Most teachers know what it feels like to buried under a pile of marking (or what I call “grading”). Once I spent the entire week of Toussaint vacation grading exams, and it took more time than an actual week of teaching. The only bright spot was finding hilarious mistranslations and other mirth-inducing wranglings of the English language.
I have lots of little stories about the French words and expressions and nowhere to put them. Okay with you if I micro-blog them?
There’s this funny expression in French – manger l’heure des poules. It means to eat dinner really early – like “Les américains mangent à l’heure des poules.” (Literally, it means “to eat at the hour of the chickens.” Haha.)
One time we were Skyping with Hugo’s family, including his little two-and-a-half year old nephew. Hugo was telling them that we eat “à l’heure des poules” here and his nephew perked up and said in his tiny little toddler voice, “Elles sont où les poules?!” (Where are the chickens?!) It was pretty cute.(You have to picture a little voice like this.) He seemed disappointed when we explained that it’s just an expression.
(The same nephew taught me the French words for wrench and the little paper top you peel off the yogurt. He’s a smart cookie.)
I don’t make too many embarrassing mistakes in French anymore. (I still feel like it’s a battle to be taken seriously as a foreigner in France, but that’s a separate issue.) But here’s one that still cracks me up a little when I think about it.
Last year, I lived with some lovely French girls while Hugo was in England, and one evening, another lovely French girl came over for dinner. We all helped whip up this and that in our cramped, hallway-shaped kitchen, and our visitor prepared a delicious quiche. She even made the crust and everything, instead of using the pre-made pâte feuilletée that I roll out every time. Without thinking, I proclaimed her the “reine des quiches” with much American enthusiasm.
She looked startled. It seems like a compliment to say that someone is the queen of quiche, but the problem is that calling a person a quiche in French is an insult – I basically called her “Queen of the idiots”! And I knew that, but I had just forgotten for a second in my excitement over the delicious quiche!
Luckily, she understood I meant no harm and gently reminded me of the alternate meaning of “une quiche.” Whoops. I felt like a total quiche myself!
Accidental insults aside, I do love quiche. As long as there’s no goat cheese hiding in it. My favorite quiches to make are leek, onion, and lardon quiche, and this bacon and spinach quiche. Yum yum yum. What’s your favorite quiche recipe?
Learning a new language isn’t easy. I’m not suggesting that you’ll become fluent by half-assing it. (So un-knot those knickers, please.)
But it’s summer, the season of laziness. I feel guilty being unproductive (#AmericanProblems) but sometimes I just don’t want to analyze news articles or read French literature. Soooo in the same way that I equate eating jam with getting my five a day (what? There’s fruit in jam) I have a few ways to “study” that are so painless, you’ll think you’re just chilling drinking
rosé pink lemonade. You can have a lazy day and still feel like you did some work. (As long as you don’t make every day a lazy day.)
Watch TV with subtitles
I don’t like watching movies and TV dubbed in French, just as I wouldn’t like watching French movies dubbed in English if that were a thing. I always go for VO – version originale – because it’s just more enjoyable to watch. And can you blame me if
most all of my favorite TV shows are in English? (Most French people will probably tell you the same thing. And if you’ve watched French TV, you’ll know why.)
So if my brain or uterus hurts and I just feel like binge-watching some Netflix, I put on the French subtitles and BAM I can call it learning. And I actually have learned a ton by doing this, so it’s not like the jam-for-fruit excuse (although I have eaten a lot of fruit via jam). I pick up new words and expressions no matter what I’m watching. I jot them down in the moment, and then look them up and study them later on. They’re not necessarily things that are difficult to understand, but things that are new to me or that I wouldn’t use actively, even if I understand them passively.
I also think it’s really interesting to see how humor is translated, since it’s often based on language or culture. For example, a play on words like “I love you from my head tomatoes” can’t be translated literally. In French, the translation was “Je t’aime de tout mon coeur de boeuf” because “coeur de boeuf” is a kind of tomato. (Bonus points if you know which Netflix series I’m talking about. Still haven’t decided if I like it.)
