listening in

squirrel with ears perked

One nice thing about learning a second language in adulthood is that you are never distracted by conversations happening around you. If you don’t really focus on comprehending the words being spoken, they remain easily ignored white noise. In both Senegal and France, I have discovered that I am able to zone out completely in public spaces, no matter how many people are speaking French around me.

It’s easy to tune out because it takes a conscious decision to tune in, whereas in English I process language subconsciously.

For example, on the metro in Paris, the buzz of speakers doesn’t annoy me the way it does on the subway in New York, because here it is just that – a buzz, without substance. It’s only when I pick up fragments of English that I’m snapped out of whatever reverie I’m in.

And yet. A few weeks ago I went to dinner and the table next to me started talking about cafards. Specifically, they started talking about the hugest cockroaches they had ever encountered and the gross ways in which they had encountered them. For the first time in my life, I could not help but understand everything they were saying, despite trying my hardest not to concentrate on them. It was like reverse psychology – the more I didn’t want to hear, the more I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

The irony was, I know French well enough to have picked up all too much of this group’s conversation, but not well enough to have been able to lean over and confidently yet politely state: “While you may be done dining, I have only just begun, and you are telling cockroach horror stories within earshot. I would appreciate if you would change the subject.” I hadn’t learned how to use bien vouloir yet, after all.

So I gave them dirty looks instead. But much like I remain deaf to French conversations in the metro, they took no notice of my American glares.

[Photo: Paul Sullivan]

chivalry is dead (but not in French)

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One thing I notice again and again about French texts, emails, and signs is how overly polite and flowery the language is. When reading them, I sometimes imagine the writer doffing his hat and bowing ceremoniously like the two little guys on the right. (Meanwhile, my attempts to replicate French politesse come out more like the one on the left.)

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Here are some examples of what I’m talking about. I’ll follow each French phrase with the most literal English translation I can give while still making sense:

In a professional email:

Auriez-vous lamabilité de bien vouloir m’indiquer le nom de…

Would you have the kindness to really want to indicate to me the name of…

In a doctor’s office waiting room:

Je vous prie de bien vouloir éteindre votre téléphone cellulaire…

I ask you to really want to turn off your cell phone.

[It took me ages to figure out bien vouloir, because it’s such a roundabout and redundant way to say if you please. You can take it out of any sentence it’s in and that sentence will still make sense; it’ll just be far less fancy.]

An email I received from a customer service agent after I ordered an iPhone from her, which I then picked up at an Apple store: 

Je me permets de vous contacter pour m’assurer de la bonne réception de votre commande…

I permit myself to contact you to assure myself of the successful receipt of your order.

The response after I sent the customer service lady a one-line note to confirm that I had, in fact, received my order:

Je vous remercie infiniment pour votre mail…

I thank you infinitely for your email.

After most first dates I’ve been on, within 1-24 hours of saying goodbye I receive some variation of: 

Merci pour ce très bon moment passé en ta compagnie…

Thank you for the very nice time spent in your company.

And instead of simply saying “bonne nuit,” some men text:

Je te souhaite une bonne nuit…

I wish you a good night.

The gentility of it alternately charms and annoys me. I am reminded of the episode of “Sex in the City” in which Carrie is dating a Russian played by Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he keeps surprising her with overly romantic gestures. Finally, she fakes a faint and begs him, “It’s too much. I’m an American. You gotta take it down a notch.”

What’s surprising is that for all the poetic politeness of French people when speaking in their own language, they think nothing of using the most dirty English. Case in point, the barber shop pictured at the top of this post. I passed it on a beautiful street in Aix-en-Provence, a town at the height of French loveliness and respectability.

This was not a one-off. I see English curses used in French signage right and left in Paris. And last month, my mouth dropped open when I scrolled past an Instagram post by a very chic Parisian hotel called C.O.Q. Hotel, whose logo is a rooster, i.e. a coq. The post said, “Le Coq Hotel offre une bouteille de vin BIG COQ au 6000e follower Instagram.” “The Coq Hotel offers a bottle of BIG COQ wine to the 6,000th follower on Instagram.” I googled: the wine does exist, and it’s clearly tongue in cheek, but… It’s still too much.

I live in a glass house of French faux pas, so I will be the last to throw stones. But I would thank the French infinitely if they’d bien vouloir confirm that their English is appropriate / non-ridiculous before making it part of their public marketing. Until then all I can do is shake my head and laugh a little.

some French new wave for your Wednesday

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A child of the 80s, I grew up with new wave music. I loved it then, and I love it even more now.

When I attended junior high in the early 90s, my first French teacher started every class by playing a few songs from one of her old records for us. Most of the stuff on heavy rotation was awful (I remember hearing this particularly terrible song about 8,000 times), except for Indochine. I loved them despite the fact that my hopelessly dorky teacher did, too.

