Tutus, Tahiti, and the travail of language learning

Lately it seems like everyone’s favorite question is whether I speak French yet. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the answer is, still, non.

To be fair, here’s what I can do:

  • Say some basic stuff, albeit mostly things like “I’ll have the spinach quiche please” and “I like this champagne. Can you recommend a similar one?”
  • Say more than I could in February. I keep a running list of new vocabulary words that I encounter, which includes such essentials as tire-bouchon (corkscrew), propreté (cleanliness), and l’ombre (the shade).

Here’s what I can’t do:

  • Talk about anything other than what I am eating or what I’d like to eat (good thing the French like food!).
  • Not look like a deer in the headlights when someone asks a follow-up question that I don’t understand.
  • Smoosh my face into the right shape to make sounds that don’t exist in English, like the French “r” and “u.”

Despite my frustration with the implication that perhaps I should speak better French than I do, the question of how much to invest in learning the language has been on my mind. Ever since Colin and I returned from Greece, we’ve been talking about it. To take classes or not? Informal meet-ups vs. an intensive bootcamp? In the last few weeks, we admitted that we felt like we’d reached a plateau where we were capable of managing day-to-day interactions but weren’t improving. I spent a few days researching options and decided that, for us, a private lesson was the best option. We scheduled one to try.

That lesson was yesterday.

Our teacher wasn’t shocked that we had lived here for six months and didn’t speak French yet. She didn’t recoil at our American accents. In fact, only two things visibly surprised her:

  1. That we knew as much as we did after each having only one year of formal instruction in college; and
  2. That, despite her earlier assessment of our abilities, we both failed the listening comprehension exercise spectacularly. (Three questions correct out of 11—a new low in academic performance for me!)

We haven’t yet decided whether to continue with formal lessons (time and expense are non-trivial factors), but I did want to take a moment to acknowledge my two favorite things to have come out of the lesson.

First, French tongue twisters, which our teacher used to help us with our vowel pronunciation. Try saying these three times fast! (Let’s be real—once is enough to turn my tongue into a tangled mess.)

  • As-tu vu le tutu de tulle de Lili d’Honolulu?
  • As-tu été à Tahiti?

And second, my funniest souvenir yet—un dictionnaire Anglais. When buying a French-English dictionary in France, it’s important to remember that a French dictionary is just a, well, regular dictionary. What you really want is an English one.


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