And when Phoebe says she’s late for her Green Eggs and Ham discussion group, well, that won’t make any sense in a culture that doesn’t know who Dr. Seuss is. So in the French version, the discussion group was about the “madeleine de Proust” and the effect on “le mémoire.” Lol?
Jill has some interesting observations on using Netflix to improve your language skills too. (She analyzes subtitles and dubbing simultaneously because she’s not as lazy as I am.)
Find language exchange partner
I have done this in Chicago, Paris, and Lyon in Spanish, Italian, and French via conversationexchange.com. It’s a little like dating – you send someone a message online, and you decide to meet up for coffee. Sometimes it’s awkward and you leave it at that. And sometimes you make a new friend. If you click, then doing a language exchange just feels like hanging out with a friend. You can try new cafes and restaurants, get ice cream, take a walk around a cool neighborhood – whatever you both like to do.
You need to have at least a basic conversational level, but it’s okay if you’re not fluent. I’m definitely not fluent in Spanish, but forcing myself to speak the language has helped me make lots of progress. Luckily, my language exchange friend is very patient and loves mid-afternoon snacks as much as I do.
Set an itty bitty daily goal on Duolingo
Duolingo is an app and a website for learning foreign languages. Its mascot is a happy green owl. You can either start at the very beginning or take a placement test. Activities introduce new vocabulary and grammatical concepts and require you to recognize and produce words and sentences, written and speaking.
Does it work? If you don’t combine it with additional practice, probably not. But it won’t hurt, and if you use it as a tool, it can help. Take notes and repeat everything out loud to maximize your results. (But don’t use this as your only teaching source and take it with a grain of salt – when I was helping my dad with his Duolingo in French, I noticed a few errors.)
What’s good is that you can set a daily goal of how many lessons you challenge yourself to complete, and Duolingo will track your progress. My advice is to set that goal at a level that you can realistically complete every day, no matter how busy you are. Do you have 30 minutes every day? Maybe not. But I bet you can squeeze in 5 or 10 minutes. You can always do more if you want to, and it’s better to do a little tiny bit every day than to put it off for a week (or forever) because you don’t have time to do a lot at once.
Listen to podcasts
I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I always recommend that my students listen to podcasts to improve their aural skills, because listening without a visual challenges your ear more. There are also many to choose from, so you can choose something that interests you that isn’t too long for your attention span. I like getting a few minutes of news in French and Spanish, and sometimes other podcasts from France Inter. If I’m traveling outside of France I’ll squeeze in something like “ItalianPod 101” or “German survival phrases.”
If you’re learning French, try French Etc, les Infos en français (or en français facile, where they speak a little slower), or one of the podcasts from France Inter. If you go for a language learning podcast, try out a couple to find one you like. (Because I’ve heard some that are booooring.)
Why is this lazy? You can listen while you chop vegetables, put on your makeup, lie in bed with cucumbers over your eyes. Yes, it will work better if you concentrate and take notes, but listening and repeating isn’t a bad start.
Do a “guilty pleasure” activity in your target language
Things that are a “waste of time” in English turn into “studying” in your second language. I stand by this, as long as you don’t abuse it! (Please don’t spend all your French study time watching Allô Nabilla.) You can learn things about the language and culture by watching reality TV, reading magazines, falling down the YouTube rabbit hole… whatever.
The bottom line is that a little lazy language study is better than nothing at all. It shouldn’t be torture, after all, and you can learn a surprising amount doing these things. But of course, they will work better as a complement to a language class or more active study. That said, I have had a lot of students who credited their excellent English to watching TV shows and playing video games. (…and not to my awesome teaching. Thanks guys.)
Have you tried any of these ideas? What has helped you to learn a new language?
I’ve made my share of silly mistakes in French. I’ve progressed a lot in the last few years, but (much to my chagrin), I’m still not perfect. Sometimes just accidentally adding a single consonant to a word leaves les français giggling at my expense. (The word for down jacket is “doudoune” not “doune-doune,” in case you were wondering.)
