Struggling with Language: On the Path to Paris
My friend Jim moved to Seville, Spain from San Francisco in the early 1990s. For nearly a year before he left, he focused on learning Spanish. He hired a language tutor and devoted many months to develop his skills.

He really struggled… and let’s face it, learning a new language is difficult. It requires memorizing an extensive vocabulary, understanding and using correct verb tenses and then having the ability to string it all together.

Everyone knows basic tenses — present tense (an event happening now) past tense (an event in the past) but we overlook (or forget) the complicated tenses:

— the Present Perfect Continuous, a past action that continues into the present — Have you been waiting here for two hours?

— or the Past Perfect, which expresses an idea that occurred before another action in the past —  Had you studied French before you moved to Paris?

To complicate matters, French uses gendered nouns, so you memorize the feminine or masculine article they’re paired with. For example, poisson (fish) is masculine and so requires the masculine definite article (le poisson) while sortie (exit) is feminine and needs the feminine definite article (la sortie). Plus there’s the feminine and masculine indefinite articles (une versus un) … it’s enough to drive you crazy.

I’ve been brushing up on my French by listening to language tapes, using online resources and practicing with my friend Marty who learned French as a child. While he and I were in South America, I quizzed him on phrases and approaches. I felt comfortable speaking French with him and he was gentle when correcting my mistakes.

(I’m also fortunate to have Nadine, my Moroccan friend who speaks French fluently. She put me in touch with the Parisian leasing her apartment to me.)

But the truth is… I’m using a thin soup of skills.

I dropped out of French class my freshman year at Baylor and opted to try for the French Intensive Program during the summer. I had to pass a lengthy interview with Madame Potter and was delighted when I was accepted into the program.

Classes started at 8 AM sharp, Monday through Friday, and lasted until 5 PM. It was a total immersion experience — we could only speak French in the classroom. We were given a half hour for lunch, and woe be unto you if you returned to class late. The course lasted eight weeks — we covered an entire semester of French every two weeks.

Madame Potter weighed about 90 pounds, but she was fierce and demanded a great deal from us. One of the questions during the interview: are you prepared to go to class all day, then study three hours in the evenings?

All of us said Yes, of course (bien sur!) But it became clear that some of the students weren’t up to the task. I was scared of Madame Potter, and studied every night.

We were divided into three groups: Advanced, Intermediate, and Beginner. I was placed in the Intermediate group, and within the first week was moved up into the Advanced group.

This lasted for about three days, then Madame Potter moved me back to the Intermediate group. I tested well, but my speaking skills were woefully lacking.

Language Choices

After Jim returned from Spain, he told me to never say I was “American.” I was to say from “the USA” or “the States.” Jim made this error, and was chided by the Europeans:  “Which America?”

Jim didn’t understand their question at first, but discovered he had fallen victim to an American Bias: we’re the only nation in North America. They were pointing out “American” includes Canadians and Mexicans. I was glad he mentioned it.

When we met with the shaman from the village in Ecuador, we had to say our names (using Quechua, the Shaman’s language) plus tell where we were from. Most of the people used Spanish (also the Shaman’s language) for their home country.

Example: “My name is Wilhelm. I’m from Germany.” The first part is spoken in Quechua; origin is spoken in Spanish:

X-qa sutiymi Wilhelm de Alemania.

But at least when it was my turn, I knew enough to say X-qa sutiymi Bart de USA… rather than “from America.”




Can I Become Marginally Fluent in Four Weeks?

It’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. I could read French magazines (back when) but speaking French is another matter.

My goals are modest: to greet the French farmers at the markets; purchase fresh vegetables and meat to cook in my kitchen; buy museum tickets; order a glass of wine at a cafe; use the Metro.

Parisians are notorious for their dismissal of non-French speakers who make mistakes speaking their language… and yet… the French couple we met while in the Amazon were incredibly friendly.

And I’ve learned we tend to encounter what we expect. So I’m putting on my warmest smile (but not the “too large” American smile…) and hoping for the best.

I’m convinced I’ll meet wonderful people in Paris.

… and I’ll also encounter the stereotypical — that is to say, dismissive — Parisian. But nothing is all bad, right? When it happens I’ll be thinking: I can’t wait to write about this…


À tout à l’heure (See you soon!)

4 thoughts on “Struggling with Language: On the Path to Paris

  1. Oh, BTW, in Spanish—at least in Mexican Spanish—there is a word for someone from the United States: “estadounidense.” Maybe this is true in other languages, as well.


    1. Yes, those from the USA used a Spanish word; I was the only one to say “USA.” I will ask Marty the word he used; I can’t remember it. Maybe it was Spanish for “America.”



      1. The word is “estadounidense.” I just don’t know if this is a word in Spain, as well.

        You could say: “Soy estadounidense.” (es-sta-do-u-ni-den-se)


  2. I was just thinking earlier today that I am eagerly awaiting your posts from Paris, Bart. 🙂

    But I was happily pleased to see you were getting a head start of them already!


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