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Taking the plunge or how I learned French

September 15, 2014


At about the end of my second year as an undergraduate student in the Classics Department, specifically in the philology program, having completed two years of Latin and one of Greek plus a semester of German, various professors advised all of the students at my level (hence including myself) that we now had sufficient background to teach ourselves (for reading purposes at least) both Italian and French. No special emphasis might seem to accompany this statement but the apparent casualness of the statement fooled no one who had any intention of advancing within the program. The time had come to take the plunge and attempt to teach myself these languages as I had been told two years earlier I would be expected to.


At one level, I remained skeptical but I had already seen how easy German was for me, and I also knew that generations of Classicists had successfully done what I was being asked to do. Thus, it must be possible. When students asked questions about how to proceed, they were simply informed that the Romance languages should be treated as effectively simplified forms of Latin with admixtures to varying degrees of loanwords from various sources. Most of those sources were Indo-European languages themselves anyway, and so they should not present much difficulty. The approach I settled on was to review the grammar and forms of the target language and then with a dictionary in hand to begin to read something (a light novel of some sort) in the target language. I did something similar with my long disused Spanish to boost my confidence (as I’ve referred to before). That was during the week-long break after my second year, shortly after the plan of how to proceed began to form in my head.


Cover of "Robots and Empire"

Cover of Robots and Empire


That summer was momentous for any number of reasons in my personal life but avoiding th more personal goings-on, I moved into an apartment for the first time in my life. Finances were extremely tight, and my best friend had just transferred universities. Naturally she knew my situation and knew that I liked classic science fiction, which I had been introduced to through a collection of stories by Isaac Asimov as a young teenager. So for an early birthday present, she sent me a single tome (the second of two parts) of Asimov’s novel Robots and Empire translated into French– exactly what I needed. To refresh myself, I looked to see where the French started and re-read my copy of the English original up to that point. The summer semester was split into two parts with a break in-between (except for the Greek class on Plato which went straight through) and so I had time to devote to trying to learn French.


The derivation of the grammatical forms from the Latin seemed so obvious after studying for two years the changes in languages over time that I simply looked over a grammatical summary for an hour or so before I opened my book in French and began trying to read. The book was a normal size paperback novel and so the pages were not large. Even so, I had to look up three or four words on the first page to make sense of what was going on. The second and third pages were about the same, but then I caught the flow of the narrative and of the language. Words started to be clear from context. Also from the first page I had noticed something which in retrospect I felt I ought have expected but which surprised me; a tremendous number of French words existed as words in English albeit with different pronunciations. Naturally, those words had British spellings, but that was no problem for me since my older sisters had begun their schooling in Australia and then South Africa. With each page, I seemed to need to look up fewer and fewer words until the dictionary started to remain mostly on the bookshelf.


By the time I finished the book, I was reading French as comfortably as English but I did not feel it had solidified in my mind. I needed to keep reading in French. First I tried the campus library which had books in French but locating those books was proving more difficult than expected. The computer which housed the reference information was not set up to search for the library’s holdings by language and the librarians could not shake the idea that I must want only English translations. So, I ordered a book online: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers by Jules Verne. The simple reportorial style turned out to be perfect for my needs, and when I finished it, I just kept reading.


At university I looked for something for French but analogous to the regular meeting of German speakers to began to attend, but nothing of the sort existed. The best I could find while at college was internet relay chat (IRC) which let me use French, at least typing to communicate. Where I came to regularly speak in French was during the three and a half years I spent teaching in south central Florida. Many of my students came from Haiti or less commonly other parts of the French-speaking Caribbean. Among the Haitian immigrants, most spoke actual French rather than Creole by preference, at least in the area where I was teaching. The francophone community in Haiti, so they told me, was apparently a politically persecuted minority whose existence was officially denied. I was reading so much in French and so often that bringing words into my active speaking vocabulary took much less effort than it might have. The IRC use had helped tremendously too, albeit without actually pronouncing the words. In any case the conversations grew slowly over time as the students got to know me and to feel they could talk to me.


From then on, I used French whenever the opportunity arose. Now having married a French-speaker and living in a place with a large francophone community, such occasions are not rare. Now and again I even watch films on my computer which are in French, but I simply don’t watch movies often in any language.




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