Learning another language at any age (except when rocking a pacifier is trendy) is a roller coaster of ups and downs. When you actually manage to string together your first sentence of “Hello my name is Kate and I have two cats,” you’re so sure you’ve got this language thing down that you’re convinced you’ll be a bilingual babe in months. But then someone tells you that the way you’re pronouncing the word kiss with a z sound on the s is actually the pronunciation for the word f*ck, and you realize that that bilingual babe status is way farther off than you thought. Oh and you’d like to melt in your chair and disappear now, thanks.
I absolutely had my fair share of ups and downs when I was learning French, and I still learn and (often) make mistakes 10 years later. Here’s the 5 things I find the most challenging about learning and speaking French, even today!
1. VOUS AND TU: THE TWO VERSIONS OF YOU
There are two words for “you,” in French- tu and vous. Tu is informal and used in a singular way. So if I said to my sister “would you order me a pizza?” I would you use tu. But vous is both formal singular and can be used in a plural form. So if I was asking a stranger “do you know where the Eiffel tower is?” or talking to two friends and asking “what do you want to do?” I would pop a vous into that sentence. Sounds pretty clear right?
Well don’t be fooled my friends. All these different ways of using “you” mean that first off, you have to learn all kinds of different ways to conjugate verbs. Since the verbs following tu and vous are neither spelled nor pronounced the same way, it means double the trouble when it comes to memorizing conjugations.
At least memorizing isn’t complicated per say. It’s more time consuming. BUT what can be complicated is remembering when to use the vous versus tu because if you accidentally use the informal version when you should have used the formal version, it’s pretty much considered an insult. Example, you’re trying to renew your visa and accidentally use tu with the worker at the Prefecture. Could a visa rejection be in your near future? I wouldn’t be surprised…
2. ON: THIRD PERSON SINGULAR
The word on has so many different meanings in French, it’s no joke hard to keep track. But it mainly translates to “we” in French and is used for the most part when you’re speaking, not writing. What’s so complicated about on is that while it usually means “we,” it can mean “someone,” “you”, “they,” and even “he” and “she” and “I”. The key to understanding what on means, is understanding the context of the phrase. That’s easy enough when you’re an advanced speaker, but not so easy when you’re just learning. If someone says “on m’a dit que…” you know the sentence is “xx told me” but you don’t know who the crack “on” is until you hear the rest of the sentence and put everything into context. For the most part, it becomes natural as some point… I promise. But I still have times where I’m scratching my noggin’ thinking, who the heck is on today?
It’s rough as an adult to try and mimic sounds you have never attempted to master as a tiny tot. If you’re like me, it’s virtually impossible and you get put in special “pronunciation” classes, on Saturday MORNINGS, for the students who really just can’t be understood. 🙁 But even if you’re a world class “pronunciater,” reading off words you’ve never seen before becomes an absolute riddle in French. Because what you see is absolutely not what you get in the Land of Cheese. French words are full of silent letters. When I say silent, I mean almost every word, in every sentence, of every paragraph has AT LEAST one silent letter. Of course the letters have a purpose or the French would just chop them off, guillotine style. They distinguish gender, number, plurality and verb agreement, but as a non native speaker, they also stand for challenging with a capital C.
You might think that when it comes to accents, I’m talking about all those different regional accents, right? Those accents are kind of challenging too but, I’ll get to those next. Right now I’m actually referring to all those tiny slashes and dots that help guide you in pronouncing all those letters that aren’t silent. These are extra difficult because we don’t have accents in English, so we can’t compare them to something we already understand. Plus, the thing about accents is that even though you want to just ignore them since a tiny slash just can’t be THAT important, you really shouldn’t. Multiple words can be spelled the same and only the accent makes the difference. Élevé means to raise, like raise a child and élève is a student. Only those tiny slashes makes all the difference.
5. REGIONAL ACCENTS
Normally when I think of accents, I’m thinking sexy French accent that makes we weak in the knees or that fancy British accent during High Tea. I’m not usually thinking of a thick Scottish accent that I can barely understand in my own mother tongue. But that’s what I’m referring to here. It’s a total twist when you feel like you’ve got this French thing down and then you take a train three hours south and have to ask the woman at the boulangerie to repeat three times because you’ve got no clue what she’s saying. And sometimes it’s not just their pronunciation that’s different, it’s also the vocabulary that throws you for a loop. You jaunt down to Bordeaux and the word beaucoup and tres is replaced by gave. Which I might add, is pronounced like the verb se gaver, which means “to gorge oneself.” So if you don’t know whats up, you’re like why is this guy talking about overeating 5 times in one minute?
Whelp, those are my 5 biggest challenges when learning another language, but I know there are many more! What are yours? Don’t forget to leave them in the comments below! ♥