French Beyond the Classroom

I started learning French during middle school, so I am not sure what kind of vocabulary French 101 at the U-M teaches. If you are just starting to learn French, maybe you will add to your repertoire the travel-guide basics – bonjour (hello), ça va (how are you?/I’m fine), où est la toilette? (where’s the toilet?).

As you advance, you will probably learn more basic, but less touristic words, like singe (monkey) or trottoir (sidewalk). In my personal experience, though, reading French poems and writing French essays can deceive you into thinking that you are proficient, if not advanced, in French.

One of my personal weaknesses is listening. Professors speak slowly and they really enunciate well, so I usually understand everything spoken in the classroom. But, when I went abroad, I realized that the youths have their own turbo speed of chatting, especially in their special lingo. I felt like a fish out of water, but I also felt a large improvement in my aural abilities in a short amount of time.

Another perk of going abroad is that you don’t just learn French equivalents of English words; you also profit from a cultural experience. Some of the words that I learned during my internship at KEDGE Marseille are regional. They are words that will never appear on my French paper, or in my reading assignment. Maybe these words aren’t that important. As a foreign-language student, I kind of accepted the fact that there are words native speakers learn in infancy, yet I will never know.

Nevertheless, I still think that it is really cool to have a chat with a native speaker in a setting far away from the classroom. Just by being in Marseilles, I learned that calanques are these rocky cliffs surrounding an inlet, uniquely found in the region. Navettes typically mean shuttles, but they are also delicious biscuits in Marseilles.

Of course, I also learned some non-regional words. They are fairly popular, but in the gastronomic domain, so you will probably have to stumble upon them in a recipe, or during a dinner with a French friend, as I did.

An example illustrated in my internship blog (pardon any grammatical mistakes!):

Pendant la semaine, j’ai rencontré Emmanuelle (Manu), une ambassadrice de KEDGE Bordeaux. Je l’adore ! Nous avons passé beaucoup de temps ensemble et puis je l’ai invité chez moi pour le dîner. C’était une expérience merveilleuse car on ne parle pas de la cuisine à l’école alors j’ai appris ce soir-là des mots comme « cassis », « orge », « pourrir », « décortiquer » (on a mangé des crevettes dans le riz cantonais), et elle m’a enseigné la différence entre « brûler » et « griller » (j’ai trop cuit une crêpe mais c’était seulement marronne et pas noire !), et entre « espionne » et « agent secret » (je n’ai pas su avant le dîner qu’elle est étudiante de KEDGE Bordeaux alors quand elle l’a révélé, j’ai plaisanté qu’elle est espionne).

The approximate translation:

During the week, I met Emmanuelle (Manu), a female ambassador from KEDGE Bordeaux. I really like her! We spent a lot of time together, and I invited her to my place for dinner. It was a marvelous experience because we don’t talk about cooking in school, so I learned that very night some words like cassis (blackcurrant), orge (barley), pourrir (to rot), décortiquer (to de-shell) (we ate some shrimp in fried rice), and she taught me the difference between brûler (to burn) and griller (to grill, so to brown instead of blacken) (I overcooked a crepe but it was only brown and not black!), and between espionne (female spy, with a negative connotation) and agent secret (secret agent) (I didn’t know that she was a KEDGE Bordeaux student, so when she revealed that fact, I joked that she’s a spy).

I feel that I have just begun scratching the surface of “French in the everyday life.” Sure, I can run to if I ever encounter a word, regardless of how basic it is, that I do not know. Yet, when will I be able to fill the gaps that will make my lexicon on par with French kindergarteners’? How many years of schooling will I need, in order to attain the ultimate goal: fluency? This is probably one of the most disheartening worries that language students have.

Maybe an answer is, once you are proficient, go abroad and immerse yourself. Or, the easy way out: you don’t have to be fluent. Learn enough to make small conversations, because you will not need to be completely dependent on the foreign language.

What about a compromise? Incorporate language of the daily life into our courses. Make contact with native speakers via Skype, or other video-chatting applications. Even encouraging students to spend time together, maybe over lunch, speaking the foreign language with a fluent facilitator present, will increase opportunities to learn words like cassis.

