Tag Archives: French language


There are tons of things I should not be complaining about.  I live in France, I’m contractually obligated to only 12 hours of work per week, I can leave my landlord to scrub the bathtub if I damn well please— life is pretty easy.  But some of the things that give me pause in this first year of life as a “Big Girl” spiral toward the same point: a lot of the things we are taught to believe about the way the world works are off.

Quite off, if we’re talking about Marseille.


As the third biggest city in metropolitan France, there’s a lot to cover.  The glorious sunshine (300 days of the year, Hallelujah!), the sea, the history, the views… But when I told a lady sitting next to me on a cross-Atlantic flight that this is where I would call home for the next 8 months, she looked me straight on and said, stone-faced, “Honey, are you sure? You know it’s like *whispering* the Middle East?!”

Right.  I’m not saying there are no problems.  This city has issues of unemployment, child poverty, drug abuse, violence.  The kids I teach are going through some of these problems.  I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like to live with that reality every day; I have the choice to commute to their neighborhood for work, whereas they were quite literally born into their circumstances.  This is where I find myself getting the most angry at people who make comments like the lady on the plane.

These kids are brilliant.  They are bright-eyed, excited, good learners, kind.  It gives France a bad name, a prejudiced, bigoted name that can only whisper of the diversity that exists in this city to dismiss it, or parts of it (the famous “Quartiers Nords”) as part of the chaff to be swept from the table in favor of homogeneity of culture.

Maybe you believe that as an outsider I cannot understand.  Maybe you’re right.  But I am here to assert that A) not everyone is like that whispering woman in the window seat, and B) these kids deserve so much more than outright dismissal, just like this city.


Rant over.  If you’re ready to hear more about this city of surprises, read on.


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Word of the Week!

bachoter: intransitive verb

to prepare hastily and intensely for a test with the only goal being a passing grade, not learning or new knowledge, to cram

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Excuse My French

After mastering grammar, building a basic vocabulary required to get your point across (e.g. “box” versus “receptacle” or “red” versus “vermillion”), and perhaps attaining some cultural knowledge, there remain parts of a language that are rarely, if ever,  communicated in a classroom setting, except perhaps at the most advanced levels.  Though many of these items are not completely necessary for expression, they can add a great deal to the cultural authenticity of whatever you happen to be saying.

As the intrepid explorer finding myself suddenly deep in the field, I am beginning to synthesize my observations of non-classroom French.  At every turn I relish the opportunity to listen, as much for the enrichment of my francophone studies as for general curiosity. Cafes and checkout aisles have been especially great, since I get the double advantage of practical function (caffeine, food, shopping) and prime source material.

What I have learned thus far:

-the lips are the windows to the… err…

When animated and continuing a thought or expressing agreement or disapproval with the utterances of another person, the French (women especially) take up the space between thoughts by making hand gestures and squishing their mouths into different shapes. For example, in place of saying “of course” or “well” one of the more expressive girls in my dorm makes a duck bill with her lips before adding her own two cents.  Gracefully, but still.

Also, there is a stereotype that Americans speak with their whole face, using the entire mouth to enunciate.  Some of the extreme specimens of French speech I’ve seen display most of the visible movement in the very front of their mouths, as if the words are still being formed up until the point of exit into the air.

-fill‘er up!

Instead of the staccato “like,” French fillers lend rhythm and variation to a phrase in a far more musical way.  “Euh,” “ben,” “mais,” and “alors” can be stretched, intonated, and reintonated for as long as necessary to fill the gap between thoughts in a way that would sound strange (to me) in English.

-speak like you sing

After adding the fillers, the French conversationalist intonates a lot more from word to word than the English.  Two words up, one down, three up, two down and on it goes.

-cursing, c’est un art

The art of cursing in French, where the precise bon mot takes a phrase from emmerdant to exceptionnel, takes a bit of practice.  It is not exactly refined to do so in polite company, as there are certainly apt words that do not carry such vulgar connotations, but in everyday informal conversation this lends a vernacular air to whatever you say.  For example, when one might say “Sheesh” in English, you could slip in a sighed “Putain” to the same effect.  Much like “f*ck” in English, “putain” is adaptable to many different parts of speech, so it is infinitely adaptable, though not always wise to do so.

