hyper bien

Tonight I had drinks with a woman who told me I speak “hyper bien français.” When taken with a grain of salt – as all compliments about language skills should be – this means that I actually speak “bien français.” And that’s good enough for me.

Not three months ago, I wrote about how I would consistently peter out after two or three hours of French conversation, but these days I feel like I don’t really have a time limit. Comprehension is still not at 100%, but it’s getting continuously better. And I now have enough evidence of attaining new language heights to convince myself not to get too frustrated or feel too stuck at any one point. I am reminded of this Mari Andrew drawing I saw on Instagram recently. Like life in general, language learning requires resilience:

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 3.58.51 PM.png

And I have built up this resilience. I can swim across this ocean of a language gap. (Other oceans,  less clear.)

Flowers for Algernon / me


It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about this book in years and if you had asked me to describe it for you just two weeks ago, I would have drawn a blank. But it all came rushing back to me in the days following my quick trip to England last week, when I realized I felt a bit like the main character in the book.

From what I can remember – and I’m sure I’m a little bit off – he is a young man with severe learning disabilities. Then he undergoes an experimental surgery that little by little increases his IQ to the point of brilliance. While he’s on his upward trajectory, a woman who is somehow involved in the study of his progress falls for him, and he falls for her. But then it becomes clear he’s hit his peak intelligence and started a descent right back to where he began. The tragedy is that he is painfully aware of what is happening and that he will soon lose his love once he can no longer hold up his end of the intellectual relationship.

I went to England on the 14th of June sure that I would come back on the 20th speaking much better French because of my week away. This would be in keeping with my marination theory of language, which posits that taking time off after an intense period of learning a foreign language helps it to sink in. But I think I have to amend my theory to include a minimum time away, maybe a month or so. And I also have to adjust for the possibility that perhaps if you spend too little time away, your abilities suffer instead of expand. I came back from England feeling as though my French had slid backwards to its pre-Paris level, which is to say, miles away from the high point it was at on June 13. And now, irrational as I know it is, I’m terrified that my peak French is no longer re-attainable (let alone surpassable).

And much like the guy in Flowers for Algernon, I fear that my descent will have a deleterious effect on all the relationships that I conduct solely in French.

The human mind is such a mystery, though. The fact that I hadn’t thought about Flowers for Algernon since I read it in eighth grade and then the plot magically materialized in my brain when sparked by a connection to the present, is proof of that. Who knows, maybe my French will likewise spontaneously return to me from wherever it is currently hiding in the recesses of my brain. Come out, come out, wherever you are…

[Photo: Kissing Toast]

I am a wind-up toy

wind up toy.jpg

By design, I didn’t speak French for the entire month I was in the United States, apart from a few days before I flew to Paris, when I had a refresher phone call with Philippe. I have found that stepping away from the language for a few weeks, months, or even years, has a marinating effect on my brain, and I always return to it having taken a strange and unexpected leap forward rather than having fallen behind. I mentioned this to my mom and she said that there is an actual theory that supports this model of language learning, but she couldn’t remember its name and I could not for the life of me find it via Google.

So, it was not entirely unexpected, but still delightful, to arrive in Paris and discover that a light bulb had gone off. I could now speak and understand at a distinctly higher level than I had in Dakar. (It had nothing to do with accents or speed of speech, as these have varied greatly.)

I’ve been making a huge effort to have a social life here, and as a result of that, I end up having at least one extended French conversation every day. Each one feels miraculous and wonderful. We discuss real topics, in the same depth as I would cover them in English. The only catch is that after two or three hours of sustained conversation at this level, I find a strange thing happening. On a dime, I go from crisp and lucid to foggy and drunken. My words start to slur and I begin to mispronounce everything I say, to a much more ridiculous degree than usual. And then a wave of exhaustion comes over me and I want to put my head on the table and doze off. I have basically wound down and died, and it’s not until after I get a full night’s sleep that I can start speaking French intelligibly again.

