How to speak French

I’m not an authority on the French language. Yes, I live in France, I write papers in French, I have some friends with whom I speak only French, but no one is ever going to mistake me for a local. I avoid several tenses, limit my usage of the relative pronoun “dont” to three verbs, and fail to identify the gender of a noun unless it ends with “-ette.” A few days ago I didn’t know the word for goddamn “spoon.”

I blame these shortcomings on a weak foundation. I came to France two years ago speaking not a word of the language. I enrolled in a second year French class which reviewed the basic tenses and grammar. I was also able to practice around the city. I returned to New York proficient and muscled my way into the highest level literature class in the undergraduate French department. I made a huge ass of myself there, but the professor, Denis Hollier, the biggest pimp ever, proved exceedingly patient with my idiocy (and eventually wrote my letter of recommendation for the Sorbonne). Since then, I’ve been more or less on my own as far as structure is concerned.

What’s missing in this story, and what’s still missing in my French, are those wonderfully simple things you learn in that essential first semester of a language. What does it really mean to say “C’est”? If you want to learn French the right way, that is, the comprehensive way, enroll in French 101 at your local Alliance Française.

This post is for those that don’t have the time, money, patience, or humility for that. Since you won’t have the structure of an official course, one way to start is with the Rosetta Stone. This is the lucky software that the government and military use to train their employees in a new language. (Talk about free advertising! Think Tang:NASA.) My exposure with the program is limited. I downloaded a trial of the German version and have played around on my parents’ French edition.

If you use the Rosetta Stone properly (that is, if unlike the four people I know that have invested in the program, you have the discipline to follow its course of study) you will learn to speak French, and write French, and recognize the words you hear when someone else is speaking French to you. But not very well. Again, I am basing this on very superficial experience with the program, but its “revolutionary” immersion approach is both what makes it unique and its greatest weakness. The program features no explanations in English (or any other language). Here’s a sample lesson: you see a picture of a dog and hear the French equivalent, “chien.” Then you see a picture of a horse and hear, “cheval.” Then you see a picture of a dog standing under a horse: “Le chien est sous le cheval.” You can now express the condition of a dog being underneath a horse, and continue by learning words to modify the color, size, and relative location of the dog to the horse. In the next lesson, they start running or dancing, and in the next lesson they run and dance in a certain manner, and so on.

It’s true that the majority of communication concerns qualities of space and demeanor, but at a certain point the intricacies of grammar, in any language, simply become too refined to relate with, well, charades. Anglophones often struggle with “y,” the rather abstract French pronoun meaning “there.” I can barely imagine how Rosetta Stone might demonstrate that “Je suis allé au cinéma,” (“I went to the movie theatre,”) can alternatively expressed as “J’y suis allé” (“I went there”). But what about demonstrating to the student that “y” can also be used with mental verbs like “penser” (“think”)? It must take more than a few pictures to show that “Oui, j’y pensais,” means “Yes, I was thinking about that.”

The number might be less than I suppose, but it will never reach the simplicity of a book like Seymour Resnick’s Essential French Grammar, where “y” is dispatched in few a lucid lines. This is not the only grammar book you’ll want, but I think it’s a great way to start. You can read it through once on the bus, learn a few things, and afterwards you’ll have an idea of what will be challenging down the road.

Not to dismiss the Rosetta Stone technique, which I’m sure offers a solid basis in speaking a language, but in order to truly understand a language, you’ll eventually have to refer to books like Advanced French Grammar. This is the best English-language book I’ve found on the subject, and it’s also the most aesthetically pleasing volume in my entire personal library. I just finished reading it cover-to-cover this week. (Strangely, though, I am still unable to speak French perfectly. Hm.) Ms. l’Huilier is an accomplished French speaker and pedagogue, and every lesson offers contextual variations and eclectic vocabulary. This is not the first grammar book you should consult, however, as the author assumes intermediate knowledge of the language (i.e., not every example is translated into English).

Unless you are a real hoss, you can stop there. Die-hards will want to invest in the patron of French grammar, Le Bon Usage. Monsieur Grevisse will explain things like why Proust can answer the question “Est-il trois heures?” with “Oui, il les est.” (“Is it three o’clock?” “Yes, they are.”) I think I’m going to get myself this for Christmas. (Or this, if anyone’s interested.)

You’ll also need a verb reference book. French orthography isn’t just challenging for foreign speakers: try sitting in a room with a French person writing a formal letter. “Does this letter double here? Does the accent point there?” 501 French Verbs is limited. Choose instead the best friend of every French schoolboy worth his weight in bonbons: Bescherelle’s La conjugaison pour tous. It offers formats to conjugate every French verb (there’s more than 501, see) in a slim, sexy volume.

