Monday, September 14, 2015

10 Things Not to Do in Paris

As I pack for a trip to Europe (essentials: fanny pack, baggy shorts, oversized backpack), this good advice from Condé Nast Traveler on 10 things NOT to do in Paris resonated with me. And they also give you 10 things to do instead.  See you when I return.

 More (cough) advice on getting on in France in the NY Times bestseller, Flirting with French

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


I was browsing the French news this morning (definition of browsing: "understanding 5%") when I came across the delightful phrase -- only understandable to me because it was accompanied by a photograph of Venus Williams -- about Venus's pursuit of "le grand Chelem"

"Slam" in French is "chelem"? When did French start sounding like Yiddish? In fact, you ain't seen nothin' yet: An alternate spelling is schelem.

Better French students than I know that this is not the usual French word for "slam" (as in a door), which is more often claquement. Rather, chelem/schelem is a franglish mixup of the English "slam," mainly used in the context of sports and cards, and possibly was introduced by the American baseball term "grand slam." For good reason: grand claquement does doesn't quite have the same ring. (Although it does have some wonderful onomatopoeia going for it.)

Anyway, bonne chance, Venus! Chelem 'em!

More fun with French in NY Times bestseller, Flirting with French.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Cauchemar américain

Forgive me (or pity me): I just can't stay away from The Donald, even on a blog about (ostensibly) learning French.  Now, with France dealing with its own immigration nightmare that makes our southern border problem seem trivial, you might think that Trump's strong views on the subject might get him a sympathetic ear over there.

Perhaps from Marine Le Pen's National Front party it might (although it should be noted that the party recently expelled the founder -- Marine's father --- for his too-radical views on immigration), but here's the take on Trump from the newspaper Libération:

Le Cauchemar américain

I'll save you the trouble of running to Google Translate. The headline translates as "The American nightmare"

That's nothing: Thursday they called him "a nutcase." The French are nothing if not direct. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

A note to my fans in Europe and Asia

To those of you in France and other counties who've not been able to reach my website,, I'm happy to say that the problem has been fixed. If you haven't visited, you'll find information on all my books, links to my New York Times and LA Times op-eds, reviews and interviews, as well as behind-the-scenes features, such as photographs of the other-wordly Abbaye St-Wandrille in Normandy, where as described in 52 Loaves, this American non-believer taught French monks to bake French bread (strange but true!) and jousted with God (stranger but true!).

Plus, for fans of The $64 Tomato, photos of my garden, recipes, and more.

Et maintenant, il marche de la France, aussi!

Friday, August 14, 2015

French to Trump English After All!

Vive la langue française ! Just when everyone thought French was going to be overshadowed by English (and possibly Chinese), crunching the numbers reveals that French may the world's most commonly spoken language by 2050, or the as French news site France 24 puts it, "the language of Molière will eclipse the language of Shakespeare."

How is this possible? you ask. Well, thanks to its history as a colonial power, French is still widely spoken in some of the fastest-growing counties in Africa:  Mali in the north, and Guinea, Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo in the sub-Saharan region, not counting North African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.

The $64 Tomato -- I mean, question, is, does having the numbers mean having the influence? Je crois que non, because, to be quite honest, the language that children are speaking in a village in Chad doesn't much affect what they call "wi-fi" in France (it' "wi-fi," but adoringly pronounced "wee-fee."

So, the French may take some solace in their numbers, but they can only wistfully imagine a French-speaking world - which we'd in fact have had today if the French hadn't lost (yet another) war to the British -- this one in, yes, the New World, back in the 1700s.

Damn you, King George!

More fun and facts about French in my NY Times bestselling book, Flirting with French.

(And admit it, you read this piece because you thought I was writing about Donald Trump again!)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Is Trump more sexist than the French language?

Pity the Donald (or don't...), whose remarks about women are gaining him regular tongue-lashings by even the conservative press (and also...hmmm...headlines), but imagine the reception he'd get if he started referring to his wife as "my woman." As in, "Ask my woman Melania if I'm a sexist pig." Well, that is precisely how Frenchmen refer to their wives, because the French do not have a dedicated word for "wife": Femme means both "woman" and "wife."