My behavior reminds me of the two furry wind-up toys we had as children – YipYip, a puppy, and ChipChip, a chipmunk. They made cute little noises while walking across the floor and moving their heads up and down. They were technically not wind-up toys since they operated on battery power – but please allow me to take this creative license. When their batteries started to die, their little “yip yip”s and “chip chip”s would become lower pitched and ominous, and their limbs would move ever more slowly until eventually they’d stop completely, suspended in mid-air. And they’d hang out like that – inanimate and inarticulate – until we found some more D batteries to put in them.

That’s me, in a nutshell. I am hoping, though, that unlike YipYip and ChipChip, my brain’s battery pack will somehow learn to hold a bigger and better charge every time I turn my French back on.

[Photo: Christopher Lance]

The best of words, the worst of words (Wolof edition! With French bonus word!): lekk / kay and Badara (+ époustouflant)

Salaam alekum! Nanga def? Lou bess?*

I haven’t done a “best of words, worst of words” since being in Senegal, so, five days before my departure (!!!!!), i present to you the first and probably last Wolof version of the series, at least for the time being.

Tantie aka Armande chose two favorite Wolof words. Usually I force people to commit to just one above all others, but since she had so much trouble coming up with her most detested word, I cut her some slack. Her first favorite:

Lekk means “to eat. She chose this word because she likes to eat, pure and simple.

Her next choice was not so simple, at least not for non-Wolof-speaking me.

Kay means “come,” but unlike other verbs, kay has no conjugation. It’s always just kay, and whatever modifier you add to it indicates your specific meaning. Tantie likes this word because it can have so many different senses – demanding, friendly, romantic – depending on how you say it and which word(s) you follow it with.

As for her most hated word, Tantie sort of cheated. She couldn’t come up with an actual word so she chose a Wolof man’s name.

Tantie has no idea why she dislikes this name so much. One day she was watching TV with her brother when a man came onscreen with the name Badara, and she found herself saying vehemently, “I hate that name.” She assured me that it had nothing to do with any actual person.

For good measure, I asked Tantie what her favorite and least favorite French words are. She could only come up with a favorite. (Tantie may be too nice for her own good.)

The reason for époustouflant: It’s a funny word that’s fun to say.

It is indeed. And it means breathtaking, mind-boggling, staggering, or amazing.

I hope you enjoyed your brief Wolof (and even briefer French) lesson. Jerejef – thank you – for reading.

* Hello, how are you? What’s new? [Salaam alekum is Arabic; the rest if Wolof. You may see the Wolof words spelled differently in different places because Wolof’s original written script has been replaced with transliterations based on French or other (Arabic? not sure) phonetic systems.]

French and FOMO

I realized recently, after a conversation with a Frenchman that left me floating on air simply because it was an honest-to-goodness French conversation: my impetus for learning languages may be nothing but misguided FOMO.

I remember my frustration during visits to Israel, when 15 or 20 extended family members and friends of my cousins would pack themselves around my aunt and uncle’s long table and everyone, young and old – except for my brother and sister and me – would enjoy hours of boisterous conversation in rapid-fire Hebrew. I would tug desperately at my mother’s sleeve whenever anyone laughed or yelled, asking her again and again, “What did s/he say???” My mother would answer me maybe twenty percent of the time, and I can’t blame her, because I was like a broken record, demanding line by line interpretation services.

I think maybe that sense of missing all the fun has haunted me up to the present, because why else would I consecrate so much time to understanding strangers?

In related news, it occurred to me that I ascribe way more coolness to the French than they actually deserve, simply because I don’t fully understand them. (Also because they dress really well.) The other day this song came on the radio, and I noted that it perfectly encapsulates how I feel when I’m hanging out with a bunch of French people.

I hardly ever feel that way with the Senegalese, for several reasons: I’m used to their accents. They tend to speak more slowly and enunciate more clearly than the French. And they are usually more patient with me, probably because for most of them, French is their second language as well.

