and figure out what to do next.

“La Pluie” wasn’t responsible for my unexpected pivot from dread to beatific acceptance, but it was while listening to the song that I realized the change had already happened, and I felt a kind of aching serenity wash over me – sadness and hopefulness at the same time. Also silliness, because for French rap to inspire such profound feelings is ridiculous.

I went to see Orelsan at Irving Plaza in New York a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to revisit that absurdly intense period of my life and the emotions that – even though often highly unpleasant – had made me feel so alive.

I suppose I set myself up for disappointment. I should know by now it’s impossible to recapture the past, especially when you’re trying. Orelsan played “La Pluie” in the first half of the show, and it somehow didn’t hit the right notes, so the trip down memory lane I had wanted to take instead turned into five seconds of full-fledged emotion followed by another minute or two of trying unsuccessfully to force it to stick around.

The rest of the show I just took it all in without trying to make it something it was not. Yes, the place was filled with more French people than I have ever seen gathered in one place outside of France. But they did not make me feel the way I did in Paris. There, I felt like an outsider but in an intrepid and exhilarating way. At the show, I felt like an insider rendered an outsider by other outsiders who lost their caché outside of France. I don’t know how to adequately express it except to say that when Orelsan led the crowd in a call and response complete with a lot of ’90’s era hand waving, “Quand je dit Irveeng, vous dites Plahzah. Irveeng? Plahzah! Irveeng? Plahzuah!” I both smiled and flinched at the awkwardness of it all.

So it wasn’t a transcendent night, but it was still a lot of fun.

I’m becoming my mother in the most unexpected way

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It seems I’m in French withdrawal. 

My first weekend back in New York, I went to lunch with my parents and we had a francophone waiter. I knew this not because he spoke anything less than the most perfect English with us, but because I overheard him conversing with his colleague in French by the cash register. Despite telling myself sternly, “Do not be that person, Ruth” some ineffable force compelled me to switch into French and ask him where he was from. Congo, apparently, and his colleague was from Senegal.

Since then, there’s been the father and his two kids on the subway, the vacationing couple at the restaurant in Hanoi, the retirees on the ferry in Hong Kong, the woman looking for a street downtown, the man watching his kids play in Central Park… Every time I hear anyone speak French – or even English with a French accent – I wrack my brain for a way to break into their conversation, en français, without seeming too desperate. Many times I can’t find one, and I am able to keep my mouth shut. But sometimes, my tongue disobeys my brain and follows my heart into the most awkward exchanges. Without fail, I feel silly about it, yet I keep doing it anyway.

I used to be mortified whenever my mother, a Brooklynite who moved to Israel in her 20’s and returned to the States in her 30’s, would butt in on strangers’ conversations after she overheard them speaking Hebrew. We’d be in the middle of the English-speaking world – a mall in New Jersey or a cafe in New York – and this native English speaker would find any excuse to say something to the Israelis in Hebrew. It always seemed that my introverted mother did this not because she truly wanted to engage with other human beings but because she wanted validation of her identity in the kin group. No matter what she said to them, all I ever heard was a pathetic, “Wink wink, I’m one of you!”

Now that I have caught myself pulling the same stunt on multiple occasions, I think of it a little differently. 

I suppose there is a small part of me that has something to prove: that I can still speak the language, or that I belong with the foreigners in my midst. But most of it has nothing to do with pride (which is good because there is nothing ego-boosting about sounding like a complete dope). Instead, the overpowering desire to speak French comes from…wanting to speak French. I have so few opportunities  these days that when I see one, I can’t pass it up.

I don’t really miss France, but I really, really miss French. It’s a beautiful language, and I love it. I guess my mother feels the same way about Hebrew.

So to that I say,

!כל הכבוד*

*Kol hakavod, i.e., “All the honor,” i.e., You go, girl!

[Photo: Rithban]

on French doctors

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I’ve met my fair share of French doctors. This is unfortunate not because they are particularly awful but because I’ve had to see them in the first place. For someone who only lived in France for nine months, I spent an inordinate amount of time  in bad health and navigating the healthcare system.

