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Learning French – the highs and lows

Cannes harbour at night

Learning French can be difficult for expats but Susana Iwase Hanson says having a French lover definitely helped. Anecdotes of Learning French was a finalist in our 2014 Writing Competition…

When I was in my teens and living in Berkeley, California, I remember one late spring evening in the mid ’80s; my mother was watching the public television news coverage of the Cannes Film Festival and said “look Susie, it’s Cannes – isn’t it glamorous?” Of course she pronounced the town like it was a plural of the word can, but I think that’s still how many Americans miss-pronounce it.

I took two years of high school French back then and my teacher, Mme Claudine, did not like me much. She told my mother during a parents’ meeting that I never really paid much attention but I was certainly “wonderful on stage and a great singer!” Had I known back then that I would someday be living right next door to the glamorous Cannes, be with a French husband, and have two “enfants Francais” to look after, well, I think I would have paid more attention in Mme Claudine’s class.

The thing about the French language is that the more you learn, the more complicated it seems to get. The rules seem seldom consistent, the colloquialisms  abundant, and just when you think there is more meaning behind whatever it is they are trying to get across, you realise they can also take your words literally.

Take for example, the phrase “I miss you.” Any other simple sentence in French usually takes on the form of subject, object, then verb, like “Je t’aime,” or I love you, in the order of I, you, then love. But I miss you is “Tu me manques” (you are missing from me)and  it’s one of those exceptions to the rule. Except the French like exceptions.

In English, the phrase “I can’t wait to see you” expresses one’s impatience, but tell that to a French person “Je ne peux pas attendre” and they will find it rude as if you have given up waiting or are simply unwilling to wait. Instead, they would say “J’ai hate de te voir” or I have hate to see you! Just when you think preservatives are something that keep fruit jam from spoiling, “preservatif” in French means condom (so use “agent conservateur” instead). And the word “baiser” doesnt always mean “to kiss” – it could be something much more intense, so try not to confuse those words or you’ll find yourself putting your foot in your mouth or “les pieds dans le plat!”

But for the French it must be easier to learn English than for us to learn French. After all, they don’t have to learn which words are feminine and which are masculine. This part of the French language really drives me bananas. I think how the Chinese written language has gone through the pain of simplifying their many tens of thousands of complicated little pictograph characters (to pin yin) to help the future generations have a better chance of being literate. The French and the rest of the Latin based languages (like Spanish and Italian) should just get with the programme and modernise their language by dumping this silly sexism within a language. I can imagine those traditionalists, now, throwing eggs at me – but honestly, there is nothing more frustrating than having to reflect while you are speaking and looking at a French person for a clue, as to whether a word should be spoken as feminine or masculine.

But the French language isn’t entirely without its charms of course. I just love the practical word “voila!” that can mean there, here you go, you understand, or even that’s it! And that overused phrase “quand même” which actually means nevertheless, but is used in the place of still and even though, as in “c’est quand même bizarre” or it’s still weird. Or that non-existent-in-the-English-language-phrase, “bon appetit,” or “bravo!” Some things are just better said the French way. No wonder the Anglophones have borrowed so many French words to express themselves. But if you ever wanted to pretend to be French for even just a few minutes, just using one or two of the above French phrases will probably give you a pretty good (though faux) passing grade. And if all else fails to communicate with a French person, speaking English with a heavy French accent, will usually be met with a smiley “d’accord, mais biensûr – j’ai compris!”

I learned French the easy way; by having a French lover who didn’t speak English. That might sound like a challenge for some and of course it is when you need to use a lot of mime and make-shift sign language in the beginning, but what’s really needed is motivation and there’s always plenty of that where passion and “l’amour” is concerned. During our first year together, my fiancé learned English and I learned French and that was one satisfying exchange. Eleven years later, I still speak to him in English and he responds in French and that has also helped our children be 100 per cent bi-lingual.

I will not pretend that my husband and I do not have occasional misunderstandings; but they are more cultural than they are language-based. For example, when you know the person you are speaking to doesn’t understand your language like you do, you pay more attention to how you communicate  and generally use simpler terms and a lot less slang (I swear much less now than I used to when living in America) so the message is usually clear. But when your own culture accepts eating dinner without a “baguette” and the French find that unacceptable…well, you’re in for a little argument, and Darling, I forgot to add bread to the sushi dinner, may not be a good enough excuse.

The French can be contradictory too. They have this expression, “les doigts dans le néz” meaning, it’s easy. I tried putting my fingers in my nostrils once and believe me, it’s not easy, unless you are French, perhaps, and have a very big nose.

Susana lives in Cotignac, France (Provence region) with her French husband and two children. She works as a consultant to foreign property owners, heads the local parents’ committee, and is a member of the Municipal Council. She still finds it difficult to communicate in French but she is determined to someday master the language. 

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