Finally, dictionaries. I have three: English-French, comprehensive French, and portable French. You’ll need the first for translations and idiomatic phrases. However, switch to a French dictionary as soon as you’re ready. Your reading will improve dramatically. The Robert editions are actually made with the French student in mind. If you look up the word étoile, as I once did in my salad days, you’ll find a definition like, “The bright lights in the sky at night that aren’t the moon.”

I read Samuel Beckett’s Fin de Partie after studying French for a month. I sometimes had to look up virtually every word on a page, but I didn’t care: I was reading Beckett.. in French! Unless you’re learning the language strictly for business or, um, seduction purposes, you’re likely interested in some aspect of its literature. I suggest finding a work that this both elementary and of interest to you. (I didn’t start with Beckett’s trilogy.) Le Petit Prince is a classic maiden sortie. Although more demanding, I would also recommend Camus’ short stories. The older the text you read, the more likely you’ll have to confront the passé simple. Unfortunately, most textbooks gloss over this tense because it’s unspoken, formal French. It will, however, feature heavily in most literature you encounter. Learning the basic verbs will get you by until you’re comfortable.

Of course, my greatest resources are my French friends (above all, my French girlfriend). You might not be able to find any willing Germans, but I guarantee that there is a French person in your area interested in improving his or her English. Post an ad on Craigslist.

I would just say voilà right now, but (if you are indeed my ideal reader, the French neophyte) you’ve got several hundred hours of work to do. It hurts so good, though. French is a beautiful, elegant language with a rich history (and future), and the close study it demands is rewarding.
To get started, Rousseau and I will offer you 12 phrases to make French people think you speak their language a lot better than you do:

ca va – A classic, but still very useful. I used to try to elaborate on how “ca” was “va-ing,” but unless it’s an emergency, you can really only answer the response by echoing them.

: When you’re having a conversation with someone and they’ve finished a thought, make the “That’s what I’m saying!” face and say “justement” before your reply. Bonus points if what they’ve said is remotely related to what you’re about to say.

si – You learn this one in class, but it’s really important. It means “yes,” but only in response to a statement that implies the answer is negative.

bof – “Meh.”

ouf – A lot of French slang is based on inversions, like Pig Latin (here: “fou” = “crazy”). This is is one of the most common.

enfin – I guess this is actually “after all” or “in brief” but the French abuse it as much as English speakers abuse “I mean.” It sounds like Michael Jackson saying “fawn” and you can hear it five times in a single sentence.

(ou) quoi – The standard ending to a spoken French sentence, much like a period. Tack onto anything you say for “or whatever.” With the “ou,” it’s just “or what?”

short, gross, hot, etc. – Besides the adjectives that the French have officially adopted from us (“C’est too much!”) you can throw in English words wherever you like if you follow it with the latter entry.

tu vois?Some people add this to everything they say: “You know what I mean?” “You feel me?”

chef – This is what I always get called by dudes in the subway that want to bum a cigarette. I think the closest equivalent in English is the literal translation: “chief,” “boss.”

j’hallucine! – “What in the world?” I finally figured this out today. I hear people say it all the time, but I always thought they were saying they were jealous. [lit. “I’m hallucinating”]

eh bien – One of my favorite things to say. It means “well,” but in the way this guy says it after they cut back from the tape.

Now let’s have French conversation:

A: Ca va, chef?
B: Ca va.
A: T’as pas chaud, ou quoi?
B: Si, si.. Enfin, il fait un peu.. enfin.. un peu, nice, quoi. Tu vois?
A: Nice? J’hallucine! J’ai hyper-chaud, moi.
B: Eh bien, t’es fat, quoi.
A: Eh bien.. justement.. enfin.. bof!

Good luck, and foux da fa fa.


~ by ohkrapp on December 21, 2007.

2 Responses to “How to speak French”

  1. Bonjour Krapp
    My Name is Hetal and I am from India. I just started to learn french. But facing many issue. everytime i forgot about masculine and feminine. My french grammar is horrible. Please guide me because I am at nowhere. I also dont have any french girlfriend :D
    sorry kidding man

  2. hello
    I found your page unexpectedly because i was trying to find internet solutions to setup interactive lesson category for
    my fellow readers who are lookings for online lfrench courses…thanks for that post, i bookmarked and i will visit it it later

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