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Learning French: Don’t Try It This Way

September 19th, 2019 · 2 Comments · France

“Je suis Americain!”

That was all the French the Red Buttons character knew, in the sprawling D-Day classic movie “The Longest Day” — and he repeated it to himself like a mantra as he and his fellow paratroopers were flown to Normandy on June 6, 1944.

“Je suis Americain.” (I am American.) So the French on the ground would know he was not a German. “Je suis Americain!”

I am a fan of the sprawling old (1962) Second World War movie in which Buttons plays the real-life U.S. paratrooper John Steele, who survived the day when his parachute became entangled in a church steeple and he hung suspended but unnoticed above a massacre in a French town.

It is about learning French, which apparently I have decided to achieve by watching French television and listening to townspeople, here in the south of France. My goal is to be vaguely fluent in five years.

So, three-plus years into my plan, how is it going?

Let me answer with the other sentence of French I know.

“Desolee! Je parle pas Francais.”

Which means: Sorry! I don’t speak French.

An admission. I have not made a whole lot of extra effort. No classes. No “learn French” books.

This takes us back to my plan/hope.

Just by being around hundreds of native-French speakers I somehow would pick up the language incrementally.

It has not gone as I hoped. Unless, that is, I have some breakthrough in the next 12 months, and it all comes together at the back end of my five-year plan.

Interestingly (to me, anyway), the French government does not require that Americans living legally in France speak the language if they are over the age of 65, and I am that. The theory apparently being that oldsters have trouble picking up a new language. And I can vouch for that when it comes to moi.

Here is where it stands, after 3.5 years:

I recognize lots of nouns when I see them. Might have something to do with the Norman invasion of 1066 and the introduction of so many French words into the Anglo-Saxon. Thus, some newspaper articles I can puzzle if I rack my brain for an English sound-alike/look-alike.

Things are not as good, when it comes to spoken French. I am terrible at it and, worse, I have no idea what a French person is saying to me. There is the haste of normal speech, which leaves me pondering Sentence 1 when the speaker is up to Sentence 4.

I cannot conjugate verbs and (this is key) I feel overwhelmed by French pronouns, of which there are about 50, from what I hear. Oh, and it’s a gendered language, too, so it that noun a male or a female?

Providentially, I live with a French speaker and she translates for me, whether it is a visit to the doctor or an announcement on the city’s PA system or watching the nightly news. Also saves me from front-door duty — because I cannot interact with the postman or door-to-door salesman.

Also, when I am put in a situation where someone asks me a really basic question in French … I tend to choke. The few sentences I have … I have to plot them out. I can’t just spit them out in a split second. I freeze.

The reality is, I can hardly outstrip Red Buttons, when it comes to communicating with French villagers. “Je suis Americain” doesn’t come up all that often.


2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben // Sep 23, 2019 at 9:14 PM

    I thought it was je ne parle Francais

  • 2 cynthia robinson // Oct 21, 2019 at 9:10 AM

    J’ai adoré cet article.
    Et en vous connaissant, je suis en fait surpris de votre manque de maîtrise de la langue française.

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