One week in and, would you believe it, it turns out that studying French for six years at secondary school can be something of an advantage when trying to take up the language in later life?! That said, I’ve already hit one or two stumbling blocks.
My first week of class focused on what you’d expect – introductions, basic vocabulary and phrases relating to the classroom and to communication difficulties, numbers, and, most of all, pronunciation. We began grappling with pronunciation by drawing on our existing knowledge of French, looking at place names, as well as French/English crossover words such as le restaurant, le café, la pharmacie, and so on.
I must admit that I felt a little frustrated at times by the pace of the class. My Leaving Certificate French definitely gave me a head start when it came to things like pronunciation and the intital range of vocabulary. For a while I felt as though I had made a mistake by enrolling at the Beginners Level. This feeling didn’t last for long however, and during aural exercises on spelling I became frustrated all over again as I couldn’t for the life of me differentiate between the vowels a/o/u. Following a little bit of homework and with the help of YouTube I’m doing slightly better now but it was definitely a confirmation of the sorry state of my French.
Besides the improved pronunciation and the small amount of new vocabulary, I have already gained a huge amount from my foray into French. For one, I was reminded once again that Irish (the language I teach) is not the only language with a complicated grammar. As my teacher explained to one student who asked about differentiating between masculine and feminine nouns, ‘There are rules, but there are a lot of exceptions.’
Even more exciting than grammatical comparisons is the way that a new language exapnds your entire universe, suddenly and dramatically. A whole new world of music has been opened up to me. The relatively minor effort I have made so far has been repaid many times over by my discovering of Belgian artist Stromae, whose album Racing Carrée I’ve had on repeat for the past fortnight (I can even sing the entire chorus of ‘Formidable’, something that everyone else in the house is really happy about).
Stromae: Michael Jackson meets Pharrell Williams meets Faithless with a Belgian twist:
The fantastic response I received to last week’s post really took me by surprise. I am hugely grateful to everyone who offered words of encouragement, feedback, and advice. I’ve had a couple of interesting book (Babel No More) and website (italki, livemocha) recommendations, and hopefully I can look at these in the near future. The most common advice put forward was to get talking to French speakers asap. To that end, I’ll be throwing myself in at the deep-end this coming week by taking part in one of the language exchanges suggested by commentators on the Facebook page.
I have already ventured briefly into the scary world of learning by speaking. During breaktime of my very first class I tried my best to buy a cup of coffee en français. Everything started out alright with a ‘Une Americano, s’il vous plaît’. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that as I turned to the cashier and said ‘Quel dommage’, receiving a quite bemused expression in reponse. What I thought I was asking was ‘What’s the damage?’ (i.e. how much do I owe you?) but what I actually said was ‘What a pity’. It might not sound that bad but I promise you, the awkward silence, the confused stare, and the fact that I had no idea what I had just said, meant that I lit up red as a traffic light within seconds. On the positive side though, I will now never, ever forget what quel dommage means.
Comedian Des Bishop relives his own embarrassing misunderstanding had while learning Irish (from his In the Name of the Fada series):
If anyone else has a similar story of embarrassing miscommunications please do share in the comments section below and, as before, any recommendations on how best to approach the early days with a new language would be greatly appreciated (in particular any advice on how to make the most out of language exchanges).