Monday, February 18, 2013

Parlez-vous français? Non, a thousand times, non!

By Stephen B. Bagley

I keep trying to learn French even though it’s obvious to a deaf man that I will never master it with enough expertise to not horrify a Frenchman. I once had dinner in a French restaurant in Tulsa and attempted to impress the waiter with my French. With an expression on his face like he had a severe case of constipation, he attempted  to repeat my order to me in bad English while I attempted to correct him in bad French. I would have gone hungry except the menu had pictures on it, so I was able to point at items and received excellent food. I’m not sure what it was, but it used a lot of cream and butter, and how could you go wrong with that?

I don’t even know why I want to learn French. I have no particular desire to travel to France, mostly because it’s filled with a bunch of Frenchmen who don’t like Americans much. And by much, I mean not at all. To be fair, they don’t like any other nationalities either. They’re quite happy being disagreeable, and frankly, I think we should leave them alone and only send in safari chefs to gather recipes.

What’s making me complain about French today — and by complain, I mean storming around the house and kicking things — are the French indefinite articles. To quote from

“The singular indefinite articles in French correspond to “a,” “an,” or “one” in English, while the plural corresponds to “some.” There are three forms of the French indefinite article.
un    masculine
une   feminine
des   masculine or feminine plural
Note that the plural indefinite article is the same for all nouns, whereas the singular has different forms for masculine and feminine.”

Did you follow that? It’s like this: Nouns in French have gender. (The only way to know a noun’s gender is to memorize it. Look, if it was easy, we’d all be speaking French. Memorize a couple hundred nouns. And if someone tries to talk about something you didn’t memorize, hit them. They’ll stop.) Anyway, you need to match the correct gendered indefinite article to the gender of the noun.

A book is male so it gets un.

An apple is female so it gets une.

EXCEPT when you have more than one book or apple, and then it would be des livres (some books) or des pommes (some apples.) When the noun is plural, you use des and don’t worry about gender.

EXCEPT in a negative sentence where the indefinite article becomes de meaning “not any” as in “Je n'ai pas de pommes” or “I don’t have any apples.” Nor, at this point, do I want any.

EXCEPT when you talk about a person’s profession or religion. Then you never use an indefinite article.

My college French teacher used to say French is an “exceptable” language because the exceptions never end.

If I ever go to France, it will be easier if I only order multiple items on the menu or only talk about a person’s job and religion. The former would mean I would only use des and the latter that I wouldn’t need to use an indefinite article. Or I could simply stay in the United States and never worry about it at all.

A friend thinks learning a foreign language keeps our minds sharp. It must not be working, or I wouldn’t be trying to learn French.

Excerpted from Return of the Floozy. Copyright 2013 by Stephen B. Bagley. All rights reserved. No copying in any form. Thank you for reading. 


Jean said...

I had most of a year of German in 9th grade, then I moved to Ohio. I started over and took two years of French (from a choice of that or Latin). My decreasing grades indicated if I took a third year of French, I might not have graduated high school, so I quit while I was behind. Since I had to take a language to graduate from college, I took German. The final class I took before graduation was the final German class I needed to take. I think I barely passed.

While in the Middle East, I managed to learn to decipher a few numbers (as Mr L points out, we use Arabic numbers, so my success is less than amazing).

Now, I live in Central Texas, where I would have done well to have taken Spanish.

For a couple of years, I had access to a full range of those language courses where you learn by immersing yourself in the language -- just like I learned English, but hearing it being spoken and reading it. I tried German, Spanish, and even Chinese (just in case it clicked with me -- it did not). I did best with German, but I think that's because I've been exposed to it longer.

In truth, I did terrible with all of them. From this experience, I can't imagine the miracle by which I was able to learn English.

EJ said...

I actually got good grades in the semester of French I was required to take. Or at least for most of it. I was taking Algebra at the time with far less success, and toward the end of the semester Algebra was taking study time away from French, so my grade slipped a little. I'm not sure why I didn't continue with it because the teacher was wonderful. It must have conflicted with band or chorus, which were far more important then.

Stephen B. Bagley said...

Jean, I've always wondered about the immersion courses. In movies, the pilot who lands behind enemy lines somehow makes himself be understood. I would have starved or been shot very early on.

Wendy, I always got good grades in French -- I took two semesters in college -- but I never got to the point where I could carry on any conversation that didn't involve the weather, where or not Jacques was going to join us at the fair, or the fork and spoon by the plate. If they wanted to talk about something else, they were out of luck!