Usually, my slip-ups just leave me subject to ridicule, but sometimes they get me in trouble. Here are two ways to accidentally offend your French copain or copine.
Really quick – what is this called?
A pie chart, right?
Now guess what it’s called in French.
Do you know how to count down to a big day in French? I learned this shortly after I moved to Paris from Chicago. I was teaching in a language school near Saint Lazare, and I had an adorable student about the same age as me. She was planning her wedding.
One day, while telling me about her upcoming nuptials, she mentioned “D-Day.” Wait, hold on. D-day? You’re calling your wedding day “D-Day?”
I love languages because you can always, always learn new things, whether it’s your native language or your second or third (or fourth or fifth, or sixteenth, you show-off).
I ponder words constantly. French makes me laugh. English makes me laugh. I’m frustrating to French speakers, because I always want to know why. Why is “start-up” feminine? (Yes, “start-up” in French is “la start-up.”) Why is the feminine of “rigolo” “rigolote”? Sometimes I get cut off from asking questions. “Non, chérie! Tu poses trop de questions!” You ask too many questions! No more for the rest of the day!
Here’s something I learned tonight that I’ll be pondering for awhile. Christmas Island is “l’Ile Christmas” in French. But Easter Island is “l’Ile de Pâques.” Why?! Why translate Easter (Pâques) but not Christmas (Noël)?! It’s illogical!
When I was learning French and I went to France for the first time, I thought “coucou” was a term of endearment, an affectionate diminutive, like “sweetie” or “honey.” Actually, it just means “hi there!” So… I was just flattering myself every time someone said, “Coucou C-Rose!”
(Around the same time, I pronounced “gare” to rhyme with “air” instead of rhyming with “are” or “aarrrrg!” (…the pirate noise). This means that instead of actually saying “gare” (rhymes with “aarrrrg!”) I was really saying the word “guerre” (rhymes with “air”) without realizing it. THAT means that instead of saying, “I’m going to the train station” I was really saying, “Bye-bye, I’m off to war!” Olala. I’ve come a long way.)
Anyway, that is just a long-winded introduction to say coucou… to you! I just wanted to say hi and thank you for following my blog. I started blogging just recently because I wanted to see if I would like writing, and if I did, what I would like writing about. I wanted to see if I would like blogging as much as I like reading blogs. I wanted a place to share the stories of fun, funny, and weird things that happen in France and to share my photos because sometimes I take more than Instagram can handle. My family doesn’t read it, and neither do my friends. I’m just writing because I want to. And I’m glad you’re reading!
I’m writing this from the airport in Lyon (bravo on the free wifi, Aeroport de Lyon!) because… I’m off to Barcelona! I haven’t been to Spain since I was thirteen (um.. some time ago) and I’ve never been to Barcelona or this region of Spain before. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to blog while I’m there or not, but soon I want to share more about Montpellier and tell you about a tragic encounter with French bureaucracy… when I’m ready to laugh about it.
In the meantime, salut! (“Salut” is the French version of “Aloha” minus the island cool – it means both “hi” and “bye.”) See you next time!
There are so many ways to embarrass yourself in French. And goodness knows I do.
You’ve probably heard that préservatif does NOT mean preservative in French, nor does it have anything to do with jam. It means condom. I still consciously remind myself not to accidentally talk about condoms when I want to discuss preservatives. But even if you successfully remember not to bring up préservatifs, there are so many other ways to get yourself in trouble.
One evening, I was at the dinner table with my beau-père. We were staying with Hugo’s parents, and for some reason, his dad and I were the only ones at home for dinner that evening. After dinner, he asked if I would like I yogurt or an applesauce for dessert. Sure, I said, an applesauce would be nice.
Except that’s not what I said. I said, “Je prendrai une capote.”
“Une compote” is an applesauce. “Une capote” is slang for condom. Whoops!
I crossed my fingers that he wouldn’t notice, or that he would chalk it up to my accent. But now I’m always verrry careful to pronounce the “om” in “compote”!