My goal during my month in Paris, more than finding a job or making it a home, is to relieve myself of the sense that the French are all having a party that I’m not invited to. I thought I had aged out of that less-than, outsider feeling – the one I used to have in college in New York and in my early 20’s in Los Angeles – but apparently I am not immune to the language barrier-induced variety. It’s ridiculous and I know it, so I’m hopeful that the mystique will fall away pretty quickly. My only fear is that the moment it does, my motivation to become fluent in French will disappear with it.

[Photo: WSIFrancis]

My plans, or lack thereof

So… I’m leaving Dakar. Which I know sounds ridiculous coming just days after I posted a love letter to the city. I meant every word of it, and I’m sure I would fall even harder the longer I stayed. But sometimes you can’t be with the one you love. Continue reading

my French bookshelf

There are four areas of language learning: listening, speaking, writing and reading. Regarding that last one, I discovered a couple of years ago that the best way for me to actually enjoy reading in French is to skip the difficult classics and turn instead to a genre I usually don’t particularly care for: “chick lit.” The same qualities I find exasperating and/or boring in my native language – formulaic plots, outdated tropes, low reading levels, and a focus on stereotypically “girly” subjects like beauty, shopping and dating – I find refreshingly accessible in French. (I know there are many exceptions to my generalizations. I thought “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” for example, was hilarious, clever and original – not a throwaway in the least.)

I’ve never read Sophia Kinsella in her/my native English, but I breezed through the French version of “Cocktail Club,” about a trio of dubiously fabulous London besties whose friendship is nearly derailed by a crazy revenge-seeking childhood acquaintance of one of them. I’m guessing I could not have lasted more than four pages of it in English but in French I found it positively delightful,… entirely because I understood it all. Also, it was light and fluffy and easy enough to read before bed instead of the English-language books I usually depend on but now can’t because a. I feel it detracts from my French efforts, and b. I finished all my English-language books and haven’t found anything interesting-looking in Dakar bookstores’ tiny English-language sections. (Don’t talk to me about Kindle. Not going there.)

I’ve now established a routine of reading a chapter from one of my three current chick lit books every night, armed with a pen to underline all the words I don’t recognize, so that I can add them to my French vocab list later. (My books look like that scene in “Say Anything” when Lloyd Dobler flips through Diane Court’s dictionary and sees a sea of X’s that mark words she’s looked up.)

But during the day, I get to business. I’m slowly (very, very slowly) reading “Vol de Nuit,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of my favorite book, “The Little Prince”), with a slightly different process than my nighttime one. First, I read a chapter straight through. Then I re-read it while simultaneously looking up words I don’t know. Then I add those words to my vocab list, or rather, I add the ones that are not so obscure or esoteric (it’s a book about 1940s postal aviation) as to be more trouble than the brain space they are worth.

Once I get through that one I’ll move on to the Senegalese classics that have been recommended to me and that I bought months ago:

“So Long a Letter” by Mariama Bâ is part of the African feminist cannon. When her estranged husband dies, a woman practices the traditional mourning customs alongside his second, younger wife. (Polygamy is legal and common in Senegal, which is about 95% Muslim.)

“The Belly of the Atlantic,” meanwhile, is a contemporary novel about two siblings, one of whom has emigrated to France and one of whom remains in Senegal.

I’ve also been dipping in and out of a collection of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry. Senghor was Senegal’s first president following independence, and he was also an accomplished poet and one of the founders of the Négritude movement in Francophone writing. (Aside from Václav Havel, I don’t know of any other president-poets – do you? I think that electing a poet says beautiful things about your country, though I’m biased since I’m half-Czech.) What I’m realizing about poetry as I read it in a foreign language, is that the cadence of the words is as important as their meaning. I am totally and completely adrift when reading these poems – I am lucky if I even get the general gist – but they are nevertheless so lovely to read because of the sound and flow of the words. Which I guess is all to say: there’s poetry in poetry.

And God knows I need poetry these days.

mes rêves

I’ve finally found a reason to be thankful for sleeping lightly. This past Saturday, after spending much more time than usual with Mamie and Tantie (we hit up the holiday market during the day and went dancing at night), I dropped into bed exhausted – both from staying out late and from speaking so much non-stop French. 

