the language of childhood

I recently returned from two months in Oregon, where I was helping my sister and brother-in-law with childcare for their two young daughters, my beloved nieces. My role was to fill pandemic-era gaps: to watch ten month-old Alice (who under normal circumstances would have been in daycare) when both her parents were in virtual meetings, to help keep five year-old Mabel focused during remote kindergarten (this proved to be impossible), to make some snacks and meals, and to help around the house. Beyond this, there was another role that I hadn’t anticipated, but which turned out to be one of the most important: to be a playmate to Mabel, whose in-person time with kids her own age had been reduced to almost nothing.

To clarify: I had expected to do a lot of playing with Mabel, who is one of the most imaginative, creative people I’ve ever met. But it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to do all of that playing on her level. During normal visits with my nieces and nephew, I play with them in age-appropriate ways — I let them lead and I follow, to the best of my ability. During this visit, though, it became clear that Mabel needed me to shed my adulthood and play with her as though I were actually a five year-old. The more time I spent with her, attempting to shape-shift, the more I realized that it was a question of language — or rather, of the uses to which we put language.

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chivalry is dead (but not in French)

aix barber shop.jpg

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.)


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.

It’s the weekend…

reading in bed

…and I’m exhausted. Looking forward to accomplishing very little aside from a lot of hanging out this weekend.

But before I embrace sloth and hibernation, I need to set down some links, because they burn a hole in my brain when I leave them in my inbox too long without compiling and posting them here. So, a few things for you to read during your weekend lay-about, you lazy slugabed*:

Linguists found a common language root 6,500 years old.

More fascinating exploration of our ancient mother tongue.

Tfw you fail a language quiz that measures how hip you are. 

The best city in the world for dating is…

How to say 21 curses in 6 languages (some of them amazingly inventive).

Can Louisiana resuscitate their distinctive French?

Think about this before you snap your next vacation pic.

Don’t get stranded on France’s disappearing road. 

How to start your own language meetup (take note, Philippe!)

And if you’re in New York, don’t miss the Rendezvous with French Cinema.

*(Isn’t that a brilliant word? I just learned it.)

French is a many-humped camel

camel face

The rule I had set for myself in France was to spend no more than one cumulative hour speaking or being spoken to in English during the first eight days before my English-speaking friend arrived for the final weekend. I ended up playing a little fast and loose with that rule but on the balance I would say I spent 90% of my time living and breathing French.

It was the first time since I learned to talk that I relied upon a language other than English for longer than a few hours. I hadn’t anticipated how emotional it would be. In fact, it felt sort of like going through the seven stages of grief, sped up:

Shock: On the first day my sleep-deprived mind went blank and I was basically mute.

Denial: On the second day I literally stamped my feet and had a temper tantrum (though at least it was in French!).

Bargaining: On the third day I tried to convince Philippe to speak to me in English, even if I wasn’t allowed to speak it myself. Thankfully he resisted my whining.

Guilt: On the fourth day I started missing my three year-old niece and by the fifth day it had gotten so bad that I had no choice but to Skype with her, which of course I had to do in English.

Anger: On the sixth day I used my French to mock the French language and all of its busted rules. Why on earth would a civilized people so unnecessarily complicate things by assigning genders to objects? WHY??? And why would anyone with any mathematical logic whatsoever call the number “98” four-twenty-ten-eight instead of ninety-eight?

Depression: On the seventh day I had to think through something important in English. I found myself braindead and unable to recall the simplest words. I felt like I had somehow lost my native language in the space of a week, yet come nowhere close to gaining a new one.

Acceptance / Hope: On the eighth day I scrolled through my list of all the new words I had learned (more than 200!) and realized that for the first time in the year since I revived my French practice, I could actually feel the progress. When you’re learning incrementally, inconsistently, and non-contextually, progress is only visible from a distance of months or even years. But with just one week of immersion, I noticeably reduced the amount of translation I did in my head, I started talking more quickly, and I felt more capable of conveying complex and abstract thoughts. I began to notice that French people could understand me (albeit with difficulty) and I could understand them (when their speaking speed didn’t panic me). Crazy! Miraculous! Proficiency no longer felt like an impossible dream, and it seemed likely that if I just keep at this, I will one day be a true French speaker.

So I think I got over some sort of hump in France. Not the final hump (fluency) or even the close-to-final hump (proficiency), but a hump nevertheless. It’s the same sort of hump I had to get over to learn clarinet, video editing, and driving a car. The one I never think I am anywhere near to cresting until the moment after I get to the other side, as if by magic. Looking back, it feels like everything has changed overnight and I finally have an innate understanding – if not yet a mastery – of the thing that felt so foreign and frustrating to me the day before.

