I missed my blogiversary :(

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And it’s a big one – 5 years! Half a decade of hard work to finally speak French, and to consistently write in English. But on Sunday I forgot all about it in the midst of a bunch of craziness.

Had I remembered my blogiversary on the correct day, I would have realized how perfect the timing was. On Sunday I returned to New York from South Jersey filled with renewed motivation to get back on the language horse. That’s because I spent the preceding week with my family and was amazed and inspired by how my seven year-old niece has picked up Spanish practically overnight.

When I left the United States for Senegal at the beginning of January, my niece was two days into the bilingual English-Spanish program at her new school. All her classmates had started the program a half-year earlier because their parents had signed their kids up at the end of the previous school year. But Hannah and her family moved into the school district over the summer, and by the time they tried to sign her up, the program was at capacity. My brother and sister-in-law put her on the wait list and she joined the English-only track in the meantime.

In December, Hannah got the news that a space had opened up and she could start the bilingual track in the new year. My brother told me not to mention it to Hannah before I left, because she wasn’t looking forward to leaving her new friends and starting all over again with yet another set of new classmates. I thought that was a small price to pay for becoming fluent in a second language at a young age, but of course a seven year-old (six at the time) wouldn’t share that sentiment.

Cut to three and a half months later. When I hung out with Hannah, I made sure not to bring up Spanish in case it was still a sensitive subject. Instead, it was she who randomly answered a question from her mom with a Spanish response. Thinking this was my opening, I asked her how Spanish was going. Because she is seven, she couldn’t give her parents (who were in the room) the satisfaction of thinking that she had come around to their point of view, so she insisted over and over again that she hated Spanish – in Spanish. “Why?” I asked. “Porque es un otro lenguaje,” she answered in a perfect accent. In the ten minutes of Spanish conversation that followed, I struggled to remember how to say the most basic words and phrases, and she answered flawlessly, effortlessly, mellifluously. I told her that I was both incredibly impressed and incredibly jealous of her Spanish abilities and she rolled her eyes.

Yes, Hannah, I know that feeling. When I was approximately seven my mom hired a Hebrew tutor to come to the house and give me lessons after school. I still remember it with the visceral responses I had then, of life-threatening boredom mixed with intense desperation to escape. I don’t know what happened with the tutoring – I’m pretty sure it didn’t last longer than a couple of months. Maybe I moped about it so much that my mom gave in and discontinued the lessons. Thirty years later, I would give at least one good finger to go back in time and sit through those stupid lessons no matter how mind-numbing they were.

So, even though Hannah was not in the least excited about her newfound Spanish, I could not have been more excited for her. Clearly, one of my biggest unfulfilled wishes in life is that I had been raised bilingual or at least schooled bilingually. I would have saved so much trouble and hard work that way, with a better result than what I’ve got now after years of struggle and effort: inconsistent proficiency rather than fluency in French, ridiculously grasping Spanish, and exceptionally faltering Hebrew. I’d know how it feels to have two different but equally accessible forms of expression at my disposal, to toggle between two different worlds with ease. I will never know what that’s like and it really bothers me.

But, just because I’ll never have two equally balanced fluent languages in my brain doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep trying to learn other languages to the best of my ability. Without realizing it, my niece inspired me to get back to work. I am going to sign up for a Rosetta Stone subscription so that I can learn Spanish right along with her (or a few steps behind her, more likely).

When I started this blog five years ago my goals were to move to Senegal, learn to speak French fluently, and learn Spanish and Hebrew pretty well. I would say I’ve gotten about 50% there. On my fifth blogiversary (plus a few days), it feels appropriate to set a new goal for the next five years of this blog. Here it is: Go the remaining 50%. 💪

[The photo is a drawing that Hannah gave me last week. Apparently it is the cover to a blank book about the three little pigs; I think the point was that I was supposed to fill in the book. Because she is somehow a full-on Spanish speaker after three months of immersion, she wrote the title of the book in Spanish first, and then in English.]

Thoughts on Franco-American relations

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Over the years, I’ve gathered a few highly subjective observations about what it’s like to be romantically involved with French men as an American woman. I’d been waiting to share them until enough time had gone by and enough men had been dated to ensure that none of the people in question would be able to identify themselves. I had also been waiting to hit some critical age and self-comfort level at which I would no longer care whether everyone on the Internet has access to my private life. I’m realizing I will never reach that age or comfort level – and yet I still want to write about certain things that have amused or perplexed me.

So I will. I will just be as vague and discrete as possible – which, I fear, is not very much. Anyway, on with it. Continue reading

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]

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]

things I’m looking forward to in NYC

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I am moving back to New York on Thursday and I’m excited to (re)start there with a bang: a social gathering, a party, and a protest all within the first weekend. But beyond that, I can’t say I’m enthused about heading back. In fact, I was in the city overnight last weekend and though I was very happy to hang out with friends, New York itself did nothing for me. I did not feel even a slight thrill to be back amongst the skyscrapers and yellow cabs and sidewalks overflowing with people. Just a resigned, “Alright, fine, let’s do this.”

So… clearly I need an attitude adjustment and to remind myself of what I have to look forward to in the city. Off the top of my head:

  • Being close to my friends and family and being able to squeeze my niece and nephew, who live an hour away.
  • Picking out books at Albertine, the lovely French bookstore, and at my favorite used bookstore in Prospect Heights.
  • Having fewer language-based misunderstandings than in Senegal or France.
  • Visiting the next exhibit at the Met’s Costume Institute, which opens in May.
  • Storing my bike at my friend’s place in the Bronx so we can go on impromptu adventures together.
  • Having hundreds of movies to choose from in theaters, and not having to confirm that they’re not overdubbed in French.
  • Being eligible for the jobs I most want. (In Paris I did not even bother trying to break into the French documentary industry because I was too intimidated by my imperfect French.)
  • The ubiquity of clean and well-equipped public bathrooms – as well as private ones you can easily sneak into – so that you need never walk around with a full bladder or pay to pee.
  • The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, my soul mate institution.
  • Gluten-free pizza is relatively abundant.
  • There’s a volunteer oral history recording project I’m excited to get involved in.
  • I can become more deeply involved in the “Resistance,” as the expat Americans activist group I was part of in Paris calls it.
  • Weaving classes at Brooklyn Brainery (I decided I wanted to learn to weave while living two blocks from this studio and never went. Senegal re-inspired me, and I finally took a class last year in London and loved it.)
  • Driving my parents’ cars when I’m in the suburbs – it’s been way too long since I’ve been behind the wheel.
  • Picking back up where I left off with my Spanish learning and being able to practice with NYC residents.
  • Going back to New York as a French speaker and someone who, on a good day, can call myself bilingual.

I suppose that was somewhat refreshing…

I won’t bother listing what I’m not looking forward to – what’s the point of being negative about it?