The Luck of the “Quoi”

Learning French

“You are just guessing now,” MB says.  “You aren’t even attempting to work it out in your head.”

“No, I’m stupid, obviously.  Just stop trying to teach me; it’s pointless.”

MB is rolling his eyes at me.  “Eh,” he says to me, giving me a no-nonsense stare (like that’s gonna work).  “Come on, it takes practice!  You just have to keep going until you get it.”

“I’m never going to get it,” I say defiantly.  “It’s impossible for my stupid, stupid brain.”  I’m pouting now and possibly on the verge of a temper tantrum.

“You are not even trying to learn it,” MB says like a lecturing school teacher.

“I can’t learn it; I’m too dumb.  Aren’t you listening?”  And the sarcasm monster has been unleashed.

“Of course you can, you just won’t pay attention.”

This comment is selectively ignored.

“You don’t understand; my brain doesn’t comprehend this type of stuff.  It’s just like math!”  I’ve now morphed into “math is hard” Barbie.

“You must have been horrible to tutor,” MB says with aplomb.

I am outraged.

“What?!  NO, I was awesome.”  I was terrible.  (This entire conversation is an example of the primary tactic I employed throughout high school: annoy your tutor until they are too exhausted to fight anymore.  This is probably why I am still incompetent at algebra.)

MB gives me a look.

I cock my head to the side innocently, “quoi,” I say sarcastically with a shrug.

MB gives me another look but says nothing.  Clearly, he is waiting for me to simmer down and be reasonable.

Right, like that is going to happen.

7 seconds have passed and MB still hasn’t said anything.

It’s all I can handle.  Silence is my kryptonite.

“Fine, fine, fine, I’ll calm down and really try,” I say.  “But seriously, I feel like I’m studying statistics,”

“No,” MB responds, “statistics makes sense.”

For the past week, in my French course, we have been focusing on relative pronouns, “pronoms relatif simples: que, qui, où, dont” (I find the whole “simples” description to really just be a slap in the face), or as I like to call them: “jerkfaces”.  These are handy little words in French that are used to link the dependent clause with the main clause in a sentence by replacing the subject or the direct object (I can barely even understand what I just wrote).

Ex: I ate the apples.  You bought the apples. (Je mange les pommes.  Tu acheté les pommes.)

àI ate the apples that you bought. (Je mange les pommes que tu as achetées.) “THAT” or “QUE” would be the “jerkface”…or the pronom relatif simple.

This seems pretty straight-forward, right?  HA!  Mais non, mon petit!  From here on out it becomes increasingly convoluted (I mean, this is France after all).  I could try to explain it but then again if I could properly explain it I wouldn’t be writing this.*

Every exercise I have done this week has made me feel increasingly idiotic.  After translating the sentence (which can take me quite a while), I then have to break down and analyze the sentence.  Then I have to sort out which pronoun to use and every single pronoun has a myriad of exceptions to their general rules, which is awesome…except the opposite of that.  The teacher expects me to manage this in the amount of time that it takes for me to read the sentence once so really, it just comes down to the luck of the draw.

Okay,” I think, as the teacher goes around the room doling out questions.  ”I’m going to get #5.  Do I have that right?”

I never have it right.  I usually have the question before it and after it right but never the question that I have to read out loud.  So I answer with my random guess that I have written down and the teacher gives me that sad, frustrated look of disappointment.

The only thing that has kept me sane the past few days has been the reassurance from MB and my French friends that French grammar is exceedingly complicated (although why it is reassuring to have a native speaker tell you it is really difficult, I’m not sure).  At least I know I’m not the only one.  I will continue to persevere as so many Anglos have done before me and eventually I’m sure that I will comprehend when to use “dont” over “que”.  Until then, it is quite likely that I will continue to throw temper tantrums, constantly have sweaty palms in class, and be subject to a few more silent treatments.

*If you are curious, here is a brief and incomplete explanation:  http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/relativepronouns.htm.  If you feel confident after reading this explanation, try this quiz: http://french.about.com/library/weekly/aa092799t.htm.  Let me know how that whole “dont” thing works out for ya.

 

Advertisements

You Speakin’ in English?

Learning French, Living Abroad

On an afternoon out with a one of our recent visitors, we were walking down the street speaking in English.  At one point, we wandered by a group of young men, all speaking in French, as we got close, one of them said, quite loudly, “Hello!  How are you?”  We smiled back but kept walking.  Later, we walked by an elderly gentlemen who was looking out his window, he was speaking to someone in the back of the house in French, but just as we passed, I heard a distinct “Hello!”  I said “Hello” back and smiled; he seemed satisfied.

This is a scenario that happens often.  If I am wandering the market with an English-speaking friend, the vendor might give me the price in English or say “thank you” instead of “merci”, even though I will speak to him in French.  Once, when I was standing in the line for the fromagerie with another Anglo, the young man in front of us turned around and explained every cheese that we should try and why…in perfect English.

This rarely happens when I am alone, even though it will be obvious that I am definitely an English speaker (maybe it’s a kind of tough love?); but when I am with other Anglos, it happens all the time.  I can imagine the conversations with their friends after we walk by…

“What?  You didn’t know I speak English.  I mean, doesn’t everyone speak English?  Mon dieu, the English can speak English so you know it cannot be hard.”

We walk by again.

“Hello,” waving wildly at us.  “I am fine, yes friends, good day!”

We smile awkwardly and keep walking.

”See?”  He will say this to his friends.  “I told you!”

Another visitor in from out of town was at the market on her first day in France.  She was standing in a crowded stall and at some point another patron gave her a gentle nudge so as to pass by on the aisle.

“Oh – sorry! ‘Scuze! Uh crap, pardon,” she said, alarmed.  She couldn’t quite remember the exact phrase and I could tell she was a bit unnerved by it.

The elderly man who had nudged past smiled kindly and professed, quite loudly, “you’re welcome!”  And then went on to choose his vegetables, looking extremely pleased with himself.  I could practically hear his internal thoughts, “nailed it!”

This exchange made me laugh and my friend looked utterly confused.  The man had no idea what he had actually said but he knew it was English and that was enough for him.

I know the reasons for these little tidbits of English being thrown around.  Mainly it is people excited to have the opportunity to practice speaking or in the case of the young men, excited to try to chat some girls up (…that’s right, ego, I said it) but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is; it always feels good and it always makes me smile.  When you are in a foreign country, hearing a bit of your mother tongue is sort of like someone winking at you or saying “cheers” without actually saying it.  It’s an unsolicited “you’re welcome” when you haven’t yet said “thank you”.