You know when you’re in that liminal state between wakefulness and sleep and you catch yourself thinking nonsense thoughts? I was doing that in French, which made whatever I was thinking seem that much more bizarre (and awesome). I quickly dropped off to sleep and started dreaming. A guy, maybe a friend?, was distraught because he had found out his girlfriend was rumored to have once been an escort or porn star or something. I responded with a lecture about how even if that were the case, it wouldn’t change who she was, and he should think twice about reacting harshly. (My dream self is not necessarily representative of my real-life self, I’d like to note.) 

It was around this point that my dream turned lucid, and my consciousness interjected, “Wait a minute… I’m dreaming in French!! This entire speech I’m making is in French! And check out these crazy complicated conjugations I’m doing!” But then my lucid self questioned whether I was actually dreaming in French or just dream-speaking in French, i.e. putting nonsense words together like I had been doing right before falling asleep. So my conscious self went word for word over whatever I said to the guy next and confirmed that yes, I was in fact dreaming in (somewhat) properly formed, logical French. This in turn inspired my dream self to sermonize further just to hear herself speak.  

And then my full bladder unceremoniously woke me up, allowing me to recall that I had been dreaming, to remember a few words and phrases of what I had said, and to confirm in real life that I had crossed over the dreaming-in-French threshold. I have never peed so happily in my life.

Why? Because many, many people have told me that they knew they were becoming fluent in their foreign language when they started dreaming in it. While French has shown up in my dreams here and there, it has always been just a few words or phrases, and I was always too deeply asleep to tell whether it was true French or babble. Lately, I’ve been feeling that my progress in French is crawling along and that I’ll be dead before I’ll be proficient. But now I have a small glimpse of hope. 

P.S. Have you ever had lucid dreams? It is so much fun. I used to be an expert at it when I suffered from insomnia in my 20’s and was always on the edge of rather than fully asleep. Not only would I be aware that I was dreaming, but I could also sometimes control the dream like a self-designed virtual reality game. These days, my better sleep comes at the expense of lucid dreaming… though some people think you can train yourself to do it.

5 things I will never get about French

Because I respect my elders, I am willing to accept that thousands-of-years-old French has a rhyme and reason to it that my relatively infantile self fails to grasp. Still, you cannot blame me for getting frustrated with certain facets of the language that seem objectively insane if you’re a non-native speaker. To wit:

1. Numbers above 69

I have stated this before but it bears repeating:

It’s like they let the village idiot come up with the French numerical system at his daughter’s wedding. He did pretty well for himself up to 69 – echoing the Roman decimal system by counting in tens… but then he got shit-faced and started adding and multiplying random numbers together to come up with everything from 70 to 99. What else could account for soixante-dix (sixty-ten, i.e. 70), or quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (four-twenty-ten-nine, i.e. 99… because, of course, four times twenty plus ten plus nine is 99)?

I have recently learned that Belgians, Swiss, and Congolese use a more logical numbering system in which seventy is septante, eighty is huitante or octante, and ninety is nonante, and I have further learned that the weird French way may be a Celtic leftover. I tend to think that when your leftovers have gotten rotten it’s time to throw them out, but who am I to argue with the Académie française?

2. Reflexive verbs that are not actually reflexive

Here is the definition for reflexive. Pretty simple, right? And yet, French reflexive verbs are not bounded at all by that definition. While I can acknowledge that French reflexive verbs consist of more than simply verbs in which the action is performed on oneself (when the subject is singular) or each other (when the subject is plural), I cannot intuitively grasp it because I see absolutely no logic in it. I completely understand why you would say, “Je me habille” or “Nous nous marions”- because you dress yourself and you marry each other. But why do people say, “Je me souviens?” as though they are remembering themselves and not the memory? And why is it, “Je me promene,” as though you are a dog walking yourself, but it’s also “Je marche” and not, “Je me marche,” when marcher and promener both mean “to walk”?

By the way, I’m asking these questions rhetorically here, but I do realize there are answers to them all… And that sometimes the answer is just, “Because.” Languages are funky ever-evolving things with a million exceptions to every rule, and I know that English is as funky as the rest of them.