— Sheila, University of Michigan student

Hello, Hi, Goodbye?

Greetings and goodbyes are such a strange concept. We come up with these silly phrases to signal the beginning and the end of a conversation, and often they fail to capture what is really meant in the greeting or goodbye – the essence of it. You wouldn’t think much about them, considering how mundane they are, but greetings and goodbyes speak volumes about the culture in which they’re spoken.

Take Swahili, for example. During my month-long study abroad in Tanzania, I had the opportunity to speak Swahili with native speakers after having learned the language for a mere two years. Greetings seemed – initially – like they would be the easiest to say and understand, considering they are rather basic and among the first phrases I learned. But when walking through the market and arriving at home or school, the greetings I heard threw my brain in a tizzy, and “Hellos” I gave were sometimes met with laughter. Why was this?

It seemed, that the “Hellos” and “How are yous” I had concocted were merely the closest translations of my standard American-English greetings. For example I would say, Habari za asubuhi, which literally means news of the morning, or “How are you this morning?,” or Hujambo, which means “Are you not well?” but more colloquially, “Hello.” Although these greetings were perfectly acceptable, they were sometimes silly to the Tanzanians I was greeting because they could sense the “American-ness” of such greetings (not to mention the lack of practiced slang of the area).

I was using only the best Swahili counterparts to my American-English phrases. But when I took the time to learn the greetings and goodbyes of Tanzanian-Swahili, not only was I able to communicate better, but I also got a glimpse into the lives of east Africans.

The greeting Umeamkaje? summarizes this idea perfectly: this simple word literally means, “How have you woken up?” but could be roughly translated to “Did you sleep well?” With this information in mind, I began to see how genuinely Tanzanians care about the well being of one another. I would be greeted this way often in the streets on my walk to the bus stop each morning. In the streets! By strangers! I imagined myself being asked the same question on the street by a stranger in Ann Arbor and I scoffed at the idea – nobody would dare greet a stranger in such a way (or even greet a stranger at all for that matter).

When asked Umeamkaje? so frequently, I soon realized that greetings and goodbyes are more than just easy phrases to initiate or conclude a conversation. They are, rather, a small snapshot of how people in that culture relate to one another.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her book “North to the Orient” touches on the same idea, elaborating on the weaknesses of some goodbyes, rather beautifully:

For Sayonara, literally translated, “Since it must be so,” of all the good-bys I have heard is the most beautiful. Unlike the Auf Wiedersehens and Au revoirs, it does not try to cheat itself by any bravado “Till we meet again,” any sedative to postpone the pain of separation. It does not evade the issue like the sturdy blinking Farewell. Farewell is a father’s good-by. It is – “Go out into the world and do well, my son.” It is encouragement and admonition. It is hope and faith. But it passes over the significance of the moment; of parting it says nothing. It hides its emotion. It says too little. While Good-by (“God be with you”) and Adios say too much. They try to bridge the distance, almost to deny it. Good-by is a prayer, a ringing cry. “You must not go alone, unwatched. God will be with you. God’s hand will be over you” and even – underneath, hidden by it is there, incorrigible – “I will be with you; I will watch you – always.” It is a mother’s good-by. But Sayonara says neither too much nor too little. It is a simple acceptance of fact. All understanding of life lies in its limits. All emotion, smoldering, is banked up behind it. But it says nothing. It is really the unspoken good-by, the pressure of a hand, “Sayonara.”

Hello, hi, goodbye…they all just seem so plain to me now, knowing what I do about the richness of other phrases. And while asking my roommate Umeamkaje? in the morning might be a good-hearted idea, and saying Sayonara each time I must part from someone is certainly romantic, it seems doubtful that these words will ever amount to more than just a cutesy-foreign phrase when borrowed in our daily English jargon.

I do, however, think that it’s time for our English counterparts to mean more… for us to mean more when we say “Hello” and “Goodbye” because our conversations these days seem to be lacking in sincerity.

So when someone concocts the English equivalent of Sayonara, let me know. But until then, Farewell.

— Britt Boyle