A few years ago, I rediscovered Indochine on iTunes, and I found myself again adoring them.

Over the past year or so, a question repeatedly occurred to me: who are the other icons of French new wave? Surely Indochine must be just the tip of a vast and mighty iceberg. Yet the only other quasi-new wave French song I had heard apart from the Indochine catalogue is Ça Plane Pour Moi. I began a quest for the other gems that heretofore never made their way across the Atlantic to my American ears.

What I discovered is that, sadly, there are not many gems after all. Whereas the 80s were a time of utter magic for American and British music across several genres, the era did not seem to treat the French nearly as well, at least in terms of pop. I did copious digging to find French new wave and cold wave songs that stand the test of time and sound as great today as they did back then. Unfortunately, most of what I listened to was tepid at best; banal, outdated, and embarrassing at worst. (Though the videos – and dancing and fashion therein – were often pitch-perfect, highly enjoyable parodies of themselves. Case in point.)

But I did find five songs that I truly love, which I hereby present for your listening (and viewing) pleasure. Continue reading

felicitations à moi!

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Today I had my very first job interview in French. I stumbled in places, and trailed off in others, but it didn’t seem to matter. I think I did just fine overall.

Whether I get the job or not, making it through my first interview in a foreign language feels like an accomplishment in itself. When I talked to my dad a couple of years ago about his own experiences learning a second and third language, he revealed that he had gone on job interviews in English before he really knew how to speak it. I was in awe. At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever being capable of putting myself on the line like that.

And yet, I just did. And now I’m really proud of myself, and I’m eating a big pot de crème to celebrate.*

* Though let’s be honest, I would have eaten it anyway.

on the sound of the French language

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I was hoping that the more time I spent in France, the more I’d love it. That hasn’t been the case, unfortunately. I’m still pretty meh (or, I should say, bof) about a lot of this country and especially Paris. But the one thing that has really grown on me is the French language. I have gone from feeling rather neutral about it, to fairly drowning in its beauty and sexiness. In fact, today I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and a couple next to me was whispering together as they filled out their form. I knew that they had dropped their voices for the sake of privacy, but it still sounded like post-coital bedroom talk to me. That would never happen in English, obviously.

It reminded me of this video I recently watched of Marion Cotillard on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert:

The great personal irony is that no matter how proficient in French I become, I’ll never be able to reproduce its euphony. I will always sound terrible in a language that makes native speakers sound like angels. There is a consolation prize, however. The other day I mentioned the month of August (août), pronouncing it ah-oot. The guy I was talking to had no idea what I was saying, even in context. Eventually he realized I was talking about the month that is actually pronounced something like oot, and he blushed and giggled, “Oh, c’est trop mignon.” As in, “That’s so cute.” This has become something of a theme. The more I fail at French, the more I succeed with French men, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too unhappy about it.

P.S. I just got back from a half-work, half-pleasure trip to Spain, and a few weeks before that I finally checked out the south of France, which was just as beautiful as I anticipated it would be. I will get around to posting photos from those trips soon…

have a good weekend

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It’s often hard to appreciate the progress I’ve made in French. Instead of contemplating in wonder how far I’ve come, I usually focus on how much further I have to go. Perhaps this is because once you understand something, it’s really hard to imagine yourself ever not having understood it – or maybe it’s just because I’m really bad at positive thinking. But today I was having an in-depth conversation with someone and, as I tend to do (albeit less and less these days), I stepped back for a moment so that my mind could boggle at the fact that I was understanding everything being said to me and that I was in turn speaking coherently, smoothly, at a normal speed, and without struggling to express myself. After the conversation was over, I made a conscious effort to reframe my disbelief as awe and to muster up the appropriate pride.

I’m proud that I stuck with the study and practice of something that is incredibly humbling, endlessly frustrating, and often not even that rewarding or useful.  I’m proud that as a result I can have deeper connections with French-speaking people and culture. And I’m proud to say that I finally legitimately speak two languages. My lifelong desire to be bilingual was quite possibly misguided by ego, but actually being bilingual is nevertheless useful and, I believe, beautiful.

That said, I may be heading to Madrid for a work meeting in a few weeks, and I’m already berating myself for having forgotten all the Spanish I learned two years ago. Ah well, “there I go being me again.” That’s what my former psychologist friend told me she says to herself whenever she realizes she’s repeated one of her unproductive patterns. It’s a handy phrase for someone like me…

I leave you with some interesting things I read over the past couple of weeks:

Spanish thrives in the U.S. despite an English-only drive.

Macron isn’t effortlessly handsome after all. He is the latest of many French presidents to spend a ton on hair and makeup.

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision-making.

Exercise could help you learn a new language.

And this has nothing to do with the themes of my blog, but it is shiver-inducingly beautiful. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” without the (non-vocal) instruments.

Enjoy your weekends!

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:

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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

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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

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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.]