March 3, 2011 | French

Language Study Makes Air Travel Fun

I take my French to Kalamazoo.

I have returned to doing Pimsleur lessons while running. With the easier languages, I find it possible. With harder languages, it is often too hard; I run out of air and brain fuel.

Tiny iPod Nano Holds Large Quantity of Pimsleur Lessons; Raisin for Scale

Tiny iPod Nano Holds Large Quantity of Pimsleur Lessons; Raisin for Scale

Today after a Pimsleur run I flew via Detroit to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I will be teaching a grammar class (English grammar, that is) for a corporate client. This is through the communication skills training company, Syntaxis, that I run with my husband.

Studying languages has made air travel a lot more fun than it was for a while after 9/11. In fact, these days air travel is kind of heavenly, because without office-related distractions it is very easy to spend the entire flight and airport time on my language books and sometimes my Pimsleur lessons. Irksome things such as flight delays become almost irrelevant, since I always have something I like to do while I wait.

I do find that airplanes aren’t great for Pimsleur, because trying to hear a lesson against the sounds of the plane engines gives me ear strain. Also, if you are sitting next to someone on the plane, you will quickly become annoying as you say your responses to the Pimsleur prompts, especially since it is hard for people to tell how loudly they are speaking when they have a headset on.

Even airports aren’t always ideal for Pimsleur, because of all the TVs they have blaring these days throughout the waiting areas, and all the boarding announcements, which seem much louder than usual when you are in the middle of concentrating on the pronunciation of a critical foreign-language phrase.

Detroit Airport's Moving Walkways: Pimsleur-Friendly

Detroit Airport’s Moving Walkways: Pimsleur-Friendly

However, I have done Pimsleur lessons strolling through airport terminals, up and down escalators, and along moving walkways. It is fun.

Here are some things I need to figure out about French.

First, why there are three words and not just two (since there are two genders, masculine and feminine, in French) for “pretty” (beau, bel, belle) and “new” (nouveau, nouvel, nouvelle).

Second, am I correct in thinking that you pronounce the l sound in ville (city), but that in similarly constructed words such as famille (family), fille (daughter), and gentille (nice) you do not? Why is that?

Third, mignon is “cute.” So does filet mignon translate essentially as “cute filet”?

Fourth, I remain perplexed by a sentence in one of my exercises, reading, “Le père de Maman et de Papa, c’est notre grand-père.” (The father of Mom and Dad is our grandfather.) You aren’t really allowed to do that in French, are you? It sounds like the beginning of an unfortunate Appalachia joke.

Japanese at the Detroit Airport

Japanese at the Detroit Airport

Finally, I need a major accent mark/diacritics review. I got off on the wrong foot in my understanding of French accent marks back in 1984, when I somehow missed the part where the teacher explained the difference between an accent aigu—as in é—and an accent grave, as in è. I think I was well into second-year French before my instructor pointed out that I was incorrectly pronouncing them the same way. 

Despite the questions spiraling out of control, studying French is so exciting at this point because it is just pouring back into my brain. Each sentence I encounter in a grammar book trains me for and reminds me of many more.

A lot of people tell me they don’t have time to study a new language. In such cases, an alternative could be to study an old one, one you learned in school.

Often in the U.S. that means Spanish or French. It is less mentally demanding to re-study a familiar language than to start a brand new one, and there is a nostalgia about it that I think has some fascinating emotional and psychological components. It feels to me as though it turns back time.

I am really loving it. And one thing that’s funny, too—following Japanese, French feels almost like the same language as English!

One way it is clearly not the same language is the way certain words of what look like common etymology take on different meanings and associations in French versus English. I was amused by some of the vocabulary I encountered in the McGraw-Hill book French Vocabulary by Eliane Kurbegov, which I began in the Detroit airport while waiting for my Kalamazoo flight. (The book made a mechanical problem on my flight, one with an initially indeterminate delay, completely tolerable.)

Here are some examples I found interesting:

  • “Cohabitation” translates as le concubinage.
  • “Pregnancy” is grossesse.
  • “Bachelor” is célibataire.

One phrase that really amazed me appeared in this sentence: “Une fille peut être un garçon manqué,” which translates as, “A girl can be a tomboy.” Doesn’t the part that means “tomboy” translate more literally into something like “a boy with something missing”?! Or am I mistaken?

This vocabulary book (which is part of a series McGraw-Hill has for other languages as well) cracks me up sometimes. The choice of examples is kind of random. For example, one was: “C’est l’urticaire qui me donne une démangeaison.”

Translation: “It is this rash that gives me an itch.”

Comments (4)

mimi • Posted on Wed, March 09, 2011 - 4:25 pm EST

another good word is the French word for left . In fact, did you notice that in most languages the word for left is derogatory?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, March 09, 2011 - 9:34 pm EST

Really? I will have to pay more attention. I did stop to consider the other day that the French word for “left,” “gauche,” has a negative meaning in English. I see now, looking it up, that it does in French as well: besides also translating as the English-language “gauche,” it can mean “clumsy,” “gawky,” “shy,” etc. Thanks, Mimi!

Manon • Posted on Wed, March 09, 2011 - 10:22 pm EST

I’m a native French speaker from Montreal who just loves your blog!

1)There are in fact 3 words for “pretty” because “bel” is just a variation of “beau” that you use in front of a masculine singular noun that starts with a vowel. For example: “le bel avion” (the beautiful plane) sounds better than “le beau avion”.

2) You’re right about the “l” sound in the word “ville”. It is not pronounced the same as “fille”, “famille” and “gentille”.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, March 10, 2011 - 12:55 am EST

Thank you, Manon, for the explanation in #1. That sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps, from years gone by! And thank you for confirming #2. I guess French is not quite as consistent in pronunciation as I was remembering…

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