A word on the French language is in order. A word is about all I can manage. Not always the same word. Actually, not always an actual word. I ordered what to my highly trained ear sounded like a mushroom (champignon) omelet at lunch yesterday. It came with ham (jambon), no mushrooms. Close enough. Delicious. As was the pitcher of house wine. And the salad. And the cafe gourmand Sandra ordered (coffee with a dessert potpourri). But, par usual, I digress to food (the most-heard words in our restaurant eavesdropping are “mange” (eat) and “vacance” (vacation). Haven’t heard “Sarkozy” once).
So back to language. Sandra worked at it. She studied at the French Library in Boston. Used her remedial reading teacher skills to teach herself. She goes through her 1,400 favorite French words on her iPhone flashcards. She reads La Monde online every morning. To top it off, she went to a French language immersion school on the Cote d’Azur in November for a month, and stayed for two months. She speaks. They understand, generally. They speak. She pretends to understand. Somehow communication occurs, although in her first effort to buy stamps she told the postmistress she wanted to mail herself to America. Immersion is an interesting concept. The immersion program Sandra went through involved intensive, nothing-but-French instruction eight hours a day. Another form of immersion could be religious, as in born-again full body baptism. Harvey’s present language program follows the more common meaning of immersion, as in “over-your-head,” or simply, “drowning.”
French is difficult, far more difficult than Russian (six years in Fair Lawn New Jersey public schools, the education system’s response to Sputnik), or Swahili (the professor at Syracuse University had been Miss Kenya). French workers are prohibited from working more than 35 hours a week or 46 weeks a year, understandably, because they need the rest of their time to speak French. There are letters in the French alphabet that have not been heard out loud since Caesar defeated the Gauls. Our rule for pronunciation is “if in doubt, leave it out.” The last two letters of a word are rarely pronounced. Often, the first two letters are not pronounced. That means that most three- and four-letter words are simply thought, but never spoken. Not only are most letters not pronounced, but the spaces between words are left out, too. Entire paragraphs are merged into one spoken sound, involving continuous movements of cheeks, lips, eyebrows, ear wiggling, squeezing of the shoulders, rumbling of the esophagus, occasionally, it seems, some sort of finger snapping action.
Even the simplest things are difficult. Here is a list:
1. No, that “1” isn’t the first item on the list. It is the first problem, saying “one.” One is spelled “un.” It is pronounced several dozen different ways, depending on whether the one of what you want is masculine or feminine, past, present or in England, in which case you don’t really want it. And masculine and feminine forms of nouns bear no relation to anything involving gender. France is a country in which “vagina” is masculine. Describing your husband as “le mari,” (masculine) means he’s your husband. Calling him “la mari” (feminine) means “marijuana.”
Getting back to “one.” Pronouncing “un” properly involves forming the mental image of four days of constipation leading up to the absolute necessity of finding relief so that you squat down, knees bent, clench your posterior muscles and squeeze as if it is your last chance of escaping unpleasant medical complications until you finally part your lips and let forth with an “unghhhn” sound from the recesses of your throat, vibrating your adams apple slightly and exhaling with your best yogic force.
If you are lucky, that sound will get you one cafe. Better, we have found, to always buy two of anything.
But we are getting better at it. Dogs, scientists say, have evolved to the point where they can sense human communication by the speaker’s tone, pace, body language and context, and especially the emotional emphasis of the speech. This places us on the communication level of a clever poodle. We can usually get the sense of what is being said to us, and each day gets better. Of course, that clever poodle would receive the same message from “let’s go to the cafe so you can sit on a chair and order snails, ok, Fifi, oo la la” as she’d get from “I’m taking you to the boucherie to be turned into poodle pate'” if both were spoken with the same enthusiasm.
We’re in the same boat as Fifi when it comes to that. Come to think of it, poodle pate’ probably isn’t bad.