Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Learn French (No Joke!)

When I felt ready to tackle a dual-language book (French on page, and the equivalent English on the other)I struggled through a chapter or two of classic French short stories, all the better to get the maximum cultural impact, before throwing in the towel. Among my many problems was that these classic works use the obsolete passé simple, a tense used only in written French, and now hardly at all.

I think I would've been better off with Jeremy Taylor's Learn French with Jokes. Although the French is better than some of the jokes. A sample:

« Docteur, docteur, je ne peux plus sentir mes jambes ! »
« Ce n'est pas un miracle, nous vous avon amputé des bras. »

[sentir = to feel]

"Doctor, doctor, I can't feel my legs!"
"I'm not surprised, we amputated your arms."

As in the sample above, some less obvious words are defined on the French page, and there are a few exercises to make sure you're not just reading the English.

The jokes in the iPad version have French audio, read by a lovely French voice. It really enhances the book. So, if you want to try something offbeat, give this a try, and impress your francophone friends with jokes -- in French. Links to all of the various media versions at http://www.jeremytaylor.eu/books/learn-french-with-jokes/.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Saved from the...cliché

A story in today's New York Times about an endangered French textile mill uses the phrase "facing the guillotine." Pity the maligned French, who are still living down this razor-sharp form of execution, even though they haven't used the guillotine since Napol-- what?? Since 1977?

That's right. The French last used Robespierre's favorite toy in just 1977, less than fifty years ago -- after the breakup of the Beatles, and the founding of Apple Computer -- to cleanly slice off the head of one Hamida Djandoubi, who went to the grave with the consolation that some day something called Wikipedia would be invented -- and his dubious honor would get him into it. (I've been wondering what I have to do to get my name into Wikipedia.)

The French doubtless would still be using the guillotine today if they hadn't abolished capital punishment in 1981, for up until that time it remained France's standard method of execution.

So I apologize to the Times for being about to castigate them for referring to what I thought was a cheap shot about a long-abandoned symbol of France. However, I won't let them off for using the cliché!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Beurre Blanc, Demystified

See as how it's both Friday and Lent (although Lent is probably observed in France about as much as Tag der deutschen Einheit -- German Unity Day), it seems like a good time to discuss one of my favorite classic French sauces: beurre blanc. It's one of my favorite things to dress up any white fish: mahi mahi, orange roughy, you name it. Best of all, this white wine and butter sauce is really simple and quick to prepare. I like to throw in some fresh herbs (whatever is around), but that's totally optional. Here's the recipe:

Beurre Blanc with Herbs
3/8 cup white wine
1/4 cup vinegar
1 large shallot, finely chopped
6 Tablespoons butter
1-2 teaspoons assorted fresh herbs (use less for strong herbs such as thyme, more for milder one such as basil and parsley)

  1. Simmer shallot with wine and vinegar in a small saucepan until reduced to a couple of tablespoons.
  2. Strain out shallot and return liquid to saucepan (you skip this step if you're lazy and don't insist on a silky-smooth sauce)
  3. Add chopped herbs, whisk in butter a tablespoon at a time until sauce is creamy and smooth. Serve immediately over seared, grilled, broiled, or sauteed fish.
Bon Appétit!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wordsmith Wednesday: Come 'Voler' with Me

In this installment of Wordsmith Wednesday, which -- I know -- is being posted on Thursday (oh, like you've never gotten your days of the week wrong in French?), we look at how two sentences below differ:

- Je vole souvent means "I fly often."
Je vole souvent means "I steal often."

Yes, they're identical. I learned, the hard way, by declaring myself a kleptomaniac at French language school in Provence, that the verb voler means both "to fly" and "to steal." I pointed out this idiosyncrasy to one of the instructors (in the context of "how do you expect me to learn this language?"), who pointed out that in English, the word "fly" also has two meanings: to become airborne and an insect that buzzes around the room.

"But," I protested, that's not the same thing at all!  Flies fly!
"So do burglars," she said.

I knew this was one argument I wasn't going to win, so I went back to my conjugations.

Happy Wedne Thursday!


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Contest closed

Thanks to all who entered the contest to receive beta access to a new French-learning product. The contest is now closed, but do keep your eye on this blog for future giveaways, contests, and shameless promotions!

(Sorry, no French lesson, today -- I'm busy editing the first page proofs of Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Special to my readers: Free access to beta release of FluentU French

I get, to be kind, junk sent to me all the time by -- ahem -- entrepreneurs hoping I'll push their products, most of which will teach you as much French as -- ahem, again -- this blog. But once in a while something comes in (as they say in the publishing world) "over the transom" that I feel is worth passing on (especially when it's free).

