Romasco-Kelly Family

October 12, 2002

French Lessons

 As Lisa's been hiking and taking the kids on adventures, I've been on my own adventure -- learning French.  Sure, I had a couple of years in high school, and I've spoken it on and off on my visits to France in the last twenty years, but one of my goals for this time in France is to really get comfortable having a real conversation in French, with the conviction, as David Sedaris says of his own experience in learning the language, "Me talk pretty one day; sure I am of this."

At Microsoft, every six months we would do our performance reviews, a key part of which was articulating the goals for the next six-month period; these goals were to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Results-oriented, and Timely).  In that spirit, here is my goal for my French:

"To be able by next April to conduct a conversation with a native-speaker lasting at least five minutes, covering thoughts, experiences or feelings."

I've been frustrated that while I can usually bumble my way through "I need....", "Do you have....", "Where is...." and be understood and understand the response, I can't get much beyond that to "I used to ....", "I remember when I ...", "What do you think about...", etc.  It's really not much fun for anyone to have a conversation over coffee, my half of which consists entirely of "Do you have any apples?", "When does the train for Paris leave?" and -- most of all -- "What?"

So I enrolled in a "cours intensif" (intensive class) at the CUEF at the University of Grenoble.  The course is five days a week, four hours a day, for four weeks.  An hour of that a day is lab work, where we listen to that morning's radio news and try to decipher it enough to answer questions, or transcribe dictation (to practice hearing and recognizing words, as well as writing correctly).  Three hours is classroom lecture and exercises, including working in groups.  Needless to say, it's entirely in French.  I'm loving it.

The class is an interesting mix, with about half Asians (Korea, China and one from Vietnam who has perfect grammar but horrible pronunciation), the rest a smattering of the world: a software consultant from Hungary, who's lived in Grenoble for two years and is between contracts right now; an engineering student from Norway; and others from Greece, Mexico, and me, the sole American.  I've got twenty years on most of the other students.  I mentioned during the break the other day that I first came to France in 1982 and one of them looked at me wide-eyed -- I think she was born that year.  The good thing about having no other Americans or Brits in the class is that during break, we all talk French, not English.  That stretches me some -- the other day at break, I explained how I had plugged my kids' computer, which had just been delivered from the US, into the outlet here without noticing the switch on the back that alternated between 110 V (US) and 230 V (European) power -- the loud pop and smoke was impressive.  So my diary entry yesterday (we each are keeping a journal and read an entry each day) began, "Clinique Micro, 9AM, Friday" to general laughter in the class.

I realize how much easier learning French is for English-speakers than for the Chinese in the class, or even the Norwegian (who of course speaks English as well, but not comfortably).  There are so many words that you can take directly from English to French, and when I see a new French word, I often immediately understand its meaning, whereas they don't.  I do sometimes push this, though, making up new French verbs by just taking the English verb and adding the common French verb ending "-er" -- it doesn't always work.  For example, looking at the first sentence of this paragraph, there is a French verb realiser, but it doesn't mean "to realize" (which I found is "se rendre compte"), and "actuellement" doesn't mean "actually" but "now" (actually is actually "en fait").  And so on.

The teacher is quite good, although perhaps a bit too in love with obscure grammar rules.  For example, she gave us in an exercise this week two sentences which differed by precisely one word, the article in front of "road" ("a road" versus "the road").  That requires using a different verb form in each -- the one with "a road" uses the subjunctive voice because "a" introduces the element of doubt (is there such a road?) whereas the one with "the road" implies certainty that such a road exists, and therefore calls for the indicative voice.  She did admit that many French people would get this wrong, though, and so I figured it might not be the most important lesson of the week, but still it stays in my mind -- perhaps I, too, am overly amused by such obscure rules.

We've been writing things like a summary of an article we heard on the radio and a list of hints to someone on something we know well; for me, it was learning to ski.

My two challenges this week are to give a five-minute oral presentation, only from notes (not a script) presenting the pros and cons of a statement she gave us; mine is "To be an only child is an advantage."  Then, for a week from Monday, I need to write a four-page article for a French magazine.  She assigned us each a magazine which we are to pretend to be journalists for, and write an article appropriate for that magazine; mine is "Famille" the French equivalent of "Parents", so it's probably appropriate; perhaps I'll write on being an only child...