Sunday, July 24, 2005

Very Very Sometimes



French has become my second skin. It didn’t happen on a particular day, but at some point during my time here, I stopped straining. I was able to register what others were saying at nearby tables, even when I was engaged in a conversation of my own. The background noise took shape; the effort became superfluous.

Often I wish I could go back. When I didn’t understand, I was able to imagine what witticisms the Parisians were laughing about when we passed one another on the sidewalk. But now I mostly get bits of conversation like, “He did?! It’s not true. I must be hallucinating—it’s not possible!” and “so I said, you’ve got a small dick and one big ball and you don’t know what to do with either!”

The Capretz Method set me up. Every week in high school, my French class sat before the television, eagerly waiting for the next installment of “French in Action.” On the weekly videocassettes, Mr. Capretz (of the infamous Capretz Method) sat as the anchor of his own French programming, spewing correct French grammar with wild gestures that threatened to rival the expressiveness of his coiffure.

Over four years, I watched him break down the weekly episodes of a linguistically dumbed-down soap opera revolving around Mireille, the blonde and braless parisienne, and Robert, the love struck American.

I spent hours in the language lab, my ears crushed under the awkward headsets, repeating bits of dialogue, which remain stuck in my memory today. Take, for example, the Marie-Laure catch phrase, “Mystery and bubble gum!” I understood this to mean “Beats me!” and that it is most effectively delivered when popping a gumball into one’s mouth and looking knowingly into the camera.

The first time I heard this phrase used by a French person, albeit, a French person in the United States, it not only confirmed the genius of Mr. Capretz and his method, but also convinced me that I would have no problems interacting with the French. Indeed, I would be able to pepper my speech with colloquial expressions like, “Do you have the peach?”, or better yet, “Do you have the potato?” (Apparently, the peach and potato are symbols of vitality in France. If you have the potato, it means that you’re in good spirits.)

Capretz Method confirmed, I memorized countless catch phrases. I was ready to jump onto the French scene like a loveable and non-threatening sitcom character. Whatever the situation, I was ready to react. The French would never be able to guess that there was an American lurking beneath all those linguistic frills.

My first opportunity to show off came shortly after my arrival in France, at the dinner table with my new host family. When the littlest boy complained about the food, the mother looked to me for support. There was my cue! I smiled knowingly and said, “What a crosspatch, that one!”

Instead of hearing the comforting laughter I’d come to expect after this phrase, my Paris début was met by the laughter of ridicule. I went over grammar rules in my head. I tried to smile along with them and asked, “Is there a problem with my sentence?”

“No, dear, your sentence was perfectly correct,” my host mother reassured me.

“Yeah. Perfectly correct if you’re an eighty year-old woman!” My host brother laughed; his seven siblings joined in. I wanted to kick them. All of them. And I wanted to find Mr. Capretz and make him sit down to dinner with the ten members of my host family and give them a talking-to about proper French expressions.

Over the year, I realized that colloquial expressions weren’t my only problem. Issue number two was my pronunciation. I wasn’t just speaking into a mic in the language lab—these people responded, and differently than the recorded answers. They were often confused.

Thanks to French vowels, instead of asking the pharmacist for a band-aid, I asked for a big pinching. Instead of telling my friend I’d lost two sweaters, I told him I’d lost two of my hen. That week, I also hurt my flea instead of my thumb. The list goes on. And each time they laughed, I was both embarrassed and furious. I told them, “You try to learn your language! It’s not easy!”

But oh, how things have come full circle. I spend my days teaching English to adults whose former textbooks have long since been out of print.

I understand that speaking a foreign language takes guts. You’re reducing the expression of your intellectual capacity to the language of a two year-old. So I try not to laugh.

For the most part, it's easy. Many of my students’ mistakes are boring. They translate directly from French, so end up telling me, “I write at the chief and he say me that he is not agree of live tomorrow.”

I take a moment to translate what they said back into French, and then confirm, “Oh, so you talked to your boss and he says he’s not letting you leave tomorrow after all?”

“What is after hall?”
“Nevermind.”
“Sorry? Mine?”
“Let it fall.”
“Okay.”

But then you have the champions. My favorite students. The ones who very confidently say obscene things. I love them for it.

And so here, at the end of my one-year contract as a teacher in Paris, as a tribute to my favorite students and because, well, I like to have the last laugh, I’m posting a new series: Very very sometimes. Portraits of my students. Stay tuned.

11 Comments:

At 1:37 AM, Anonymous Toinou said...

What? Are you saying frenchies learning english do funny mistakes? Sky my husband, it is not possible! No, no I say you Emily.
Give! It is raining cords today...

