March 29, 2011 | French

The French Alphabet and Food Gender

Amid great progress, basic things stymie me.

I am using some new tools to help advance my French skills. First, I have begun listening to French radio stations via the Web, focusing on news and cultural programs from Paris.

In addition, last night I came home to discover that Brandt had downloaded a new Google Translate app—a free one—onto my iPhone for me.

It is fabulous. You speak the English word into your phone and it provides you with the foreign-language equivalent in writing. Which you can then play as well if you need help with pronunciation. The voice recognition is pretty impressive. 

Talk to the Phone in English...

Talk to the Phone in English…

...and Out Pops French, for Free!

…and Out Pops French, for Free!

Brandt and I are still speaking French to each other. We have had lapses, but the majority of the time we are living in a non-English household. Even though we sometimes get lazy about pronunciation and vocabulary, I think our efforts are making a huge difference.

Turn Sideways If You Like Your French Supersized

Turn Sideways If You Like Your French Supersized

This afternoon I went to the Haitian consulate, near Grand Central, to see if I could set up an appointment to talk with someone there about Haitians in New York. There are speakers of French from all over the world in this city.

Everyone I spoke to in the office was extremely nice to me, and my conversations were in French. I felt pretty proficient compared to 28 days ago, and pretty proud of myself—until a woman tried to spell out for me the e-mail address of the person I needed to write to for an appointment, and things fell apart. I went from confident constructor of sentences to pre-nursery-school analphabet!

Oui, c’est vrai, I barely know my alphabet in French. I have mentioned this as an issue before, with at least one other language. You have to be able to recite the alphabet in a language or you can’t follow spellings and you look like a moron. I know the sounds pretty well, but I have forgotten the names of some of the sounds.

En Route to the Haitian Consulate

En Route to the Haitian Consulate

When I was studying Italian, my seven-year-old niece taught me to say the alphabet. I will ask Brandt to teach me the French.

Anyway, as usual, I am still going nuts with the grammar exercises. I have now finished Annie Heminway’s book Complete French Grammar and am focusing on a new one I bought, French Pronouns and Prepositions, also by Heminway, as well as a couple of others I already had.

One is called French Verb Tenses (by Trudie Maria Booth), and though I like it, there are little spacing things about it that are sometimes annoying. For example, the blank spaces aren’t always big enough to accommodate my answers. So I have to squish things in and then I can’t read them when I am checking what I wrote against the answer key.

In one case in this same book, I was asked to translate a paragraph from English to French, but the lines for the translation were on the back side of the page where the English was. You can’t flip back and forth every three words to see what you’re translating; it just isn’t manageable. So I wrote the translation in the margins next to the English and made a big mess.

Grammar Book Designers: Consider Spacing!

Grammar Book Designers: Consider Spacing!

I Needed These Lines a Page Earlier

I Needed These Lines a Page Earlier

It may not sound like a big deal, but little things like this can add up and dent the pleasure of studying.

A question about grammar, something that has puzzled me for a while. An adjective in French has to match up in gender and number with its noun, but in rapid speech, especially when the relevant noun is not mentioned in the utterance, do French speakers bother?

For example, let’s say you are eating some food, and it is delicious, and you want to say so. Would you actually consider the food’s gender and say delicieuse if it’s female (e.g., viande, or “meat”) and delicieux if it’s male (porc, for “pork”)?

Or do you just default to male?

It seems too complicated to consider what you’re eating, get the gender, and match your adjective. By then your food will be cold and no one will give a damn.

A final observation for the day: I feel sorry for French teachers who have to teach their high school students the word for “shower.” It is douche. How much giggling does that provoke every year in French classes?

It is impossible to imagine.

Comments (6)

Lisa T. • Posted on Wed, March 30, 2011 - 9:50 pm EST

It’s sort of terrible but you won’t forget the alphabet:

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, March 30, 2011 - 10:43 pm EST

Well, it won’t win any short-film awards, I suppose, but it resolved longstanding questions I had about g, j, v, w, x, y, and z. I will have to look at it again tomorrow. Thank you, Lisa!

mimi • Posted on Thu, March 31, 2011 - 9:27 am EST

I can speak for Italian, not French, but I’ll bet it’s the same. Native speakers do not have to pause and think about the sex of the object any more than you have to think about who you are talking about when you say “He’s really hot” - you know he’s a he… Italian speakers do not go generic..They already know if it’s a masculine or feminine word before the adjectives or pronouns come out of their mouths..

Manon • Posted on Thu, March 31, 2011 - 11:01 am EST

You are right. We simply say “C’est délicieux” if the noun we are referring to is not mentionned. However, if we do mention the noun (for example “Les fraises sont délicieuses”, the strawberries are delicious) then the adjective has to match up in gender and number with the noun.

Katherine • Posted on Thu, March 31, 2011 - 12:51 pm EST

I can tell you that in Russian you always match up the gender when you just say the adjective, exactly what Mimi wrote above. You know how people tend to refer to cars as being feminine?  They will say “She is beautiful!” when referring to a Corvette.  It’s kind of the same but it runs deeper and is just ingrained in your mind.

They say that studying foreign languages prevents memory loss in your old age.  I think that obstacles like this are what make this statement true.  You are constantly trying to retrain your brain to do something you have never done before so that it will eventually become natural. Kind of like mental fitness, keeping your brain in shape the way you do with your body.  Call me in 40 years and I’ll let you know if this is true! Haha

Katherine • Posted on Tue, May 31, 2011 - 4:01 pm EST

Here is a really interesting interview from NYT that discusses what I mention in my post above!

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