French language trouble Part 1: The race is on — can you relate?
The trouble with French is that it’s impossible to learn! Yes, it is. Especially for older people. Well, that’s certainly been the case for one old person — i.e. me.
Let me elaborate…
To kick-off, I’ll set out my (very thin) credentials: I’m an elderly, probably prejudiced, mildly dyslexic, but ardent francophile who has lived in France for almost a quarter of a century.
And, although I’ve tried really, really hard to speak good French, helas, the language I’ve learned falls far short of what the l’Académie française would like me to speak. (After all, eliminating the ‘impurities in French’ is their raison d’être.)
What I speak, is a colloquial, regional language, perfect for interacting with the locals—because it’s what they speak. And it works well, down here in la France profonde.
So I can and do get on famously with the neighbourhood villageois, many of whom don’t really speak French the way l’Académie would like them to either. Most communicate in a hearty amalgam of patois, slang, gros mots, and Occitan or lenga d’òc.
And when my pétanque mates talk to me, they moderate their language, using a somewhat more standard French than they do amongst themselves. No doubt in the hope that it will help me to understand them better. And, luckily, it works!
But it’s certainly not the textbook French taught in schools or spoken on France 2 and around the Île-de-France.
Why? Because good French is so bloody hard to learn, that’s why.
Love the French people: struggle with the language?
Prenez garde, however, because I’m untrained in linguistics, and I have all kinds of Anglo-Saxon prejudices. But that’s not going to stop me from prognosticating on a range of things about learning French.
But, right upfront, I must state emphatically that I have only very positive feelings about the French themselves. I’ve always found them to be warm, friendly, helpful, and welcoming hosts, and this makes France a really great place to live.
It has a year-round pleasant climate, great food, and wonderful wine. It’s an incredibly varied and beautiful country. Meaning that it’s as close to living in paradise as one could possibly hope for.
As evidence, the world seems to have worked all this out, and France has more visitors than any other country on the planet.
So, the only downside is French. Or the difficulty I’ve had learning it.
French trouble: why learning French is soooo difficult
Although many readers will disagree, this is a brief summary of why I think it’s so hard to master:
- The spelling is impossible. With umpteen silent letters that are sometimes pronounced, other times not.
- Accents abound. These change the pronunciation (where simply changing the spelling might have been an easier option).
- Numbers take a lot of getting used to. Counting is quite straightforward—until you reach 70. For example, based on how all the preceding numbers are formed, logically, you’d expect 71 to be “seventy and one”. But non! It suddenly becomes soixante-et-onze, or “sixty-and-eleven”. 80 is quatre-vingts (four twenties). And when you get to 98? Well, it’s quite a mouthful: “quatre-vingts-dix-huit” which is “four/twenty/ten/eight”.
- Then there’s the entrenched French gender bias. Ten women make up a group of françaises. But if just one male joins them, they become français. Why? Because, “le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin!” Masculine gender prevails. French feminists recently felt they’d chalked up a victory when gender-neutral nouns were ruled OK. But France’s highest authority on language, l’Académie française issued a scathing declaration. “Inclusive writing” was putting French in “mortal peril.” And reactionary measures that would ban “l’écriture inclusive” documents have recently been proposed by President Macron’s party.
- Finally, there’s the practical side. In these days of computer dominance, the French keyboard seems deliberately designed to thwart communication. The AZERTY set-up has confounded generations of non French students and writers who can’t understand the need to make two strokes to type full-stops and numerals. And finding the very well hidden arobase (@) is always a challenge for those new to French keyboards.
French language troubles: past and future
But the main question that occupies the minds of the language nationalists is this:
Where is French headed?
Especially as an international lingua franca. And even more important to the language jingoes: Where is it in the race for top-tongue against arch-rival English?
These points will be probed in three more articles on my rambling thoughts about the trouble with French. They include:
- How Napoleon struggled with French.
- How the French struggled with French.
- How the French struggle with what the future looks like in the race against English.
- And why it’s still a great idea to learn French.
You can read my second article, ‘Who’s Winning?’ shortly. A suivre sur cette page.
Do you have trouble learning French? Can you relate to Ray’s experiences? Please share in the comments below.
- Ray lives in an 800 year old house in rural SW France where pure French is hard to find.
- Ray’s French would not be approved by l’Academie francaise.
- – 5. Copyright Ray Johnstone
Ray’s paintings of petanqueurs waiting to play at the monument aux morts.(Their French is not the French of l’Academie francaise either)