You start to pick up on cultural clues when you interact with the same type of person or bureaucracy over and over again in a relatively short space of time.

Here are a few experiences I found illuminating:

The first time I visited a French doctor, I made an appointment online and showed up a few hours later. The office was on the ground floor of an apartment building. A woman came to the door and told me to sit in a living room-like waiting area. When that same woman came back and led me into another room ten minutes later, I assumed she’d then leave and get the doctor. But she was the doctor. Her exam area was a converted sitting room. Between the fireplace, the crown molding, and the oil paintings in gilded frames, the exam table seemed a little out of place.

The doctor told me to take off everything below the waist, and then she stood there. I was afraid I had misunderstood her French and would scandalize her if I proceeded to strip in front of her. So I confirmed – everything? Yes, everything. She continued to stand there. I pulled first my pants and then my underwear off, not knowing exactly where to hold my gaze. Then I awkwardly scrambled onto the exam table. She did a quick exam, made a diagnosis, and sat down at her desk to do the billing while I put my clothes back on. 

As this was happening, a call came in. Someone wanted to have a discussion about lab results but the doctor said she was busy and told her to make an online appointment to come in. Then she hung up and told me apologetically that because I didn’t have any social security coverage, the charge would be 30 Euros. I shook my head in wonder, and as I handed over the cash, I couldn’t help but gush about how the French health care system is humane and wonderful and a million times better than the American one, which the GOP was attempting to dismantle that very week.

Then the phone rang again. It was the same woman as before, insisting on a phone consultation. The woman raised her voice and the doctor lost her patience. The two started shouting at each other while I sat and waited. Suddenly, the doctor hung up on the woman, turned to me, and muttered, “The United States, huh? I would LOVE to be a doctor in the United States. You see the way we get treated here?”

Later I visited a GP who got into a screaming match with a patient because she came in for an emergency appointment but didn’t have an official emergency. He told her she had to wait for a regular visit like everyone else and she refused to comply. He, too, did not have a receptionist and had to handle the dirty work himself. He, too, seemed to be operating out of a dedicated area of his own apartment. And he, too, told me to take my shirt off for the exam and then stood there looking at me expectantly. While I found it a little unnerving, it did made me wonder why it matters if a doctor walks out of the room and gives you privacy while you’re changing, if in the end they see you naked anyway. 

Then there was the psychiatrist at a reputable hospital who, after advising me to leave France (I had not asked for his advice), told me that I’d have to be crazy to want to live in a country where x, y, and z were wrong. I pointed out that things weren’t much better in the United States and he conceded, “Well, yes, of course Donald Trump is completely insane.” If he had been joking I would have found it funny, but he was 100% unaware that he was taking liberties with his profession’s terms of art. I thought about all the American psychiatrists who have steadfastly refused to diagnose Trump’s mental health from a distance, and I was suddenly thankful for this one’s lack of tact.

There are lots of other differences between French and American healthcare workers that I noticed, but my friend’s story is the one I like best:

She hadn’t had a teeth cleaning in more than two years and felt gross about it. When she went to the dentist, he looked in her mouth and told her that her teeth were fine, and he flat out refused to treat her even though she expressed a strong desire for a cleaning. I can imagine him explaining in a very dignified way that he could not possibly accept her money for a service that wasn’t necessary. On the contrary, I could not in a million years imagine an American dentist refusing my money – or thinking that two years’ worth of plaque buildup was no big deal. In fact, the last time I went to the dentist he tried to convince me that I urgently needed $600 worth of veneers. (I didn’t.)

I will let you draw your own conclusions about these interactions, if you’d like. I prefer to keep mine to myself, because if I’ve learned anything during my travels it’s that just when you think you have enough evidence to come to an understanding about a foreign culture, your assumptions are upended and you feel like a fool for judging too soon.

[The beautiful garden in the photo above is in the courtyard of the oldest hospital in Paris, founded in the 7th century, though the current building is from the late 1800s. Not your average NYC hospital.]