Note that there is a dedicated word for husband -- mari.  But there is none for "wife." Same is true of son and daughter, by the way. Were he French (hello, France, he's yours if you want him!) Donald would use the same word for Ivanca Trump as he'd use for the girl who polishes his shoes six times a day: fille.

In Flirting with French I relate a conversation I had with a Frenchwoman about this very topic -- and the most amazing part is that she had never realized it until I mentioned it!  

Vive la France ! Vive la différence !

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Summer school: Vous/Tu flowchart

Without question, the most popular feature of Flirting with French is my Vous/Tu flowchart, designed to assist you in determining whether to use the formal or familiar form of "you" in French. The chart also appeared as an LA Times Bastille Day op-ed; however, it wasn't until the French newspaper Le Monde picked it up that it gained notoriety, garnering 35,000 Facebook links in the first day alone!

Since August is the perfect month for catching up, here is it again, for those of you who missed it  (and who haven't realized it's been sitting on this blog as a sidebar for a year). Click on the graphic below to view the LA Times version, or click here for a downloadable PDF. Bon courage!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Linkword review

Lately I've been discussing mnemonic techniques for memorizing vocabulary. It turns out there is software that uses this method, the Linkword Language Courses developed by Michael Gruneburg.

This screenshot gives you a pretty good idea of the premise behind Linkword (I tested the Spanish course, because I speak no Spanish at all).  There are hundreds of these screens in a Linkword course, divided up by skill level and then category (animals, clothes, food). You can choose to hear the foreign word spoken, or work in silent mode.
It works like this: When a screen like the one above pops up, you spend a moment visualizing the imagery suggested: in this case, a camel lying on your bed. Concentrate on the word and the image of the camel on your bed. If all goes according to plan, the next time you see the word cama you'll recall the image of the camel in your bed and remember that cama is Spanish for "bed."

Click "Next" and repeat. And repeat. After 10 of these you get quizzed, then see a review screen with all the words. Then you go to the next unit. Eventually you end up composing (meaning, typing; there's lots of typing in this course) simple sentences.

Your first impression may be that this software must have been created in Basic in 1978 on a Commodore PET, but the (extremely) bland interface and choice of yellow on black are said by Dr. Gruneburg, who invited me to review the course, to be intentional choices that contribute to focus and memorization. I'm not sure if I buy it, and I have to wonder if a lively illustration of a camel in repose on a bed might not have been helpful. Certainly it would've made it more interesting as you pass through screen after same, feeling like you're stuck in DOS land. (Sorry for all the nerdy computer references, but that's what I do in my day job.)

Some of the linkages are good, and helpful, but for me too many are a bit, well, tortured.

Consider the pig. Third O'? Really?  I would've had the pig eating Certs to kill the stink, and why on earth you'd link "fox" to zorro by using the word "sorrow" instead of putting a Zorro mask on the fox is mind-boggling. But that's the nature of a mnemonic technique -- it's very personal. Which raises the question: are you better off creating your own linkages, rather than using those suggested by another? Almost certainly, I'd say (Dr. Gruneburg, for the record, does not agree), but that takes more effort, and perhaps few students would be willing to spend the time to do that, as I did when learning the 1,000 French words in a children's dictionary in a week. And, of course, there wouldn't be a Linkword product to sell if the users were creating their own images.

More importantly, the other thing that I did to facilitate learning vocabulary, if you recall from an earlier post, was to put these objects into themed rooms. For me, it wasn't enough to connect jupe to "skirt" by having the girl in the skirt jumping rope. In order for this technique to work, I had to put her and her family (and all their clothes) into a room, a busy room with lots of activity and words (refer to Flirting with French for details) - that is, combining mnemonics with the memory palace. That also greatly relived the monotony of memorizing word after word. Of course, I used my own images. In fact, my editor called me out on (and edited out!) the image of the woman in a tank top sweating on the exercise bike. But, hey, I remembered her (and her associated word)!

