Ou est la bibliotheque?

“Boy, those French. They have a different word for everything.”

Steve Martin

Dis donc! and something about des saucisses et des frites still rattle around in my brain decades after the ALM French I took in high school. ALM was all the rage in the 60’s, and our brand new high school was equipped with state-of-the-art language labs, rows of little cubicles with headphones that pumped in the dialog so we could ecouter et repeter.

Malhuereusement, I wasn’t much of a French student. In the lab, I huddled silently in my cubicle, writing notes to my friends instead of listening to insipid conversations about hot dogs and French fries. When the click sounded, signaling that my teacher had tuned in, I straightened up, and mumbled along until she clicked off. Dead language or not, I much preferred Latin, and can still rattle off some conjugations (amo, amas, amat)and some pithy lines (Gallia est omnia divisa in tres partes.).

When we went to Paris in ’96, I wished I had paid more attention in French class instead of writing notes about upcoming sock hops. One afternoon, we were looking for the Metro, so I approached two ladies. “Bonjour. Excuse-moi. Ou est le Metro?” I asked, pleased at my ability to form this question. When they answered, I stood there slack-jawed, completely at a loss. Luckily, the nice ladies recognized the universal facial expression for “Huh?” and with hand signals, directed us to the Metro.

For our four weeks in Paris, I decided to learn some French. Do I think that Parisians will be dying to chat us up at the local café? No, although wouldn’t that be fun? But, maybe I could learn to make a dinner reservation, speak with a merchant in a market, or ask a simple question instead of just pointing and gesturing.

I consulted my friend Sue, a retired French teacher and francophile, who’s willing to get together for some practice. She also steered me to Pimsleur’s French. I checked out the 30 CD set from the bibliotheque, so each day, I listen and repeter words, phrases and sentences. Right out of the gate, I learned how to say “I don’t understand French” and “Do you understand English?” After I complete the two lessons, I pop the CD in my car and speak French wherever I go.

Facile ou dificile?

Dificile pour moi. First of all, my pronunciation. The French language is beautiful, gliding along like a prima ballerina en pointe. My sentences clunk along, a Midwesterner in Uggs. Then, the letter v is everywhere. Veux, va, vient, voyer, voudrais, vingt, and vin are a snarl in my head. And verb tenses? Mon deux! Can’t we all speak in the present, and let the listener guess if we mean today, yesterday, or tomorrow? I have a renewed admiration for the adult English language learners I’ve tutored for the past several years. It’s tough going.

I’m happy to say, though, that I’ve learned some soon-to-be useful sentences. C’est combien? (How much is this?) and Je voudrais un verre du vin blanc (I would like a glass of white wine.) should get me through the day.