Learning French in Provence it’s Not a Race
Never Argue With Your French Teacher
My wife Val and I live in California but I spend several months every year in St-Rémy-de-Provence. When we first started doing this some years ago, Val spoke basic French and I spoke next to none. So we each took classes in the US to improve our French and then, after a few years of this, started private lessons in Provence with a professor named Geneviève.
I was nervous about starting a weekly class of just Val and me. On the one hand, it would really help me improve because I’d get lots of attention from the professor. On the other hand, Val’s been studying the language a lot longer than me and all that attention would make abundantly clear how much better she is. But part of learning any language is accepting occasional humiliation so I’ve resigned myself to it.
The first time we had a class with Geneviève, she pulled a book off a shelf and asked us to each read a few paragraphs. She wanted to test how good our pronunciation was.
I knew we were in trouble as soon as Val started. As she spoke, Geneviève began writing notes on a pad of paper. After a few sentences, she started grinning. Then she started giggling. When it was my turn she put down her pen and started laughing out loud and wiping her eyes.
Geneviève’s not one to mince words. “Your pronunciation is terrible,” she said.
French Language Basics
Thus our first lesson went straight to the basics.
“You will begin by learning how to pronounce the letter R,” she said. “You Americans pronounce this letter in the mouth.”
“Well duh,” I thought to myself, “of course we do. We talk with our mouths, don’t we?”
But leave it to the French to be different. Geneviève explained that, instead of the mouth, the French R comes from the back of the throat—kind of an “rrrr” sound that’s a little like growling. She had us practice it over and over, growling louder and louder until her dog got upset and started barking at us.
“Now I’ll explain how to pronounce the letter U,” said Geneviève. “It’s very simple—when a U is in the middle of a word, you make a U sound. When it’s at the end of a word, you don’t.”
“Hm,” I thought.
“Instead,” she continued, “you must make an ‘O’ shape with your lips at the same time you make an ‘E’ sound with your mouth.”
You’d think the French would just settle on one vowel at a time, but no.
Next was the combination OU. Here we learned that again you use your throat—Geneviève described it as kind of like a dog howling. We had fun practicing that one until her dog joined in and the neighbors complained.
Val and I practiced what we learned from Geneviève and eventually, our pronunciation improved, but for a while, we were very self-conscious, what with all our growling and howling.
Testing Language Limits
After a few weeks of working on spoken French, Geneviève decided to test our writing.
“You will each write an essay,” she said, handing us a thick document. “You’ll read this article about the American government changing the rules on how cheeses can be aged, then you’ll write a paper commenting on it.”
This is where I was reminded how much better Val’s French is than mine. And how much more she knows about cheese. She wrote a brilliant and incisive analysis of US cheese legislation going back to the 19th century. She compared French and American cheese-making techniques, quoted famous figures in the history of cheese, and threw in a fondue recipe for good measure. I, on the other hand, was proud that I’d translated Monterey Jack correctly (Jacques de Monterey). You can guess who was going to be class valedictorian.
I’ve done my best to catch up to Val, though. One way is by reading Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper. One day there was an article that used the term tête-à-queue and I liked the sound of it, so I looked it up and found that it means, “reversing direction.” It’s an old term that comes from when cattle turned around, with their heads (têtes) ending up where their tails (queues) used to be. The article had used it to describe someone changing their negotiating position.
“Here’s my chance!” I thought. “I’ll use this in my next paper. Geneviève will be dazzled by my command of obscure French terms and give me an A+. Say goodbye to being class dunce!” So I used it to describe a TV cameraman turning his camera around 180 degrees.
I watched eagerly as Geneviève corrected our papers at the start of the next class, waiting for her reaction. She was partway through mine when she got to the bit about the camera. She stopped correcting and looked at me sternly. Uh oh.
“No, no, no!” she said, “This is not at all correct! You can only use the term to describe COWS or perhaps sheep but nothing else.” Then she put a big red mark over the offending words, one of many big red marks on my paper.
Teacher Knows Best
Usually, I meekly accepted Geneviève’s corrections but his time I wasn’t ready to give up so easily.
“Wait,” I said, “tête-à-queue was used in Le Monde to mean something else! Look!” I had the article with me and showed it to her, which led to a lot of harrumphing. She was forced to admit that Le Monde was a pretty good citation.
One point for Keith!
Geneviève then walked over to a shelf and pulled out a thick book. “Let’s consult the Robert dictionary,” she said. She flipped through it and found the definition, then pointed to it triumphantly. It was a little ambiguous but seemed to support her position.
Dang, one point for Geneviève. We were deadlocked. But two could play this game.
“Let’s see how Larrouse defines it,” I said, and pulled out my iPhone. Larrouse and Robert are competing French dictionary companies and I hoped they wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on tête-à-queue. I opened up my online dictionary and found the definition. Like the Robert, it was somewhat ambiguous but seemed to support my position.
Now it was 2-1 Keith and I was feeling a little smug. I was going to the head of the class! But not so fast.
“There’s one final arbiter,” Geneviève announced. “The Académie française!” This is the august group that has the last word on any question relating to the French language. Its members are so revered they’re called Immortels.
“I’ll check their dictionary in the village library and report the results in our next class,” said Geneviève. Then she leaned forward, looked me right in the eye and smiled confidently.
Let’s just say that Val’s class standing was not threatened for long.
This story is adapted from the book Are We French Yet? available soon on Amazon.
Discover Keith and Val’s expat story: Why Choose Provence Lifestyle? Experiences by Author Keith Van Sickle