Bien sur, one always sounds more attractive cursing in French rather than in English.  I, for one, find it very hard to sound convincingly angry when uttering any of these because they are too friggin’ pretty, but for the sake of my language-learning compatriots, here are a few choice words and phrases you may find useful (or fun to practice shouting when nobody else is home):

merde = sh*t

salope = sl*t, used like “b*tch”

cul = a**

foutre, je m’en fous= t0 f*ck, I don’t give a f*ck

c’est le bordel = literally, “It’s a brothel” but means something closer to “It’s a mess”

putte, putain =wh*re

con,  connard, conasse…= c*nt, can also be used to mean “fool” or “douchebag” as in “Gros con”= big fat blathering idiot.  this can sound a lot like the word for “account,” which is “compte” so make sure to emphasize the T in the latter case.

connerie = bullsh*t (are we noticing a theme here?)

vachement = (mild) equivalent to “friggin” or “really really”

peter des plombs = literally, “to fart lead” but means something closer to “to throw a hissyfit” or “to blow a fuse”

bander =to have an erection. the only reason this one made the list is to warn travelers to use the French “pansement” instead of “band-Aid.” If your English pronunciation isn’t completely clear you may get some very interesting reactions otherwise.

There will undoubtedly be others I’ll discover along the way, but for now, I leave you with this cheeky lesson in how to fake French even if you don’t speak it.


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JE SUIS ICI ENFIN! My francophone famille gave me a hearty and warm welcome on Sunday night.  To my astonishment and glee, my aunt’s mother-in-law, Marie-Luise, a lovely Portuguese lady, whipped up a spread of pâté with mushrooms, charcuterie, and crusty bread for me at nearly midnight when I arrived.  I savored my first pork (O, delightful ambrosia, you scourge of my arteries, how I have missed you!) since September and swapped catch-up stories with my aunt and uncle.

In the morning, we had croissants au chocolat and hot coffee and I talked shop with my aunt about my future plans while my two cousins, two girls ages 9 and 7, watched cartoons and American TV shows dubbed in French, such as The Suite Life of Zach & Cody and Hannah Montana.  Neither of them, though having been born in France and moved to the States only a few years back, can speak much French but they can understand a good deal.  We commiserated on that fact a bit, as I am still suffering language gridlock.  I can understand most of what is said to me, but producing words is a problem because of my L1, L3, L5 interference (English, French, Arabic, respectively).  After a few hours of chatting together it was time for lunch.

My first lunch in France, quite appropriate:

  • a very small glass of fruity white wine
  • bottled water (Evian)
  • hunks of baguette
  • foie gras, jambon
  • beef cutlets, pork cutlets
  • cheese plate of Camembert, creamy Bleu de Bresse, Brebis Petit Basque, a peppery Roquefort, an authentic Parmesan, Chèvre, and Selles Sur Cher
  • shredded carrots, tomato slices, sliced fennel
  • a square of dark chocolate to finish

Next, we packed into the car to visit the Paris Natural History Museum, Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy.  I was definitely in my element with my somewhat macabre interest in anatomy, forensic anthropology, paleontology, and human evolution.  I am fascinated by bones, tissues, organs, and organisms of all shapes and sizes so I was very very happy.  (Plus, being under 26 got me in for free!) Thankfully my cousins were equally enthused and we talked herbivore teeth and bivalves as nonchalantly as if we were discussing favorite pop stars.

manta ray!




triceratops! (notice a copy of the famous Lascaux cave paintings in the background)

The collection here started in the 18th century and many of the labels are handwritten in French from at least before the 1950s.  It was often hard to tell the common names for things, but it is still a beautiful and comprehensive collection.

Next we went to Rue Mouffetard, which is a family favorite in Paris.  The decorative lights were on and it had just rained, giving the narrow street a lovely glow.

we stopped for macarons, little sandwich cookies made of meringues and cream filling. I had a salted caramel one. Yum!

