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us talk pretty one day

“Learning French is a lot like joining a gang in that it involves a long and intensive period of hazing.” The words belong to David Sedaris, but one can hear similar sentiments echoed along FSI’s corridors by our fellow students. We have both committed to devoting the next seven months to the intensive study of this beautiful but at times utterly maddening language. The experience has not been entirely disagreeable thus far, but then again we’re still at the very beginning of our journey.

inmate closeup

The French department at FSI has a notoriously bad reputation that would jibe well with Sedaris’s observation, though we dare say it probably has more to do with the harshness of the evaluations than with the level of instruction. Our first language tests are still a month away, and on the latter score we have been seriously impressed. In addition to a specially-designed syllabus taught in small classes, the department offers a wealth of multimedia resources and provides one-on-one tutoring. The challenge is finding the time to take advantage of the tools put at our disposal.

S had studied French in high school before switching to Spanish. She also took some French classes in college, but has had scant opportunity to use the language since. Between the Swahili lessons she took in Kenya and the two years she spent trying to learn Russian in Moldova, the French she does remember feels as if it has been covered in moth-eaten blankets and stowed in a cobwebbed trunk deep in the recesses of her brain. Still, she remembered enough to get bumped up into a false-beginner group after the first week of class.

For D, French will be his sixth language, but though he speaks Spanish and some Romanian, he has had no exposure at all to French and is starting from square one. The class is fast-paced and, with five hours of instruction per day, covers a lot of ground. In the first two weeks alone, D’s class went over conjugations of verbs, both regular and a number of irregular ones; definite and indefinite articles; interrogatives; prepositions; both the past and the future tenses; counting; negations; possessive adjectives; ordinal numbers; and a whole bunch of vocabulary, both survival and technical.

The easy thing about learning French is that everything pretty much sounds the same. Sure, nouns are gendered in French, as they are in other Romanesque languages, but there is no difference in pronunciation between singular and plural words. Can’t remember all the verb conjugations? Doesn’t matter much. They may be spelled differently but most verbs are pronounced exactly the same regardless of whether the subject is I, you, he, she, it, or they.

The hard thing about learning French is that everything pretty much sounds the same. Good luck taking notes when your teacher unleashes a torrent of nasal sounds punctuated by some aggressive throat clearing. Even if you’re lucky enough to identify the individual syllables, chances are you’d still be at a loss to spell what you’re hearing. For example, the letter combinations IN, IM, AIN, AIM, EIN, EIM, YN, and YM all produce the same exact sound — all without the hint of a consonant.

Knowing Spanish certainly helps, but only up to a certain point because of how differently words are pronounced from the way they are written. Considering how many of the letters are swallowed in speech, the temptation is simply to drop the endings off all French words. This, however, turns out to be just as wrong as pronouncing the many letters that are meant to be silent. “Say all of these letters,” D’s teacher scolds in exasperation. “How will we know what you’re saying if you don’t pronounce the whole word?” she continues, oblivious to the obvious irony of her words.

The instructors get rotated every eight weeks so, between the two of us, we’ll likely know most of the department by next summer. For now, we’re both happy with our instructors and their teaching styles. D, in particular, has developed an appreciation for his teacher’s tendency to deliver hilariously unintentional one-liners. “Oh no, I said that completely wrong,” laments one of D’s colleagues after answering a question. “No, no,” his teacher rushes to reassure, “just the pronunciation.” And therein lies the rub.

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