We were treated to a day or two of snowy weather this week, apparently not a regular occurrence here even though we are so near to the mountains.
It was only the lightest of dusting however, so instead of building snowmen and tobogganing down the field like happy children we contented ourselves with a walk just for the novelty of seeing our landscape slightly white. Once back home, Michael returned to one of his regular sessions of learning French from an App on the phone. I was trying to read, despite continuous interruptions.
‘Ha! Here’s a good one. Quelle andouille. What do you think that means?’ He asked.
‘It means ‘What a tool’. Michael laughed, giving me a sudden flashback to what he must have been like as a schoolboy, delighted to find out something he was not supposed to know. ‘And here’s another one; Tu n’as pas intérêt a me poser un lapin.’
He looked at me expectantly.
‘ Well, un lapin is a rabbit, but the rest of it doesn’t make any sense. Nope, don’t know that one either.’
‘It means ‘you’d better not stand me up.’
‘I’m sure we were never taught this sort of French at school.’ I prised myself away from my chair by the fire, walked over to the table and peered over his shoulder.
‘What App are you getting this from? ‘
‘It’s Memrise. For some reason they seem to be concentrating on colloquial phrases and slang. Suits me. I shall be able to swear with the best of them soon.’
We worked at improving our French in different ways. Michael was still at the early stages of learning and he liked to use Apps such as Duo Lingo and Memrise to give him the basics of grammar and to build up a vocabulary. I knew enough French to make myself understood in most situations and could usually understand the gist of what was said to me in response. However, understanding the French when they spoke naturally to each other, and at great speed, or on the radio or in films, was often a challenge and I could easily lose the thread.
I didn’t have the discipline to sit down every day for a few hours studying French as Michael did, much as I wished I could. I can only spend so much of my day in front of a screen and that is usually taken up with writing. Instead, I learn my French on the hoof, googling the words I need as the situation arises.
So, for the vet, where we took Maddie with a leaky bottom, a common affliction of female dogs as they get older, I learnt the phrase ‘les petites flaques’ to describe the puddles on the floor. I learnt the phrase récupérer des courses (to pick up the shopping) when we picked up our first click and collect shopping order from the supermarket, and when we took the van in for its contrôle technique, the French version of our MOT, I learnt the words votre voiture a échoué le CT., which sadly, but not unexpectedly, means it failed.
I learn these words – and then I promptly forget them. I used to be able to soak up information like a sponge. Now I can only surmise that the sponge is full and so remembering the new things I learn is a hit-and-miss affair. As a modernised Sherlock Holmes in the guise of Benedict Cumberbatch said, whilst pointing to his head to illustrate the point; ‘This is my hard drive and it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful – really useful. Ordinary people fill their heads with all sorts of rubbish, and that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters.’
As I am without doubt an ordinary person, my hard drive is obviously full of rubbish and data retrieval has slowed almost to a standstill.
One thing that soon became clear to me, as I listened to Michael practising his French in the background, is that I knew even less than I thought I did. He would often ask me questions about tenses, construction, vocabulary, subtle nuances of speech, assuming that I was proficient enough to be able to answer him. Sometimes I was, although I couldn’t always explain the reasoning behind my answer, but many times it was beyond me. This is rather depressing, but even so, I have decided that it will have to stay that way for the moment. If I have to choose between a walk, splitting logs or even doing the washing against another hour sat at a table, the French lessons always lose. For now, I shall have to keep on muddling through even though that might mean I make some embarrassing mistakes along the way.
There are no shortage of opportunities to sound like an idiot, or worse, for there are a bewildering number of French words that sound similar to English ones, but don’t have the same meaning. These are known as faux amis’ or ‘false friends’ which sums them up perfectly. We are regular readers of ‘The Local’ an excellent website that provides the French news in English. For those of you who want to keep up-to-date on what is happening here, particularly with regard to Covid and Brexit, I can heartily recommend them. If you haven’t come across them already they can be found at thelocal.fr They also have an entertaining section on the language and French customs. The following are a selection of some faux amis blunders sent in by their readers.
Beware the word préservatifs; one reader assumed it meant the same as the English word ‘preservative’ and used it in the context of how she liked French bread because it was made without preservatives. Unfortunately préservatifs means condoms so what she actually said was that she liked French bread as it was condom free. Another example was the verb montrer, meaning ‘to show’, but which can easily be confused with monter, which means to climb, sometimes in a sexual sense. This unfortunate reader used the wrong word on a date. Not surprisingly, the relationship never got off the ground.
Other well known pitfalls can be found with the innocent J’ai chaud meaning I am hot, being all too easily confused with Je suis chaud which can mean I’m horny. Inaccurate pronunciation of merci beaucoup meaning ‘thank you’ so that instead it sounds like merci beau cul turns an innocent phrase into ‘thank you, beautiful arse’, which may well lead to getting your face slapped. But my favourite was the response to some cat-calling building-site workers as a woman walked past. She meant to call them cochons, meaning ‘pigs’, but by mistake said couchons, meaning ‘let’s have sex’.
I’m sure I was never taught about faux amis at school, or perhaps I was, and they are just one more thing I’ve forgotten. Even if the subject was covered, it would certainly never have strayed in to the territory above, which is a shame for it certainly would have made lessons so much more interesting.
Here endeth the lesson, literally, for this week. I leave you with a short video on a snowy scene in the woods a short distance up the lane from the house. You’ve seen this lane before I think and no doubt you’ll see it again, the next time hopefully in full spring greenery.
Take care and keep your spirits up, even though I know it is becoming ever harder to do so.