Friday, December 14, 2012

This polyglot's got nothing on me (except about 6 languages)

I recently caught up with Benny Lewis, aka “Benny the Irish Polyglot,” in Brazil, where he had gone to learn -- what else --  Arabic, a process he thinks will take him about three months. Why Arabic in Brazil? Partly because, put quite simply, he likes Brazil, and will feel comfortable there and thus be in a conducive frame of mind for learning. Sounds to me like he wants to party. But he says he’s also there to make another point to the half-million people who visit his Fluent In Three Months blog: Stop making excuses for not learning a language. And the biggest excuse is, “I don’t have the time or money to study in that country for the immersion experience I need.” So, to prove that you don't need immersion, Benny has gone to Brazil to learn Arabic. And to party.  

Is the Irish Polyglot one of these language savants, with a brain full of synapses in the Broca’s Area that the rest of us struggling learners can only dream about (in our native tongues)? Benny dismisses the notion. “Over half the population of the planet is multilingual,” he says. The idea of a selected few having a gift for language “is an entirely Anglophone-centric point of view. When I hear this, I feel like the person telling me this has never traveled in their life. It’s just someone in America who doesn’t appreciate that most of the world learns other languages.”

You can quibble with his percentages, but his point is taken. After all, think of all the adult Frenchmen, Spanish, Romanians, and Portuguese who became Latin speakers during the Roman Empire, and did it without classrooms, podcasts, or Rosetta Stone, because their livelihoods — if not their actual lives — depended upon it.

Benny’s approach to speaking languages is simple: “Speak from day one.” Don’t be shy, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just grab some phrase books and flash cards, start studying, and most importantly, find some people to speak to. Like me, he’s found the classroom approach lacking, because classes try to cover the entirety of the spoken and written language with what he terms “a very, very gray, fuzzy long-term view. It’s a bottomless pit you’re never going to be able to fill. You have just keep throwing more vocabulary, more grammar in, and I find this learning approach somewhat hopeless. You’re never going to be satisfied; you’re never going to be perfect, and the whole academic system is based on getting you toward perfection.” 

Benny has found success with a one-day-at-a-time approach that most educators, and most students, would find frighteningly haphazard: Prepare for a day’s activity by studying the vocabulary you’ll need most for that activity, don’t worry about getting it perfect. Will this approach work for everyone? I’m learning Italian next, to prepare for trip to Italy in the fall. Maybe I’ll give it a try. Because it seems I’m a blithering idiot when it comes to languages. If I can learn this way, then anyone can.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The cat's pajamas

I had a couple of French monks over to lunch this week (for fans of  52 Loaves, fr. Philippe from the abbey in Normandy was one of them) and although their French was quite good (fr. Lu has been in the States for two years) the conversation was continually interrupted by having to explain English idioms. You have no idea how many idioms we use without even thinking about until you speak with a foreigner.

We tend to think of idioms -- phrases whose meanings cannot be deciphered by the meaning of the component parts -- as colorful expressions like "kick the bucket" or "pie in the sky" but in fact they're far more common (really, I'm not pulling your leg), and it's hard to speak more than a few sentences without using one of them and inadvertently throwing your guest for a loop (see?).

My favorite French idiom did not, thankfully, come up at lunch, for I restrained myself from saying, after taking a sip of the fine red wine I'd opened for the occasion, "C’est le petit Jésus en culotte de velours!" -- It's baby Jesus in velvet shorts! This is the French version of "It's the cat's pajamas!"

I suspect that wouldn't have gone over well with my monks. But we had a marvelous time -- I got to speak a little French, we all got to eat, and we had a swell (not the ocean kind of swell) time.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Times reviews language tools

The travel section of the NY Times this past weekend reviewed language-learning tools. Hats off to them for giving a shout-out to Coffee Break French (and Spanish), my favorite podcast. If you want more than the one-paragraph the Times allotted to each program, see my detailed reviews of most of the products mentioned in the Times piece here, including much more on  Coffee Break.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Is that me to whom you're speaking?


A recent blog entry with the French versions of 10 classic American movie quotes illustrates one difficulty of learning a foreign language, not to mention why we receive strange stares from francophones when we try to speak to them in their own tongue. You simply can't translate English colloquialisms into French, you have find (know) the nearest substitute. For example, the famous line in Casablanca, "Here's lookin' at you, kid" has absolutely no meaning in French, so they went for À tes beaux yeux“  -- to your beautiful eyes.  Romantic, yes, but snappy? Ahhh....

Poor Dirty Harry's concise, dramatic, "Go ahead - make my day" became the much less punchier, Vas-y, fais-moi plaisir!
Does that phrase, literally, word-for-word, "Go ahead, give me some pleasure" convey the same meaning as "Make my day" to a Frenchman?  I've no idea.