We had ventured out to Rue Mouffetard for some chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) but didn’t quite make it to the intended destination.  Instead, we stopped in this tiny cafe that specialized in tarts, both savory and sweet.  The girls (my cousins) had chocolat chaud, I a peach tea, and between all of us including my aunt and uncle we gormandized on apple rhubarb crumble, pear tart with frangipane, Tarte Tatin (a sort of apple upside-down pie), and a dark chocolate pear tart (me).

Driving back through the rain, I couldn’t help but laugh that I was living a cliché–everybody admires Paris in the rain–especially since I was wearing the only hat I packed from the States–a grey beret.

Paris from the car

Not to let lunch fool us into thinking lunch was the best she could do, Marie-Luise had a fantastic spread ready for us for dinner.  For me she had escargots cooked in a sort of pesto.  Note: I have had escargots before, at a 5 star restaurant in the States (this was a high school graduation gift–not something I do often, mind you!), and they were alarmingly awful– oversalted, cooked in far too much garlic, gummy, and too big to eat comfortably.  Marie-Luise could definitely teach that cook a lesson!  These were delicate and pungent, smooth in texture, and possibly some of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.  I finished my tin of ten and mopped up the sauce with bread.  Mmmmm…

The little fork on the right is used to poke into the shell and spear the snail.  You can see that it is curved and tapered exactly for this purpose.  Also, the tin that this is served on says a lot about French cuisine–you can buy escargot pans like this made specifically for escargot!

Dessert was galettes des rois, a holiday tart made with puff pastry and almond filling that is a traditional holiday thing here.  Whoever finds in their slice the tiny ceramic figurine that is baked into the cake is king or queen of the party. Naturally, my cousins both received that most venerable honor!

Last I had dark dark coffee and calisons d’aix, a sweet made of almond paste, a wafer bottom, and a sugar crust.  I was in heaven.


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[bren nɑt wərkɪŋ təde]

Yep, that’s IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) for “Brain not working today.” 

I have hit a linguistic wall. We have 10 hours of Arabic class every week (4 Egyptian Dialect, 3 Modern Standard grammar, 3 Modern Standard comprehension) and so far I haven’t had significant issues except for my terrible memory for vocabulary.  Once grammar is broken down,it’s usually not a problem.  Same with conversation–as long as I have enough confidence not to get self-conscious about my mistakes, things usually turn out just fine.  I can hear the sounds I am supposed to produce, I can tell the proper order in which my sentence is supposed to go, I can even ask clarification questions all in Arabic.  But still, a month’s worth of information is fiendishly difficult to digest.

Usually, it’s fairly easy for me to synthesize and memorize new information.  I can sit in class, listen to the professor, participate and take notes for reference later, but I might only need to look over them a few times before I really have it down.  This has been  my system for learning languages up to this point.  As long as I spoke in class and made sure everything was thoroughly explained it wouldn’t matter much if I drilled vocabulary for 4 hours or had a half-hour conversation–the end was about the same. With this new language, I am not as lucky.

Arabic is hard.  Really really hard.  As a native Indo-European language-speaker, there are almost no referents from Arabic words back to what I already know, except for the few borrowed words used in Egyptian Dialect (thank goodness for business attire and tech terms!).  This means it takes me about three times the effort to learn new words and retain them as compared to my study of French or German.  Even Gaelic was easier to remember!  In Arabic you get the triple nutbusting combination of a new alphabet, a different grammatical system and words that do not connect to Indo-European roots like the Italic or Germanic language families.

Here’s an analogy: for me, French goes down like creme brulee–smooth, sweet, sometimes with a hard exterior, but still easy and fun to crack.  German (because of my experience with Dutch) goes down like water– a little too familiar at times and always with  a basic structure to fall back on, even with some exceptions.  Arabic is like trying to eat a block of concrete– first you have to chip away at it and when you’ve managed that, trying to swallow the gravel and sand that remains is extremely tough and hard to do in large doses.  Even if you end up getting it all down, it may not sit well in your system and you’ll have a very hard time digesting it fully.


I am very grateful to my professors for the patience and kindness they have shown me for this past month.  With their expertise and creativity, I am sure I will get through this temporary roadblock, insha’allah.

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