I’ve heard this moment referred to as the “epiphany point,” which seems fitting for such a momentous occasion… one that took 22 years from my first French class to get to! I can only hope getting over the next hump doesn’t take quite so long.

(photo: Adam Foster)

i forgot to give this post a title

angry white cat

Remember how Jordan described her language exchange experience as akin to online dating? Well…

I was cleaning out my email inbox, which is full of unread messages I’ve received from people who found me on, the site that connects people who want to learn the other’s language. I’ve been ignoring the message notifications for awhile now, since I’m happy with my current situation Skyping once a week with Philippe. I don’t have the time or inclination to do it more often than that, and we always have stuff to talk about, so there’s no point being in touch with other people.

I was curious, though, about who had contacted me. I didn’t want to delete the message notifications without first reading their actual messages, so I logged in to Conversation Exchange for the first time in months.

I worked my way backwards through my inbox, reading everyone’s message and then looking at their profile. I was happy to confirm that I wasn’t missing out on anything. When I got near the bottom I saw my initial emails with Philippe. I re-read them and looked at his profile, wondering whether the way he presented himself would align with my current impression of him. I was amused to see that his profile picture is of a very fat angry-looking cat that he has never once mentioned.

I was less amused to notice that his last log-in date was that very day. Despite acknowledging my own ridiculousness, I felt slightly wounded. Philippe is Skyping with other people? How does he find the time? What does he talk to them about? Are they better at French than me? Do they know about his pissed-off cat?

It had crossed my mind before then that Philippe might have more than one conversation partner since he speaks much better English than I speak French. He’s got to be practicing a whole lot more than me. But seeing such open evidence of his philandering took me aback.

Not being completely removed from reality, I quickly recovered and reasoned that if I’m not fully satisfying Philippe (linguistically!), it’s perfectly fine for him to look elsewhere to meet his needs. I’m OK with polyamory in this particular relationship. Especially because if we’re going to take the dating analogy to its logical extreme, I basically attend swingers orgies every Monday night.

(Photo of a cat that resembles but is definitely not Philippe’s actual cat: Craig / Tjflex2)

the best of words, the worst of words: beauté and fourchette

the best word: beauteFollowing hot on the heels of Tuesday’s best and worst words, chosen for their signification, here are a best word and worst word chosen solely for their sounds.

Clovis is an artist with a studio in Bushwick who paints monochromatic extreme close ups of people’s faces. I wish I had one to post here but alas it didn’t occur to me to ask. Take my word for it, though, they are really wonderful.

His favorite word, beauté (beauty), seemed a bit of an obvious choice until he explained why. It’s not the meaning of the word that he likes but the sound. “Parce que le mot est rond.” (“Because the word is round.”) Which is to say, he loves the word beauté for the word’s beauty. Clovis insisted that even if beauté actually meant something terrible like decrepitude or diarrhea (my examples, not his), he’d still love it.

Clovis’ least favorite word seems hilariously random to me, especially when paired with beauté. But Clovis just does not like the sound of fourchette (fork). He said in French, “It’s not the meaning at all. A fork is very useful, but the word is like whiplash (un coup de fouet).”

I see what he means – the four takes its time rolling off the tongue and then the ette erupts out at the end. It’s jarring. the worst word: fourchetteBut I have to admit I like it – along with assiette (plate) and serviette (napkin). Why all the dinnerwear ending with ette?

In any case… Clovis – whose work is all about color – told me that he thinks of words in terms of color as well. Synesthesia, I love it! “Some are hot colors and some are cold colors, and some I prefer more than others.” Since Clovis said beauté was hot and fourchette was cold, I guess he likes a warm palette (another ette word I love).

Informal poll: fourchette, love it or hate it?

the best of words, the worst of words: lumière and obscurité

Thomas' favorite word: lumiere

This past weekend I had the pleasure of going to my former downstairs neighbor’s cocktail party in my old building, three blocks away from my new one. In addition to being fascinating and fabulous herself, Francesca has a set of fascinating and fabulous friends, two of whom are French. And thus, another edition of “best words, worst words” comes your way…

Thomas is a novelist whose work I am excited to dive into. He assured me that I would be able to read it in the original French. He is also about to shoot a documentary about Bushwick artists, including Clovis, who will be featured in the next installment of best words, worst words.