Regardless, I will continue to vent. Moving on…

3. Gender

Setting aside for a moment the difference between gender and sex… Chairs have neither vaginas nor penises, so why assign them a gender? Especially when considering the following:

– Certain synonyms have different genders. For example, un vélo (masculine) and une bicyclette (feminine) are the same thing, a bicycle. A river can be une rivière (feminine) or un fleuve (masculine). How can the same object have a different gender depending on what you choose to call it?

– Then there’s the ridiculousness of a word like bébé (baby) being masculine whether the baby in question is a girl or a boy. So if you were referring to Baby Jane, you could say, “Elle est mignonne” if you wanted to say that she is cute, or you could technically say, “Le [not la] bébé est mignon” and be referencing the same damn baby. Actually, I am unsure whether you would agree the adjective, mignon, with the noun, bébé, or with the actual gender of the baby, female, in which case it would be “Le bébé est mignonne.” Anyone French care to tell me which is correct?

Regardless, the quagmire itself is as good an argument as any for the ridiculousness of gender both in language and as a biological construct. How about we all go genderqueer in life and language and just call everything and everyone ze from now on? (This would work in French as well as it does in English and would play right in to cute stereotypes about French accents to boot.)

Here’s a lengthy but interesting article on the subject of French genders (much of which makes a mockery of my silly complaints).

4. Swallowed letters

French must have more homophones (words that sound alike, but have different meanings and spellings) than any other language, because only like half their letters are actually pronounced, reducing the possible sound combinations significantly. This is especially true of end letters, which it seems like you are supposed to ignore about 70% of the time.

Take for instance: cent, sang, sens and sans. Thanks to the French distaste for sounding end letters out, these words are all pronounced the same (unless they come before a vowel that starts the next word, but let’s not even get into that).

Why bother adding all those extra letters to words when you’re not going to actually pronounce them? If sans and sang are pronounced the same why not just make them both “san”?

Then there’s the silent h, and the silent “ent” verb ending. As in, mangent is pronounced the same way as mange. Seriously, that is an entire syllable that’s just ignored. All I can do is shake my head (and be grateful that at least when I conjugate my verbs incorrectly, half the time no one knows because it’s all pronounced the same).

5. Possessive pronouns agree with the thing possessed and not with the possessor…

…So what is the point? Constructing sentences this way is often redundant, and it also eliminates the possibility to minimize confusion about who the possessor is.

For example, let’s say John and Mary are standing in a room. The only other thing in there is Mary’s chair. I walk into the room with my friend and, don’t ask me why, I feel the need to tell her:

It’s her chair.

In English, since Mary is female, the pronoun is feminine. Because the pronoun is feminine, my friend now knows that the chair is Mary’s and not John’s.

But in French:

Il est son fauteuil.

The chair is masculine, and that is indicated three separate ways: with “il”, with “son” and with the gendered noun itself. Yet my friend still has no idea whose chair it is, Mary’s or John’s.


And for good measure, a sixth, very specific thing:

The similarity in the meaning of almost every pouvoir conjugation is a total brain twister for me. To wit:

Passé composé: J’ai pu (I could)

Passe Imparfait: Je pouvais (I could)

Plus-que-parfait: J’avais pu (I could)

Futur simple: Je pourrai (I will be able to…. aka I could)

Futur antérieur: J’aurai pu (I could have)

Conditionnel Présent: Je pourrais (I could)

Conditionnel Passé: J’aurais pu (I could have)

Seven different French conjugations, but only two different English translations. Yes, I know that there are subtleties within the French that I could have better indicated in the English, and I also know that rules of common usage dictate when to use which conjugation even if there’s not a one-to-one French to English formula to follow, but… it still boggles my brain to think about the fact that there are seven possible ways to say what we only really say two different ways in English.

But… brain boggling seems to be the name of the game when it comes to learning a foreign language, so all is forgiven, and onward and upward! I’ll just keep telling myself: the more fried, the more French.

[Photo: Sarah Tarno]