Earlier this month, we looked at just how much French you really need to get by in Paris as an expat (answer: not all that much, particularly if you’re ScarJo) and provided a controversial guide to how best to fake it.
But what if you really do want to learn the language of your new adopted city, whether you’re a New Yorker in for the long haul in Paris, or a Parisian opening a fromagerie in Brooklyn?
Four years ago, when I met illustrator Damien Cuypers, the Frenchie who is now my husband, I was crestfallen when I rocked some of my high school and college French on him and he laughed affectionately, telling me I sounded like a cute idiot. Meanwhile, he was already reading the "Hunger Games" books in English.
Though I had a fair grasp of vocabulary and verb tenses, I had no idea just how wrong — how outdated, overly formal, and full of bad syntax — my French was. It used to drive me crazy that I had studied French from the ages of 11 to 20 and still couldn't understand a damn thing they were saying on TV, at the movies, on the radio, or — worst of all — on the street or in bars. That's changed slowly over four years, by a combination of my husband talking to me in French, long periods with his family, who speak minimal English, making myself listen to French TV and radio constantly, and reading the French papers every morning. (That visual-aural double duty is key.)
As a 12-stepper, I also really improved my ear at French 12-step meetings, but I eventually stopped going because they were so morose I felt like I was at a Jean-Paul Sartre Fan Club meeting instead of a recovery group. I switched to English meetings, which were full of rich blond women from London and Sonoma County who spend half their year in Paris.
A few pointers for the language acquisition long-haul:
We’ve said it before, but the only way to learn is to grit your teeth and plunge in.
Many a Parisian night, I’d brace myself for an evening out, in French, with my husband's French friends. Though it may be hard to believe for those who know me, I learned to put most of my energy into listening carefully rather than floridly expressing myself. Head-nodding, engaged looks, and a series of differently inflected "Ah, ouais?" go a long way when you're really just struggling to hang on to the conversational thread.
Allow yourself to revel in the small moments of triumph rather than beating yourself up on not being able to debate the results of the European elections right off the bat.
Says my American friend Matthew Hart, a nonprofit and philanthropy consultant who's been living in Paris since 2012 with his French boyfriend: "I've had some moments of beauty. When I can correctly order food or a drink exactly as I'd like it. Or, after going to the same cheese, fish, and veggie vendors for so long, actually being able to exchange basic niceties and a little banter about the weather and traffic. Finally, being able to handle one of the many interviews that immigration necessitates — driver's license, residency card, electricity transfer — and doing so with a comfortable 30 to 40 percent of comprehension.”
(A huge triumph moment is finally being able to make a joke or a pun in your new language. Mine was "coquine St. Jacques," a mash-up of coquilles St. Jacques, the dish, with the word coquine, which is French for being a bit naughty or even dirty.)
Never underestimate the charm power of your foreign-accented second language. When Gabrielle Attia moved to New York from France, she waitressed in a French restaurant on Ludlow Street. "My French accent and bad English were a chance to get more tips," she says. "People found it very cute, so I would sometimes deliberately make mistakes and ask, 'How do you pronounce that?' And they would find me even cuter and tip better." (Moral of the story? New Yorkers, beware those sly Frenchies, monetizing our American fetish with all things French. They're everywhere these days! Especially Brooklyn.)
Back in Paris, I've gotten my share of, "Ah, c'est trop mignon, ton petit accent américain!" (Oh, that's too cute, your little American accent!)
Accept that you will always have blind spots and bloopers.
No matter how far you progress, you will make embarrassing mistakes or not understand certain idiomatic figures or speech. I once told a friend of my husband that I liked that thing (a necklace) around her ass, because I confused cou (neck) with cul (ass). They sound very alike to an Anglo ear, and I'm not alone. Says fashion blogger Erin Hazelton, "I said that my cou was sore, but it apparently sounded like I said 'ass.' There were a lot of people in line at the pharmacy that day." And she reminds: "Remember that un baiser means a kiss (just like un bisou), but the verb baiser means, 'well, to make the beast with two backs.'”