My favorite quote is Robert DeNiro's famous line in Taxi Driver: "You talkin to me?" The French film translator seems have struggled with this one, coming up with C'est à moi que tu parles? -- Is it me to whom your speaking? Wow! And yet... and yet, they do manage to capture the tone of disrespect in a way we never could in English: DeNiro's character's use of the tu form. Addressing a stranger as tu is highly insulting! The French may not have the richness of tones of informality in language that English has, but they do have that one powerful weapon that we don't -- use of the familiar "you". Actually, knowing when to use which -- vous or tu --  can be quite challenging, and funny. See my Vous/tu chart to the right for more ways to make an impression with tu and vous.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Moi, je suis Clouseau!

Prompted by a reader's note, I was about to describe a scene I'd had with a hotel clerk in Provence who couldn't understand my French, when I realized I don't have to: It's virtually identical to the scene in Return of the Pink Panther, where Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau is trying to check into a hotel, his preposterous French accent (I should talk…) pulling the r in “room” from somewhere between his larynx and his liver.

Clouseau: Do you have a rgghum?
Clerk: A…“rgghum”?
Clouseau: What?
Clerk: You said, do I have a “rgghum”?
Clouseau [impatiently]: I know perfectly well what I said; I said, do you have a rgghum!
Clerk: You mean, do you have a room.
Clouseau: That is what I have been saying, you fool!

Hilarious --- except when it happens to you, temper and all!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rosetta Stone: Language is a barrel of laughs

Promise I'll return to my progress on learning French in the next post, but this is just too juicy to pass up. Rosetta Stone (which last year alone spent a whopping $98 million in advertising) has launched a new ad campaign, which means the one they previously launched not too long ago, which emphasized middle-aged (or older) people taking on a foreign language, was a flop. No foolin. The new one emphasizes fun, because, as we all know, learning a foreign language is a barrel of laughs. I can't tell you how many times I've been in stitches while trying to figure out how to use the past pluperfect.

I like Rosetta (see my review), but I'm intrigued by this radical change from their older, time-tested advertising theme of language-can-get-you-laid which I maintain extends to the product photos itself. If I recall, I've met a babe on a bus by juggling for her baby brother, been to a party full of hot, unaccompanied chicks, and even been to the alter -- while learning French. (Can you say "shotgun wedding?" But remember those ads featuring a "farm boy" nabbing a gorgeous Spanish girl by whispering a few nadas in her ear? I think they'll return to that territory sooner or later, because, let's face it: sex sells. Really, which ad gets your attention?

New ad:

Old Ad:

I rest my case.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

140 Characters Rock France!

All she said was, "Courage à Olivier Falorni qui n'a pas démérité, qui se bat aux côtés des rochelais depuis tant d' années dans un engagement désintéressé," but French First (unmarried) Lady Valérie Trierweiler has started a media storm in France by endorsing-by-Twitter a candidate in the parliamentary elections. The man she endorsed just happens to be running against her boyfriend's (President Hollande) former long-time lover and mother of his children, Ségolène Royal. The whole thing is almost too bizarre for American minds to fully grasp. When they were together, Hollande and Royal were rivals, competing for the same post! (Imagine them in bed!) Then he dumps her not for a trophy girlfriend but for another middle-aged woman, an aggressive journalist who's nickname is "Rottweiler," and what any of these attractive women see in him is a total mystery, and to top it off, he wins the presidency that Royal wanted so badly and moves into the presidential palace or whatever they call it there with Rottweiler. Who promptly embarrasses him. But this is a language blog, and what caught my eye was the opening phrase: "Courage à Olivier Falorni..." The first time some wished me "courage" in France I took it literally. (Understandably: the context was, a taxi driver asked where we were from, and when we said, America, he replied, smiling, "Courage!") But this is one of those words or phrases (it's sometimes "bon courage!" that can mean a lot of things, from simply "have a good day" to "good luck" to "you're not going to have such a good day, but, chin up!" to "Good luck -- you're going to need it!!" The French, by the way, are always wishing everyone a "bon" something or other: Bon jour, bonne journée, bon appétit, but that's a topic for another day. Meanwhile I'm going to find some interesting French Twitter feeds to follow. Seems like it might be a good way to learn French in (very) manageable bites.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Numerology (un petit rant)

I'm learning my French numbers now, and it seems that in order to learn to count in French you must utilize arithmetic — specifically, addition and multiplication. In most of the civilized world, children learn the numbers first, and then learn to use those numbers in mathematics, but in France you need to know some mathematics in order to learn the numbers! This is the Mobius strip of math, a numerical hall of mirrors. To count, you must multiply, to multiply you must count, to count you must multiply…

