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:  If you feel confident after reading this explanation, try this quiz:  Let me know how that whole “dont” thing works out for ya.



40 thoughts on “The Luck of the “Quoi”

  1. I laughed when I read this as I can so identify with it. I have blogged about similar frustrations when learning French. What is particularly frustrating is that sometimes when I thought I understood, an exception or variation is introduced. Other times I have forgotten things although I know that I have previously covered it. I have been almost reduced to tears and have felt so stupid. The more I try to understand, the more it slips away from me like a slippery eel. Thankfully there are moments of happiness and pleasure on the language learning path as well.

    1. Yes indeed – it is such a wonderful feeling when you finally get something right! But I really have found the exceptions frustrating – I get so excited thinking that I have finally mastered a concept and then “blammo”! haha!

  2. That is funny, I was thinking of “dont” today as I’m trying to make a sentence in French and unsure whether to use, “où” or “dont” (or whatever) and impatiently waiting for my bf to answer my emailed question so I can send out my bilingual newsletter! These words confuse me.. same goes for “auprès”, and I’m trying to get a grasp on the expression “tant mieux”. Oh my, sometimes even the internet doesn’t help. Trop dur!!!

    I don’t know if i’d have the patience to focus well in a French class either; just reading what you wrote gives me a headache! I hope your teacher finds a relatively fun way to teach this stuff!

    “Silence is my kryptonite.” — well said!

    1. haha – yes, you are another “silence is kryptonite” person! It is the easiest way to manipulate me. Yeah, the teachers are good, I think it is just a matter of really get a handle on the language in general. I suppose it will come with time!!

  3. Ha! As a French teacher I really enjoy reading your internal dialogue 😉 and yes, the relative pronouns are difficult but at least they follow some sort of logic… I can already tell you that some other rules will drive you crazy pretty soon.

    1. NO! Say it isn’t so! Maybe I will just quit here and speak broken French forever? Haha – I’ve put in several hours in the last couple of days and I’m finally coming around. It’s the “dont” that really confuses me…tricky little thing! 🙂

  4. I honestly don’t know if this will help or make it worse, but I’ll take a shot at it. I don’t know how much you remember from that first year of Latin, but here’s a comparison of English, Latin, and French (usage from the website you linked):

    Function English Latin French
    Subject who/which qui,quae, quod(nominative) qui
    Possession whose/of whom cuius (genitive) dont
    Indirect Obj to/for whom cui (dative) qui (person) or lequel (thing)
    Direct Obj whom/which quem, quam, quod (accusative) que
    Prep. of time/where from/by/with whom quo,qua,quo (ablative) ou

    Now, i know with modern languages, it does get more complicated, and that there are more exceptions to grammar rules, but it might help. I did find it interested to learn that in French, nouns do not have cases, but personal pronouns do. I suppose that’s a holdover from the days when French was a provincial dialect of Latin. That’s why English has the who/whom; it’s leftover from Old English being inflected. Frankly, Latin’s patterns make so much sense to me, I rather wish English still used endings in that way. it’s much more precise.

      1. Heh. Omnia gallia…and all that! I know trying to go from Latin to French and back in my head is easier when trying to follow a conversation or reading, but I don’t think I will ever get full comprehension.

  5. This made me laugh out loud… I hated those things in french class/my semester in Paris! They don’t make a whole lot of sense, and if you don’t know what “sounds right” or there isn’t a directly equivalent in English, screw it all!

    1. Hello!!! Hope you’re doing well!! Haha – yes, they are rather evil. I’m finally starting to get the hang of it but I have given up the hope of ever speaking French perfectly. All of these little rules are so hard!

  6. Ha, I’ve gotten stuck with this same relative pronouns issues while trying to study on my own (and don’t think I can get past it here in the US). Might need intensive study in France some day, but in the meantime, my sentences will be very simple…and I’ll hope that the reference to Latin will jog my brain and help make some connections.

    1. Clearly you need to come and study in France…probably in or around Grenoble! 😉 But yeah, I do think that self-study for a language is really difficult. It’s important to have the conversation in class and have someone to correct everything. The self-study is good for practicing AFTER you’ve learned the stuff! Hope you’re doing well!

    1. Haha – that is my general tactic – to just ignore what I don’t understand but now that I am in French class there is no place to hide!! ALORS! 🙂

  7. I remember learning all that stuff back in junior high and hating it. I don’t often catch myself using “dont” over here because I’m not always sure it will be used correctly in the sentence I’m forming. Instead of trying and hoping for the best (and a little correction if it’s wrong), I take the avoidance route and just change my sentence. Just wait til you get to the difference between “quoi que” and “quoique”…French is just silly sometimes, and by silly, I mean hard.

