For about 6 months I’ve been trying to learn French. If you know me, or read my blog from time to time, you’ll know that my girlfriend Cindy is French, and from the beginning of our time together I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with her in her native language.
My history with languages
Now I’m not entirely new to learning European languages; my parents were both born in Belgium and for a year and a half during my primary school years, my family moved to Antwerp, at which point I learned to speak fluent Flemish (a dialect of Dutch).
In the years that passed, I’d largely forgotten the language, although from time to time I liked to refresh my Flemish a little bit, as my pronunciation was still fine and the language came back to me easily. French, however, was considerably harder!
A good reason to learn a new one
Having spent nearly 3 months in Paris, and with a long stint in French speaking Montreal ahead of me, friends often ask how my linguistic skills are shaping up. Well, I find it tricky. I study in fits and starts, usually curious and eager to learn but I don’t sit down with my textbook as often as I’d like in proper, organised study sessions.
Books vs. apps
I have a small pile of books to help me, plus an iPod app with colourful games to help my vocabulary.
The app works well. I know quite a lot of vocabulary. I can point to items in the kitchen, parts of the body, objects in the street and tell you what they are. I know numbers, days and months, animals, objects of nature, and many other things. I feel I’ve got a pretty good grasp on basic introductory phrases.
The challenge of verbs
However it’s hard to use unaccompanied vocabulary like this without verbs and other sentence building blocks. The verbs and sentence building is where it gets tricky for me.
Let’s take the English verb ‘to have’, for example. I have, you have, he/she has, we have, they have, you (plural) have. Very little changes there. In French, ‘to have’ is ‘avoir‘. Now the verb changes depending on the target.
I have – j’ai.
You have – tu as.
He/she has – il a/elle a.
We have – nous avons.
You (plural) have – vous avez.
They have – ils ont.
It suddenly seems like there’s 6 times as many verbs to learn. I know avoir and feel confident with it. But think about how many verbs exist. A daunting task for the beginner.
Turns of phrase
Another thing to wrap my mind around are translation differences in common phrases. English has, by a wide margin, the most words of any language, so in French the words are given wider usage. Take the English word, seafood. In French, you’ll say ‘fruits de mer‘, which, translated back to English, would mean ‘fruit of the sea’. Until this was explained to me, I was stumped by what that actually meant.
Despite these speedbumps, i probably know a lot more French than I think I do, but i’m too much of a poulet to test it in conversation. I’ve been disheartened in French cafes when i’ve been excited to order. ‘Ahem, je prends une cafe au lait avec…‘ but then the waiter will switch to English almost immediately after hearing my accent.
The solution I know is just to keep focus, study, and practice regularly. Eventually the sentence structure will come naturally, and I’ll learn what words are feminine and which masculine, and decode the plethora of accents and apostrophes.
Allez Derrick! Étude, pratique, parlez!!