Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue. Next up, Pola talks French.
Un buteur [ɛ̃ bytœr] – Language: French. Meaning: Striker, goal scorer. I’m a soccer/football fan and one of the teams I follow is Paris Saint-Germain. Picking up sports vocabulary should come in handy if I attend more games. Also, the word reminds me of a soccer-themed café in Paris called Le But, where I once stopped for breakfast.
I’m Pola, a travel writer based in Chicago, originally from Krakow, Poland. I started learning French as a teenager, when I briefly lived in Algeria with my parents. However, our stay and my language studies were cut short by the Civil War, and I didn’t continue with French beyond grade school.
In the years that followed I focused on English and later Spanish (due to my travels and Chicago’s large Latin American population). However, I always regretted not knowing French, especially once I became obsessed with Paris… I don’t know if I’ll ever live there or just keep visiting, but the city is the reason I’m learning French again.
Numbers for Words
1. How many years have you been learning French? I took classes for about two years when I was a teenager, then nothing until a few months ago. I still remember a lot of basics, so my focus right now is on revising what I know and adding on to it.
2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.) 3 – I can read well and understand a lot of what people say, but only hold simple conversations. My mind often switches to Spanish when I try to use French… That should change as I build my vocabulary and practice speaking on a regular basis.
3. Rate difficulty of learning French, on a scale of 1-5, for each of the following categories:
a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context.) 2 – There isn’t much I know about this yet, besides formal and informal considerations (e.g. you in English can be used when addressing friends and strangers, whereas in French you distinguish between tu and vous).
b. Grammar 3 – At this stage French grammar seems quite complex to me, mostly because of the number of that exist. Also, word order can indicate the stylistic register (e.g. you can ask questions in three different ways, depending on how formal you want to sound). That’s something I’m getting used to.
c. Pronunciation 2 – French pronunciation can be a little tricky due to some nasal and oral vowels (e.g. /ɑ̃/ and /œ/). In general though, I love phonetics and working on my accent. And I don’t have any problems with the uvular r.
d. Vocabulary 2 – I find vocabulary fairly easy to learn, because there are similarities between French and Spanish (both being Romance languages). Also, lots of words in English came from French. Sometimes picking up new words is just a matter of adjusting pronunciation.
e. Spelling 4 – French uses the Latin alphabet, so that’s the easy part – once you also learn its five diacritics and two ligatures. But there isn’t much correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, due to silent letters, homophones and contractions. It can be a challenge!
Language Meets Culture
1. Reinforce for us in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be ;)
As a theater goer, I’d love to see a local play in France – and understand what the actors are saying. For the time being, I have to limit myself to cultural activities that don’t require fluency in French (e.g. instrumental music).
2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?
In the case of French, travel has given me the push to keep studying. I want to feel more comfortable communicating next time I visit France (beyond ordering food and buying metro tickets). No more je ne comprends pas (I don’t understand) when someone tries to talk to me.
3. Provide an example of how this language has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad.
I’d like to do an extended stay in France, where I could interact with locals and attend cultural events without the need for a translator.
4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people study French?
If you master the complexities of the French language, you will feel like you possess a superpower. Plus, you’ll be able to enjoy more of the francophone culture directly, i.e. movies without subtitles or books that haven’t been translated into other languages. And they say it’s the language of love…
Some Fun Stuff
1. Favorite word in the language.
Le percolateur [lə pɛrkɔlatœr] – coffee maker (percolator). Paris turned me into a coffee drinker, plus the word is fun to pronounce.
2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English.
Flâneur [flanœr] – somebody who wanders without the sense of urgency, exploring the city and savoring what it has to offer. I’ve seen the word translated as “idler” or “stroller,” but I don’t think the English version conveys the whole meaning (or philosophy) of being a flâneur.
3. Any insane rules that blew your mind as a native English speaker.
How much you write vs. how much you pronounce has always been one of my favorite features (if not quirks) of French…
4. Tell us a funny story or mistranslation you made while learning French.
Une bise means “a kiss” in French, and I assumed that baiser meant “to kiss.” It actually means… “to fuck.” Imagine my teacher’s consternation when I used the word in class. And to think that it all started with writing postcards and another student asking how to say “sending kisses” in French. The best way to learn is through funny mistakes, isn’t it?
And in conclusion . . . .
“Allez Paris! Paris est magique!” That’s a soccer chant of PSG fans, meaning “Go Paris, Paris is magic.” Hearing the whole stadium sing that gave me major goose bumps.
Thank you so much, Pola! To check out more from the Let’s Talk series, click here.