This has all been very entertaining to the people around me

  • What Marie Antoinette really wore.

    According to Duolingo, the language learning site, I am now at 18% of French fluency and learning at Level 5. This means I have successfully tested through two sets of basic lessons, a set of phrases, (“D’accord, à plus tard!”), and some vocabulary words that name types of animals and food. I have also learned the word “elision” and the word “enchaînement”, both of which are ostensibly English, as a side effect of puzzling my way through French’s seemingly illogical rules.

    This is, very possibly, more French than I have consciously ever known in my life.

    Canadians are supposed to be taught French in school, but I emerged from the education system with almost none. Until my first year of high-school French, (which I promptly flunked, as I lacked the foundation of kindergarten through seven that Grade 8 French expected to build upon), my only experience with French was when I was briefly put into preschool in Quebec, with teachers who refused to believe I only knew English because “she seems to understand The Smurfs just fine.”

    Though it always chafed that I only learned one language as a child, I have never had cause to try to learn French before. (Spanish has been my second language of choice. See: Growing up next to the United States.) Why would I? French fights me every step. The genders seem arbitrary, the conjugations absurd, and the pronunciation and the elisions downright hostile. Learning to roll the “r” in the back of the throat was as easy as coughing up blood. That French seemed impossible had the strength of prophecy. Even when I lived in Montreal, I got by on what I have dubbed “restaurant French”: a musical pidgin of borrowed phrases, body language, and snatches of pop songs that can be used to successfully order food, maneuver from point A to point B, and request assistance when I inevitably smack against the language barrier.

    My upbringing has given me one slight advantage, however, as French is printed on absolutely everything in Canada. It didn’t occur to me before, but I have been learning by osmosis, unconsciously absorbing vocabulary from my surroundings for thirty years. The result of which is that — though my spelling is atrocious and half of the mangled words erupting painfully from my mouth are misgendered — even if I murder the language when I attempt to speak it, I can mostly read it.

    Not that it makes much sense, anyway. Shark, for example, is requin. Aside from being an absolute bitch to pronounce, it doesn’t even sound right. The word shark chops the air. It ends abruptly. It carries the speed and sleek movement of the animal. Requin rolls across the tongue, smooth, it is not sharp and fast as shark, ending as it does on that spiky K, reminiscent of a knife-like tail. I don’t understand it at all. Requin sounds like it should be part of a dish, something to eat. Cassolette de homard et poireaux avec requin maybe. Something with cheese. Sorry, avec fromage.

    And oiseau for bird? Was it behind a post when consonants were being handed out? Is this the French onomatopoetic for the liquid tone of a whistle? (Not that “tweet” particularly sounds accurate, either, but at least it has a good balance of vowels.) Either way, it’s also worth noting that this majestic cluster of vowel-a-riffic phonemes is apparently pronounced not entirely unlike wazoo. A language chosen for beauty, indeed!

    My flight from Heathrow to Montreal leaves Friday at noon, arrives in DC at 3:30 PM, leaves again around 5:00 PM, and then lands, finally, in Montreal at 7:00 PM, half an hour before Alexandre arrives.

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