    1. Yeah, I’m feeling scared about future grammar lessons. All you natives and fluent people are supposed to be lulling me into a false sense of security, come on! 😉

  8. Hi, the basic rule for “dont” is that you use it when there is “de”. L’information dont j’ai besoin = j’ai besoin de l’information. Le livre dont je t’ai parlé = je t’ai parlé du livre. On the other hand: L’information que je t’ai donnée = je t’ai donné l’information (so, no “de”), Le livre que j’ai lu = J’ai lu le livre (no “de” again).
    And just for the record, my husband (French) almost consistently uses “que” after “besoin” despite the fact that I (Australian) have been correcting him for years!

    1. HA! Love it – sadly, I am afraid I will never get to the point of being able to correct my Frenchie. If it ever happens it will be a grand day! (Always love to hear from an Australian – lived in Melbourne for a year and a half and LOVE it!!!)

      1. Hey, ya never know. I actually corrected my Frenchie hubby on the spelling of a word. I can’t remember which but he used the incorrect accent. It was an interesting discussion and I don’t think he quite believed me. It took his mother, who is a perfect when it comes to orthographe etc to tell him that I was right!

      2. HA! Loved that his Mother busted him – it must have been a very satisfying moment for you!! I hope that maybe I can get there one day!

  9. I actually find relative pronouns relatively simple. If anything makes French difficult it’s all the tenses. I don’t know if it’s been explained to you like this before but I can think of a very easy explanation.

    Dont – when the object is preceded by DE
    Qui – for people or agents (things that are doing something)
    Que – everything else

    La chose que je veux – the thing that I want
    La chose dont j’ai besoin – the thing that I need
    La chose qui m’énerve – the thing that annoys me
    — Avoir besoin DE quelque chose – requires DONT
    In 3, the thing is doing something, it’s annoying you, so we need QUI
    In the first sentence there is no ‘de’ to replace and the object is not doing anything so we take QUE.

    Another example for DONT:
    Parler DE quelque chose (to speak about something) – La chose dont je te parlais – the thing that I was speaking to you about.
    Another for qui:
    La femme qui m’a parlé – the woman who spoke to me
    Le livre que j’ai vendu – the book that I sold

    Good luck!

    1. Hello!! That is actually really helpful!! I think part of my problem has been that my French comprehension is SO bad and I’m getting all the instructions in French. I know it is TOTALLY against language school rules but it would be awesome if they would give a brief explanation in English just to make sure we’ll all on the same page! Ah well…I suppose I’ll get there! THANKS!!!!! 🙂

      1. The other tip is to look at what follows the pronoun. In general, if a verb follows you need a subject so ‘qui’ would be your pronoun; if the subject follows ‘les pommes que j’ai achetées’ with ‘je’ being your subject then ‘qui’ is your pronoun. As Sarah says ‘dont’ is used when the active verb takes/uses ‘de’ (parler de, avoir envie de, etc). The rest (ce dont, lequel, etc) just builds from there.

        Bonne chance!!!
        Loved the post btw.

      2. Thanks for this!! After all this helpful advice and spending a lot of time doing exercises on the computer I think that I have FINALLY gotten down…the test I took this morning will let me know!! 🙂

      3. That’s completely understandable ! Grammar rules need to be explained in their simplest form and help in the first language is always good. You WILL get there, don’t be discouraged if your teacher makes it seem complicated. Love reading your blog !

      4. Thanks so much, Sarah! Appreciate the positive feedback on the blog and the motivation for the French. Le sigh – you are right, I just need to hang in there!

    1. Your post terrified me! Haha! Phew…I don’t know how I’m ever going to manage. Baby steps, I suppose! Thanks for passing this along – I look forward to reading more!! 🙂

  10. I did the quizzy thing and surprised myself by getting 16 right…I’ve never really thought about “dont” before and usually just throw “qui” or “que” in, in a rather random manner. Anyway…quizzes when you have time to think are a whole different ball game to being in the misddle of a conversation! Still, I can feel pleased I got 16 right (note I repeat the 16 in case you missed it the first time!!!)

    1. Wait, did you say you got 16? haha! It is worthy of multiple mentions – good on ya! Maybe I should try to take it again after all these good tips and see how I manage!! 🙂

  11. Your level of French is soooo much higher than my four years of high school classes (and another four years in grade school that I don’t like to tell people about). You’re going to be speaking like a native in no time. And who cares if you have the odd mistake? It’s tres charmant, non?

    By the way, you owe me and Andrew (who just read this blog after me and commented, “She’s so funny!”) an email. 😉

    1. Ha – believe me, my French is far from charming but I’m starting to get to the point where I just don’t care as long as I am understood. YES – emailing you now!!

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