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In my “Late Life Language Learning” series I was thinking mostly of older folks – like me – who might have been intimidated – as I was – at the thought of learning a language. But starting here I’m shifting gears. I’ll begin to cover ideas, thoughts, and experiences that are relevant to any language learner, regardless of age, language, and experience level.
This time around, I want to talk about trying to have always some kind of French-language reading going on in the background of whatever was happening along my learning time line. I started this early, because to my surprise, I discovered that even early beginner-level ability offers a glimpse behind doors that had previously been closed when I knew no French at all.
What is behind those doors? It’s a little hard to express, but – without, I hope, getting too esoteric – for me it has to do with the extent to which the beginnings of a picture of the French culture became slowly, but increasingly, visible to me through the ways in which thoughts, ideas, stories – even the signs on the highways and in the parks – are expressed in French. I’ll leave it there for now, but I think you’ll see what I mean in what I’m about to tell you.
I think it was in the sixth grade that, on rainy no-outside-recess days, my teacher began reading to the class a translation of Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” We eventually got through the whole book (it must have been a rainy winter!), and I had really enjoyed the story. So when I saw in a Paris bookstore Verne’s name on a book with the title ”Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers,” I thought, “Aha!”, and I bought it. And I started “reading” it – sort of. I can’t even guess my comprehension level, but it was pretty low.
But – and this is my point – it didn’t matter! Particularly since I had known the story since sixth grade, I could identify in the French version the stretches of text where the things I knew were going to happen, actually did happen. Besides that, I took full advantage of the wonderful fact that there are so many cognates – words in the two languages that both mean (pretty much) the same thing and that look alike.
Helpful Hint: But to trip you up there are also the “faux amis” – “false friends” – words that look alike but that might mean quite different things. “Banc” means “bench,” for example, not “bank.”
But back to my story: Separately from all that, for me it was just hugely fun to become re-acquainted, in Verne’s very own French, with this great work of early science fiction, which I had first met so many years ago. And I – monolingual since birth – was actually reading in another language! Granted, it took me over a month to get through it, and I nearly wore out my dictionary. (Full disclosure – I also skipped some of the long descriptions.) But it got me started, and now I am never without having at least a couple of French-language books going as background to whatever French learning activities in which I might be involved – and in the ‘tween times, too, when, I have nothing formal under way.
You understand, I am sure, that the amount of information actually arriving in my brain from that early reading was pretty slim, but it has been increasing as my vocabulary grows and my grasp of the details of the grammar and structure evolves slowly. I had to accept the certainty that at first I would miss most of the wonderful subtleties and innuendos that good writing offers, and that following, crudely, the basic story line would have to do.
Then, into my life from another direction entirely came “Le Petit Nicolas”! Think of a French “Dennis the Menace,” though that comparison really fails to do justice to the sparkling prose of René Goscinny and the simple but inspired illustrations of Jean-Jacques Sempé. It was our first French tutor, Pico, who gave it to us, but it is a well-established classic in France.
Written in the language of the French schoolboy, Nicolas, this collection of first-person narrations of his day-to-day adventures at home, at school, among his friends, and with his parents is a perfect early read for a French learner – and it is screamingly funny! Because the stories are purportedly being told by an eighth-grader, the formal vocabulary used is not very challenging, and yet it introduces a few words of informal French as well. The dictionary says that “chouette” (pronounced “sweat” – almost) means “owl,” but it can also mean “cool!” – and it’s a favorite word of Nicolas’!
Helpful Hint: Meanings change with context. When you are in the butcher shop, the word “tranche” is much more likely to mean a “slice” of something edible than it is to mean a “partial loan disbursement” (another translation). So – knowing the context is a huge tip-off as to what that intimidating pile of still-foreign-looking text might be trying to convey.
At the other end of the vocabulary-difficulty scale is anything by Victor Hugo. I’m ashamed to tell you how long I have been carrying around on my Kindle “Notre Dame de Paris” (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), but I am less ashamed to tell you that native French speakers agree that it is a difficult read.
What else? Well, a daily email of the headlines from “La Figaro” is available, free, and is great practice on current-events-based material. There’s Flaubert’s boring (sorry, but it is) “Madame Bovary” – it’s a classic, of course, but I get impatient with it.
High on the list for me is “Les Misérables,” a rewarding read, though its length makes it a major challenge. Read the last chapter, anyway, and if that’s too much, read the last few pages, which contain the short epitaph of Jean Valjean. I have read those four lines a thousand times, and they still bring tears to my eyes – but only in the original French. The real sense, message, and feeling in this passage are a perfect demonstration that there are passages in French that are untranslatable to English.
You might not like my list, so feel free to make your own choices. But read, and keep reading, whatever else you might be doing (or not doing) to advance your ability in French. I promise you, you will learn more than the French language.
So – what would you add to, or use instead of, my list of French background reading materials?