I was surprised at the ease with which Thomas chose his superlative words. No deliberation at all; they came right to him.

His favorite: lumière (light). Why? Because light signifies “knowledge, God, beauty. It’s the opposite of obscurity.”

And his least favorite?Thomas' least favorite word: obscurite

Logically, obscurité (darkness, obscurity). Thomas believes that people cannot stand to live in obscurity – that they crave to be in the light, to be seen and known. Yet he also believes that people can’t live entirely in the light – that they need a small amount of obscurity to exist.

I don’t usually think of light and darkness as aspects of the human condition, but leave it to a writer to bring the poetry. Or leave it to the French language, I suppose. Until I noticed that obscurité translates to both darkness and obscurity, I hadn’t really linked the two. Darkness had always seemed physical and obscurity existential, but I suppose there is a lot of crossover – darkness can be existential and obscurity can be physical. I love these moments of lexical epiphany!

fascinating mapinating

Slate's language map of the United States

There are only seven states whose most common language other than English is not Spanish. But when you take español out of the mix, things get a lot more interesting. And surprising, at least for me – I would have thought Chinese would show up more often, and German and French less.

See the Slate article this map comes from for more maps, of the most commonly spoken Native American, Scandinavian, Indo-Aryan and African languages state by state. America is truly a polyglot paradise, so much richer for all the languages we speak. (And by ‘we’ I refer to us collectively, since we all know that I’m the sad sack who only really speaks English.)

the meetup chronicles

Meetup attendees

First, as is my Meetup wont, I delayed and dilly dallied. The result of this procrastination was 1. a très chic little black dress from a boutique within a stone’s throw of the Meetup location, and 2. the sinking feeling that the only French I would be hearing all night would be the lovely refrains of “Bonnie and Clyde.” I spent so long biding my time in the shop that the CD looped and the song played twice.

When I finally arrived at the bar it was 2 hours into the Meetup and I figured if anyone were left they would surely be packing up by now. I tried to make myself feel less guilty by reasoning that LBDs are a very Parisian concept, so even if I hadn’t spoken the language that night, I had still practiced cultural immersion. That logic was not very sound, but I’m happy to report that since there was a small but still-going-strong group of people in the bar, I didn’t have to make excuses after all.

Among the crew were a few people I had met before – Dykeman, Anney and Igor (the Parisian-bred teacher from this post).Dykeman and Rohan at Meetup

Above: Dykeman and Rohan, a student from Beijing who was braving a Meetup after only a month of French study. Inspiring!

Anney at Meetup

Above: Anney’s got a lovely smile, n’est-ce pas?

Here are two fun facts that I learned in the course of our conversation:

  • En fer (of iron), en faire (do it), and enfer (hell) are all pronounced the same way. You have to tell the difference contextually. Also, enfer is almost always proceeded by “the,” as in l’enfer.
  • In English, you’d say, “kill two birds with one stone.” In French, you’d say, “d’une pierre, deux coups.” (Two blows from one stone.) It’s interesting how similar in concept and structure idiomatic phrases can be, while still quite different in language. When I noted the resemblance, Igor joked, “Yes, but the French, we don’t kill” – an inadvertent political commentary.

Igor at Meetup

That’s Igor, above.

Speaking of American gun violence… here’s Luna’s cover of “Bonnie and Clyde” for your evening singalong.

better hurry up!


Though this article reveals the side benefit of learning language at a later age, I choose to focus on its glass-half-empty takeaway: time is running out to become proficient in another language. I better get this show on the road if I ever hope to bavarder with the best of them (not to mention hablar or leh-soh-kheh-ahkh – that’s chitchat in Hebrew).

To that end, I spent my last day off finally figuring out Anki and creating flashcards for the fifty or so words I’ve jotted down so far. I also read a random article about the special needs of refugee children who come to France, and I was delighted to discover that I understood every single sentence if not every single word. And tonight I’m going to queue up another episode of Destinos, which has taken a rather boring turn now that I’m about halfway through and she of the scrunchies and pastel pantsuits, Raquel Rodriguez, is back in Mexico after adventures in Spain, Argentina and Puerto Rico. I’m hoping the energy will pick up again soon, once Raquel is reunited with her Porteño love interest, Arturo, who’s en route to join her at the moment. Not that there is anything remotely sexy about them – I have only ever seen them hold hands and stage-kiss and giggle together. I suppose that’s what’s to be expected from a soap opera made for high school students.

(Photo: Swim Parallel)