FluentU, which previously had only a Chinese course, is now in the process of expanding to French, and I'm able to offer 10 of my readers FREE access to the beta version. I test drove it myself, and imagine my surprise and delight to see that the first video I came across was a spoof (in French) of the already hilarious "Royale with Cheese" discussion between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction where they discuss how the cheeseburgers have a different name is America. Another one is fun cartoon. They give captions and cover difficult words, and, best of all, in all of these clips the actors speak at a normal pace, not the baby talk you get from you-know-who.

FluentU is making free beta memberships available to 10 of my readers. And when I say "beta" I mean "beta." They still have a bit a work to do, and I'll be adding a full review once it's finished,  but the videos are up and you can't beat the price.

To enter the raffle and be one of the lucky 10, simply send a blank email to TheFrenchBlogContest@gmail.com. (To enhance your chances of winning, don't make it blank. Say something, anything: Flattery, why you want to learn French, your favorite line from Pulp Fiction, or your bank account information.)  The winners, whom I will select, will receive an email from FluentU with a link to the free beta. They promise not to use your email for any other purpose.

 Bonne chance, mes amis!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Does the language we speak influence how we think?

Americans returning from the Winter Olympics in Sochi last month may have enjoyed fewer shades of the frequent (and snow-melting) blue skies than their hosts. According to scientists, because the Russian language has multiple words for nuances of what in English is simply the color “blue,” Russians are in fact more adept at distinguishing shades of blue than are Americans, leading to the highly controversial hypothesis that the language you speak affects how you perceive the world. My own, unpublished research has found multiple examples of this phenomenon closer to home.
  • Because natives of northeastern New Jersey have fourteen expressions, not known in any other American dialect, for traffic, they are able to detect more gradations of traffic congestion. Indigenous terms include “bridge traffic study” (aka “a Christie”), “Giants game,” “cheap gas on Route 4,” “some moron with Michigan plates asking the toll talker for directions to Massachusetts,” and “Holland Tunnel hookers.”
  • After a thorough investigation, it was determined that the core reason that traffic was snarled for 24 hours in Atlanta following a light snowfall was not, as previously believed, the city’s unpreparedness, but the fact that Georgians have no word for “snow plow.”
  • Germans, who have a word, Schadenfreude, for “taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune,” have been found to more frequently take pleasure in the misfortune of other people (and nations) than pretentious Americans, who must explain the term every time they use it.
  • Frenchmen, who have more words for “love” than for “work,” take 4.5 times as many mistresses as do American men.
  • And 0.6 the number of jobs.
  • Researchers have found that native New Yorkers, who are fluent in at least nine variations of “f*** off,” are more likely to live alone than the residents of Moose Jaw, Canada, who mistakenly believe that a “f***-off” is similar to a hockey “face-off.”
  • Bushmen of the Kalahari do not have a word for the hair color of the grandmother in 4B.
  • Some knowledge of British English is essential to avoiding a grievous misinterpretation of the statement, “I was pissed in the lift to my flat.”
  • Eskimos, who have 50 words for snow, have no word for "Cancun."
  • The Japanese have a word, tsundoku, which means “the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, piling it up together with other such unread books.” An increasingly popular English term for an impulse buy of a book that will remain unread is a Rushdie-to-judgment. Readers in any language are particularly likely to tsundoku (or Rushdie) Stephen Hawking, Thomas Pynchon, the latest 700-page novel by Joyce Carol Oates, and Infinite Jest.
  • The Russian word for light blue, goluboy, is also a derogatory term for a homosexual.

Friday, March 7, 2014

How to Fake French

Came across this useful video while surfing YouTube instead of studying French:

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Foux Du FaFa

The Conchords discover their inner French. See this hilarious musical clip from Flight of the Conchords.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wordsmith Wednesday: Cherchez la femme

As French president François Hollande tours the US sans femme, or "stag," as the Times put it, because his unmarried partner left when it was revealed that Hollande was motorscooting over to his mistress regularly, I'd like to take a moment to point out a feature of the French language that has always puzzled me: 

The French have a distinct word for "husband"  -- mari -- but none for "wife." The word femme  means both woman and wife.

When I pointed this out to a teacher at the language school I attended in France, she was astounded. "Never occurred to me," she said. Then after some thought, she offered that the same is true for daughters and sons. A son is a fils but a daughter is, once again, just a girl, a fille. Say fille and you could be talking about either your daughter or the girl who milks the cows.

So, what does this have to do with Hollande and his mistress? Or more broadly, the fact that the custom of French men taking mistresses is so common, even accepted, in France. Could there be a connection between the language and the culture? Put another way, does the absence of a dedicated word for “wife” reflect a French woman’s status? She's just a woman, but the man -- ah, he's something else!

Food for thought, anyway.