Monday, November 24, 2008

Why French takes a lifetime to master

One of the problems of perfecting your knowledge of a foreign language at the grad school level is that you are left with a large and quite impressive vocabulary, but with no real sense of when and how to use it. More and more often I find myself in conversations with my roommates that result in puzzled and amused expressions on their faces, and I know that I've overstepped my linguistic boundaries once again. For instance, the other night Fred was plying me with dinner suggestions. "No," I said, "I'm already envisaging something."

"What did you say?" he asked.

"Er, I already have something in mind."

"No, no, I like that. Envisaging...that's a good word," he said.

It may be a good word, but coming from someone who still sometimes has problems with her direct and indirect object pronouns, it's a bit anachronistic, to say the least. I imagine it's not unlike talking to an especially precocious four year-old, who, when asked what she likes to do, responds, "My pweferred past-time is pwaying wif bwocks." And, like four year-olds, my behavior is unpredictable, so that at any given moment one is never sure whether I am going to bust out another ten-letter grad school vocab word, or if I'll gleefully tell you, "I talked him for a long time. I talked him of many things!" Honestly, both are equally likely.

Later that day Fred and I were unpacking groceries when he mentioned the nylon bag I was using as a grocery bag. "It's nice," he said.

"Yes, it is a nice bag, isn't it?" I said. "I found it in my room when I moved in and I appropriated it."

There was that look again. "What?" he said.

"Nothing," I said. "Um, never mind."

"No," he said, "I like it. I appropriated it..." he mused.

The problem with Fred is that, in his way, he enjoys language as much as I do, and so he will often bend words, re-shape them, or make them up altogether. Which is fine, except that as someone who is still in the process of learning the finer points of the language, I will nod along solemnly until my other roommate turns an ear to the conversation and shouts, "What are you telling her? That's not a word!"

"Yes," Fred will say, "but I really think it's expresses the feeling of what I'm trying to say."

It is only recently that I have caught on to the fact that he has been feeding me incorrect French for the last couple months, but I'm on to him now. "Wait, did you just say plus mieux?" I asked. "More better? Even I know that that's not right." But don't worry, I got my revenge. If you're ever looking for a good time, ask a French person to say, "I want to heat it, then eat it." Because French people, ok, some French people (many French people) have trouble distinguishing between the sounds of the words eat, heat, hit, and it, and so this sentence will come out sounding like "Hi want to heet heet, then heet heet." In a word, hilarious. (I'm already envisaging making my students do this. For educational purposes, of course. Because to do it for my own amusement would just be wrong).


  1. Paulo and I still laugh when we talk about him learning the difference between:

    All the same.

    Also- did you know Brazil has the most beautiful bitches (beaches) in the world?

    Happy Trails my dearest! And Happy Turkey Day abroad!

  2. See, I would totally impose my incorrect usage of big words on the French if I could. I can barely say "May I have a grocery sac?" and so imagining being able to use words like envision and appropriated in a sentence is like a magnificent dream.

    Also, as an annoying American, I firmly believe that we should be able to use our idiomatic phrases if we want to. The French can just learn them damnit!!!

    Which is...perhaps why I may never learn french...