 
At 2:43 AM, Blogger The Michael said...

They say that English is the hardest lanquage to learn. Well, then, I suppose if you speak a lanquage that is so totally illogical in it's structure and rules, then the rather straight-forward wonder that is English WOULD be difficult to learn. At least we don't assign genders to inanimate objects. What's with THAT? I think there is good reason that English has ended up being the international stardard for cross-cultural communications.......it makes sense.
By the way, welcome back.

 
At 6:29 AM, Blogger Charley said...

xoxoxo. it's so good to have you back, emily.

 
At 7:10 AM, Anonymous Ronica said...

I, too, remember Mireille and Robert (vaguely) from HS français. Much more the contes de petit Nicolas, however--Dennis the Menace en français, je crois. ;)

But English, make sense?

How does one "make" sense? That doesn't make sense! English is just as illogical as French, though we have no articles as such. How else could you explain the pronunciation of tough, rough, through and dough? How the verb is "to go" yet it just means "go" but we put the "to" in there anyway, though there is no reason that I can think of...how we say "continue on" when we mean "forward"...how we play the piano but we don't type the computer... while it rains cats and dogs, but doesn't snow them...

All languages make perfect sense to people who grew up speaking them, because all of their thought processes were formed in that language. I am sure the french see the articles as completely sensible (though I admit I don't either!)

English has ended up being the international standard for cross-cultural communications because America is the richest country in the world, and has been since at least WW2, if not before. French used to be the world standard, a while back, you know. The streets in the American city of "la nouvelle Orléans" in le Vieux Carré are still labeled as such, and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin both spent considerable amounts of time living in France. I am pretty sure this was not simply for the croissants and the braless parisiennes... ;)

Oh, yes, and glad to see you back Emily. I'll look forward to hearing the frenchies' funny mistakes. I have heard a few zingers from my husband, who is also working on his french before we move to Paris in 6 weeks. He is finally getting past the direct translation stage, and is feeling more confident. Well, at least until we step off of the plane, I guess. :)

 
At 9:20 AM, Blogger Neha said...

hey emily.........have been missing ur posts buddy! good to know that u r back... by the way.. I am looking forward to the mistakes the frenchies make.. think it will be an intersting series :-)

 
At 5:56 PM, Blogger Buffalo said...

Excellent! Well done. Both amusing and thought provoking.

Glad to see you are back.

 
At 6:19 PM, Anonymous DDJ said...

Another reason English is popular is that it co-opts pieces of other languages. Unlike French, English does not have an authority that regulates its usage and limits new words that can be included. If a word fits into an English conversation - fine! Use it. There's no Académie française equivalent to come in and bust a gut about it.

Thanks for the French in Action memories! That was the method that I tried when I attempted to teach myself French. It didn't really work, but hey, neither did taking a class. ;)

Nice to see that you're back. I hope that the upcoming nostalgia is not too much to bear.

 
At 6:58 PM, Anonymous géraldine said...

"You’re reducing the expression of your intellectual capacity to the language of a two year-old" that's so true !! I had never been able to express it so properly, thanks Emily.

 
At 4:37 PM, Blogger Ed said...

Thank you for the "French In Action" flashback ... I always had a serious crush on Mireille. In high school, we heard a rumor that she did some porn, too, the actress -- we wanted to have a French Club party to watch it.

Apparently, she didn't do porn per se, but does get nekkid a lot in movies.

But I digress. I saw M. Capretz the other night on public television here in Washington -- I hadn't seen a FIA episode in about a decade, and I forgot how damn cheesy they are. And that Robert -- good Lord, what a tool. And really, what was the deal with "mystère et boules de gomme"? What a little brat.

 
At 10:07 PM, Anonymous Coree said...

I spent the fall semester in Strasbourg and had to comment.
I lived with an insane host family with the brattiest little five year old imaginable. I picked the little monster up from l'ecole maternelle once a week but one day, he sat on the ground and wouldn't walk. I tried cajoling him, offering him snacks. Finally I yelled, "Est-ce que tu veux un fece" Pas de accent, instead of asking, "Would you like a spanking?" I said, "Would you like a butt cheek." The kid was a monster but I like to think I provided amusement for all the people in the street.

 
At 3:20 PM, Blogger miragee said...

Bon courage Emily! The most difficult part for me in French is the "argots." They come in various forms, sometimes even not in writing. But it's really amazing to find that I understand more and more with the passing of time...

Personally I have problems deciding whether to pronounce the "c" letter at the end of the words...And of course, tons of other silly mistakes I made...

Have fun in "lovely" France!

 

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