The fun begins at seventeen, which you construct by adding seven to ten: dix-sept. Eighteen is dix-huit, or ten-eight, nineteen dix-neuf.  Twenty is vingt, thirty is trente, and so forth, and you form these two-digit numbers above twenty the same way you do in English, with the root, a hyphen, and the next numeral. Thus twenty-two is vingt-deux

All is well, in fact, until soixante-neuf. If you don’t speak French and that number rings a bell, congratulations: you’ve read your Kama Sutra (or your Joy of Sex, which, to its credit, used the classy French numeral rather than the cruder English “sixty-nine”). Soixante-neuf is the last “easy” number in French. Should you want to turn your love-making up a notch to seventy, you’ll find out there is no “seventy” in French. Why would you need to waste a word on the decuplet from seventy to seventy-nine when you can simply add ten to sixty, and arrive at…soixante-dix? Likewise for next nine numbers: seventy-one is sixty-plus-eleven, right up through sixty-plus-nineteen. But nineteen, remember, is itself ten plus nine! So seventy-nine is sixty-plus-ten-plus nine: soixante-dix-neuf.

Whew! Thank goodness we’re up to eighty, and can stop adding.

And start multiplying. I kid you not. Eighty is quatre-vingt, literally “four twenties.” Guess what ninety is: quatre-vingt-dix. That is, 4 times 20, plus 10. You continue in this fashion until you hit 99: quatre-vingt-dix-neuf. So from 1 through 60, the French use from a base-10 (decimal) numerical system, after which they switch to a base-20 (vigesimal) system. There are other cultures, including the Mayans and the Basques, who use a vigesimal system, but to my knowledge, French is the only language that uses a mixture of decimal and vigesimal, most likely as a result of unification of several number systems in existence in France after the Revolution. It’s enough to make you fou!

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Refreshing Coffee Break

I've stumbled a wonderful French instructional podcast called Coffee Break French. Run on a shoestring, with only two full-time employees, from a small office and studio in the west of Scotland, this is the first really decent language podcast I've found -- and it's free! For a modest subscription fee the podcast can be supplemented by written materials delivered to your mobile device or computer, but the lessons assume you are only listening.

The concept behind it is as obvious as it is original: The twenty-minute (coffee-break-length) lessons feature an instructor, Mark, who is teaching introductory French to Anna, a university student, while we go along for the ride — and the lesson. What makes this work is that Mark is the French teacher you always wanted: patient, good-humored, but never condescending, although (and I suspect Mark knows this) the real star of the show is Anna. Playing both the hero and the foil of sorts, Anna has a sweet, shy voice and an endearing, girlish giggle that suggests she’s rather embarrassed about this whole podcast business and wonders how she let herself get talked into it.

I'm working up a full review, but in the meantime, check it out on your own. Plays well with iPhone, btw.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Provinces Bleu et Rouge

Imagine a country divided politically along geographical lines, causing polarization and bitterness, a country where presidential candidates just give up on most of those areas and choose a few critical battlegrounds. The United States? No, I'm speaking of France. Look at this map of how the departments (subdivisions of provinces) voted in the recent 2012 presidential elections. Red represents is the Socialist candidate (and victor) Hollande, Blue Sarkozy, who becomes the first one-term French president is a couple of decades. As with the US, one party has dominance on two ends of the nation (in this case the Socialists north and south) and the other the center (Sarkozy's centrist-right UMP party). The US press has totally missed this story of geographical polarization.

What's surprising about the election is how close it was. When I was France last year, just as Sarkozy was pushing his pension reform so that train conductors couldn't retire with full pensions at 58, he was the most unpopular man in France. The fact that a milquetoast like Hollande could get elected tells you how bad things are.

We'll see what happens with France, but you have to feel a little sorry for Sarkozy's wife, model Carla Bruni, who had that photo-opportunity baby for nothing. Wait... she just announced she's resuming her singing career. There goes the sympathy!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

French or Bust!

After a layoff of...let's see...oh my, 41 years, I've taken up French again, at the age of 57-going-on-58. Yes, language acquisition is generally considered a child's game (we learn our first language effortlessly at around age 2-3), but I have some things going for me that a child doesn't: maturity, and knowledge of how language works. And a few years of French back in middle- and high school. I've started with Rosetta Stone, but also have gotten my hands on a bunch of other, lesser known products, and I'll be sharing my experiences with them as I go along. I've been spending nearly two hours a day with Rosettta and am making great progress. See my review. À bientôt!