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French in a Nutshell

I’ll give you my first born child, all my life’s possessions, and the contents of my bank account if you can engineer a micro-chip to be placed directly into my brain so I will never have to open up a French grammar textbook ever again.

Despite years of dedicated formal study, I am still exceptionally non-fluent in French. Ok, dedicated might be an overstatement. But I did take classes all through middle and high school and even two semesters in college. It’s just that I may have had emergency verb conjugations printed on my shoe during exams. And I may have stooped to sneaking into a high school SAT 2 test to try to pass out of my university’s language requirements. (No, I did not pass.)

The point is, I may be headed to hell in a hand basket, but it seems that speaking in tongues is not my forte.

Oh, I have the basics mastered. I can say hello and order food and generally make my way around the city. I can express opinions: Le fromage, bon! Le football, mal! I can even fudge my way through basic conversations about the weather or the news or what’s for dinner.

“Fudge” being the critical term here. Because I’m now at a point where I may not understand everything people are saying to me, but I get enough to fill in the gaps with contextual clues or good old guesses and come away with the gist. I think.

Take for example the coffee table I ordered. Emboldened by an afternoon with Rosetta Stone, I bravely strode into a shop and successfully made it known that I wanted a table and that I needed it delivered. I was still beaming from that grand coup when we slipped into the dangerous conversational landscape of delivery options. Here’s what I heard:

Do you have a car? Because that would be easier.

Sorry, I don’t have a car.

Ok, well then blah blah blah poste. Blah blah call you but blah blah when it will arrive.

Um, quoi?

Blah blah delivery blah blah POSTE.

Uh, right. So when will it be delivered?

I just said I don’t know. Blah blah blah blah!

Clearly we were at a linguistic impasse. So rather than mining for critical details and frustrating the saleslady even more, I took stock of what I understood and handed over my credit card. Poste. Delivery. Got it. I said merci and headed home to tell Husband that I paid for a table and we may receiving it in the mail. Someday. I think.

It did spontaneously arrive a few days later in a package marked ChronoPoste. So all is well. But do you see where things could have gone terribly wrong here?

This kind of vague, patchwork comprehension leaves a whole lot of grey area in every conversation. And it’s this aptitude for complex misunderstandings that makes me a danger to myself and others. I’m starting to think I should just stick to loud English and hand gestures.

This sad sentiment is only reinforced when your French teacher meets your attempts at speech with a withering stare and a few choice words. Well, I think they were choice. I know they were words.

Because after all of my very proficient-sounding classmates introduced themselves, they got a tres bien or some other friendly quip. I got:

Your accent is American. I know it’s hard for you.

The nerve! I was embarrassed and even a little outraged. I think. Because it also could have been:

Your accent is good–for an American. I know it’s hard for you.

Jury’s still out on which interpretation is more accurate. But clearly he wanted me to know that my Americanness puts me at some inherent disadvantage when it comes to the French language. Of course this hurts my pride and makes me angry and sometimes makes me want to cry a little (ok, a lot). But I can tell you from experience – that’s exactly what learning French is all about, in a nutshell.

JENNIFER WILLSON lives (and eats) in Paris, France.