Speaking of Shakespeare, it can be a common mistake on both sides of the Franglish line to use outdated, archaic words that you might've learned in school. Trying to be polite, I used to use "Veuillez" or "Prière de ... ," which means "Would you please" or "Pardon me for ... ," but those are never used except in writing. I've since switched to a humility-soaked "Excusez-moi, monsieur/madame, mais est-ce que je peux vous déranger ... ", or "Excuse me, may I trouble you ... " Parisian service people like that because it conveys, accurately, that you defer to their needs, not vice versa.
Says Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, a Parisian living in New York, "I used to use indeed or shall a lot, or say I beseech ... " She notes, rightly, that Frenchies often learn British English first, which is why they'll say flat instead of apartment or the lift instead of elevator. It also explains why many of them, jarringly, have a British accent when speaking English. (Marion Cotillard has recently copped to this.)
Also accept that there will be words you'll never be able to pronounce.
For me, it's nouilles, which means noodles, and is pronounced in some bizarre combination of noo-ey and noo-ya (hear it here), which you must have Gallic DNA to master. For my friend Elaine Holt, an English-French translator who has lived in France 23 years, it's the name "Aurore." (That's just one too many of those tricky French Rs for an Anglo tongue to master.) My husband struggled with lettuce, which, adorably, he'd pronounce let-TOOSE his first years in the U.S., to the bafflement of waiters. He couldn't grasp why the Ts were pronounced like Ds.
When you’re ready, don’t be afraid to introduce an idiom or two. Pauline Gentin-Grob, a French visual merchandiser working in New York, says that colleagues here have taught her sayings like "twist my arm" or "a tall glass of water." "They're endlessly fascinating to me, and help me feel like I'm getting even closer to American culture."
I feel the same way about French phrases like casser les pieds (to break someone's feet, meaning to annoy someone), comme un cheveu sur la soupe (like a hair in the soup — but meaning something that shows up out of the blue), and il pleut comme vache qui pisse (it's raining like a pissing cow). I also endlessly laugh over the fact that, in French, a bat is une chauve souris (a bald mouse) and a raccoon is a raton-laveur (a self-cleaning big rat).
I'm also fascinated by le verlan, the slang, invented by French-Arab youth, consisting of simply reversing words, as in Pig Latin, which has caught on in the general French culture. It’s well worth learning because you will hear it everywhere, particularly among younger Parisians of all stripes.
It was first used by French youth of color to not be understood by the police or their parents, and it widely came to France's attention with the celebrated 1995 banlieue drama La Haine. Since then, it's often used by white French people just to show they're cool and chébran, which is verlan for branché, meaning trendy and plugged-in. It's also constantly evolving and is ubiquitous in French hip-hop.
Here is a fairly comprehensive glossary of verlan. But the words you should definitely know if you want to understand contemporary French are:
meuf: reverse of femme, meaning woman
keum: reverse of mec, meaning guy
chanmé: reverse of méchant, which literally means evil or wicked, but also means cool or awesome
relou: reverse of lourd, meaning literally heavy but really meaning difficult or a pain in the ass
céfran: reverse of français, meaning French
beur: reverse of arabe, meaning Arab
ziva: reverse of vas-y, meaning Come on!
tu me séca les yeucou: reverse of tu me casses les couilles, meaning you're breaking my balls
A few terms that technically aren't verlan but that you must know to be cool:
franchement: literally frankly, but cool kids use it as a sentence starter or ender to add emphasis
je kiffe: from an Arabic word, but in this case generally used to mean "like," as in "Franchement, je kif cette meuf."
ça déchire: literally "that tears." Means something is really cool. "Ca déchire, ca, cette nouvelle tube de Daft Punk." (That's awesome, that new Daft Punk song.)
That should hold you in good stead for now. A tobien, les paincos! (That's verlan for "See you later, buds!" Or the reverse of "A bientôt, les copains!")