Anyway, back to my review of Linkword and the crux of the matter. Is this product an effective way to learn vocabulary? I would say, having spent some time with both the PC-based and mobile versions, that it can be, for some, a useful adjunct to other study, although I found it more useful in going from French to English than in the other direction. And note that, while there are some screens in the advanced sections that deal with grammar and sentence structure, and it's marketed as a full-fledged language course, in my opinion this is really a dressed-up vocabulary-learning tool. The product website claims that "Level 4 will enable you to read and understand the average newspaper article, watch a foreign language film and converse with people in a very wide range of situations abroad." I didn't make it to level 4, so I shouldn't judge, but I'll confess to a little skepticism when it comes to that lofty goal.

 As a vocabulary-learning supplement, it might have some use. I prefer the mobile version, which is something that you can do for a few minutes while waiting at the doctor's office during your lunch break. Think of it as a little snack between your language-class meals, and keep your expectations limited.

As my grand-mère de Brooklyn used to say, "It couldn't hoit!"

The Linkword language courses are available at

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jumping rope in the rain in my liviing room

To summarize the last two posts on learning French vocabulary (my, where has the time gone!), I had only a little success with both the mnemonic keyword technique, where you associate a French word with an English image that will remind you of the word, and the memory palace method, which seemed more suited to remembering a shopping list than learning vocabulary.

Neither worked.

Until, in a moment of uncharacteristic brilliance, I combined them. I took my vivid images of complaining plantains and the like and assembled them into themed rooms. Thus to learn French clothing words, I put a British chap wearing a chapeau and a coat (manteau) up on the fireplace mantle in my living room. 

Any well-dressed British chap up on a mantel needs an umbrella, that wonderful French word parapluie, which can double as a parachute if he needs to jump off. His wife, an unfortunate, homeless bag lady, wears a diamond bague on her finger. This couple’s daughter is jumping rope in her skirt (jupe), impermeable to the rain that’s falling onto her yellow impermeable.

But what is this strange crew doing in my living room? Sadly, it’s a wake for the son, a ten-year-old kid, laid out in a casket wearing a baseball cap (casquette), and sneakers (baskets) under a basketball hoop. I run through the scene with this odd family, whom I’m starting to enjoy, a few times in my head, jot down some notes, and test myself an hour later. Still there. The next day, the next week, still there. Thus it seems that while the keyword method itself doesn’t work and the memory palace doesn’t even really apply (it’s usually employed to memorize mere lists of items), combining the two methods — assigning a keyword and placing that object in a palace — clicks!

Try it yourself! And, of course read the full story in my New York Times bestseller, Flirting with French.  In the next post I'll tell you about my experiences with a software product that uses one of these techniques.

Friday, June 26, 2015

French students can't "cope"

There's (yawn) another student protest in France with week - but wait, before you tune out, this one involves language! The students are protesting the appearance of the English word "cope" in the English proficiency section of baccalaureate exam (which requires students to be proficient in not just one, but two foreign languages!). To quote from the NY Times:

The students said they were baffled by a passage from the best-selling novel “Atonement,” by Ian McEwan, in which the word “cope” appeared. Then came two questions about a character named Turner: “What concerns him about the situation?” and “How is Turner coping with the situation?”

Twelve thousand students signed a petition claiming that the word "cope" is not easily translatable into French. Some say the very concept has no exact equivalent, although a letter to the Times refutes this as "utter nonsense," pointing out that there are two verbs, se débrouiller and s'en sortir, that mean precisely that.

I won't enter the fray, except to point out that this same week, French taxi drivers, unable to cope with competition from Uber, were staging disruptive, even violent strikes, prompting Courtney Love to tweet that Baghdad is safer than Paris. Ouille!

One final note: Only 4 days left to buy Flirting with French on Kindle, Nook, or Apple for the appropriately insane price of $1.99! At that price surely it's worth the e-ink it's written on!