Comme ça

by Oliver

So, today I decided to be pro-active. I picked up the two french language books I borrowed from the library, found a blank notebook and a pencil, and began to study French. I often daydream about second language acquisition and exactly how effective certain studying methods can be. There are the computer software packages and grammar books for autodidacts and then there is simply pure immersion by way of moving to a different country. I’m a big fan of the immersion method. From the point of view of an armchair linguist (really, is there any other kind?), it’s amazing to think about the many pieces to the puzzle of learning another language. For me, recognising the parts of language acquisition is hard enough because it’s so easy to digress onto other topics. I find it hard to get past Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar – especially after having so many friends say that they simply have no aptitude for learning language – though I’m not sure if I wholly agree with it. So, I start to wonder about the debate of nature vs. nurture, and from there my thoughts are free to drift into any one of various fields that is somehow related to linguistics. After a few minutes I’ve got everything jumbled, so I let it go and feel content with liking that I like the topic.

My point is that I feel most comfortable getting to know a language (the basics; introductory stuff) in a classroom environment. I suppose this is so because it was in a classroom that I began to learn Spanish. I remember a weekend in 2005 when I decided to make flash cards to jump-start myself to study Hungarian. Sadly, it didn’t work out. Though it was a half-hearted attempt, I do admit.

Being able to speak Spanish has given me this incredible ability to understand things in a bunch of other languages like French, Italian, Catalán, Portuguese. It’s so involuntary at this point that to me it feels kind of like a super power. So, after taking an intro to French course at University, living with two french guys (and hanging out with all of their friends) in Spain, and already speaking another romance language, I figure that with a little extra effort learning French on my own shouldn’t be completely impossible.

I started by working on the important stuff pertaining to french verbs – conjugations. I feel like the indicatif présent, passé composé, and conditionnel should nourish me for a bit, especially because French verbs don’t have a ton of inflections. I’ve studied French before and understand certain things that I read and can get the gist of a conversation (I owe a lot to context), but I’ve never taken the time to learn about verb conjugations and grammar from a book. My favourite moment of studying today was learning about the passé composé and how the phrases I have bought and I bought in English can be expressed together with one phrase in French, j’ai acheté. The passé composé relies on an auxiliary verb (j’ai; avoir; to have) + a participle (acheté; acheter; to buy) in order to express the past tense. I think that’s really cool because in Spanish we don’t have auxiliary verbs and in English we do. I also find it fascinating that the passé composé is technically the present perfect tense (I have bought) but somewhere along the line it merged with the preterite, or passé simple, (I bought) to form the passé composé. Thus, the phrase “j’ai acheté” can now be translated into English as I have bought and I bought. The preterite (passé simple) still exists in the French language but is primarily used in literature, as stated in the book I’m reading.

I have another book I’m reading, 1001 Pitfalls in French, that explains some interesting things about vocabulary, namely the history of certain words that have a circumflex (^) or an acute accent (´).

1. A circumflex indicates where an S once existed in old French. (ex. forêt)
Note: as stated, this would imply that the modern word forêt, which means forest in
English, was once actually spelled forest in old French. Yet, this would not change the
pronounciation because words ending with -est and -êt are pronounced the
same way.

2. A word that begins with É or E indicates that at one time the word in Latin began with S.
ex. établissement [Latin stabilis]
école [Latin schola]
esprit [Latin spiritus]

3. The final E is always a Y in English. (ex. faculté [English faculty])

Simple pleasures.