I was initially surprised when I realized I’m learning a “fourth” language. It seemed like quite a high number for someone who “doesn’t enjoy” learning languages. But then, I wouldn’t say I “know” Spanish or Russian. (Although my brain sometimes pulls up Russian or Spanish words for things instead of French. I haven’t got everything straightened out yet.) I just learned more of them than I have Finnish or Esperanto. After almost a year of learning, I now know French better than my other two “second languages,” but I still wouldn’t say I “know” it.
When people call French “the language of love,” I think what they actually mean is, it is complicated, irrational, confusing, and didn’t get slowly abandoned in the 12th century only because people seem to enjoy it for some reason. Don’t get me wrong, English is not much better (also a 2/5), and Spanish (3/5) and Russian (3/5) have their own little complications as well. I’m sure I’d find many Asian languages problematic as well with their tonal dependence and symbolic character-sets.
What I’m trying to say is, most languages seem a bit terribly designed. Probably because they weren’t designed at all. It is clear to me that languages came about just by humans grunting in more and more specific ways, without giving any thought to how confusing it would get, or how easy it would be to learn. Then some people accidentally got drunk on fermented grape juice and started grunting differently than the people that got drunk on fermented barley water, and it turned out they didn’t like each other anyway, so they stopped grunting at each other for a few centuries. Frankly I’m amazed anyone can be fluent in one language, let alone four.
So what are the specific problems with French? The biggest problem for me is the disconnect between spelling and pronunciation. Many words seem to be spelled with superfluous vowels, leading h’s aren’t pronounced at all, and it seems like some words have half their consonants disappear when spoken aloud. This leads to many words more words sounding alike than should (“poubelles” and “plus belle” for example; “garbage” and “most beautiful”, so be careful when flirting), and makes it difficult to differentiate between plural and singular forms (and a great many other things) in conversation.
On the one hand, this makes speaking easier, because you can be sloppy and imprecise, and that’s just how French is supposed to sound. On the other hand, it is that much more difficult to understand native speakers.
Another problem is that it’s a gendered language, which is a wholly unnecessary feature that many other languages share. This wouldn’t be so bad in itself, if not for the fact that of course there are a million exceptions to the gendering rule. Fortunately, the pronunciation rules make the gender pairing of adjectives and articles almost entirely irrelevant in spoken conversation. Which just again raises the question of why the words are gendered in the first place.
Irregular verbs are also quite an annoyance, especially when they’re important ones like “to be.” But at least there are fewer conjugation tenses than in Spanish.
So far, I have enjoyed my experience of learning French more than my experience learning Spanish, for a few reasons. First: motivation. Spanish was because I had to, French is because I want to. This seems to open my mind up to receive it better, and I’m more willing to practice when I can. Second: no tests. I mean, there are “tests” in my online lessons, but if I get questions wrong, I just try again and it doesn’t go on my permanent record. It makes me much more willing to try, fail, and try again, which seems better for my learning process. Third: tangible results. As I learn more in my lessons, I can understand more when I’m out and about the very next day. It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle that improves your understanding of the world each day. For example, when I learned “celui” early on, I immediately started hearing it spoken all the time, and the world became 1% less gibberish. That’s progress!
On the other hand, learning a language is an interminable process, which is a bit demotivating. I’m still learning new bits of English even today! Just this summer I learned “pullulate”! “Learn French” is something I’ll never be able to cross off my todo list, because there’s always more. One of the most frustrating things about trying to speak a foreign language is that I sometimes forget how to simplify my
vocabulary words, and don’t know the French for the words I’m trying to use. People using synonyms at me is going to be trouble for a while yet.
If I’m totally honest though, I’m not as far along with fluency as I could be. I haven’t been doing my lessons every day, and I haven’t signed up for a tutor or language exchange. (Though I do at least turn on French subtitles on Netflix.) Learning a new language is mentally exhausting and time consuming, but so is almost everything else about starting a new life and a new job on a new continent. (Not to mention being busy almost every weekend in an effort to take as much advantage as I can of my time here.) But maybe now that racing/hiking/biking season is over, I’ll have more time to commit to linguistic efforts.
Maybe it would go better if I thought of it more like a nerdy hobby. After all, I know a lot of, let’s say, “fringe” words (or phrases) like
- Bose-Einstein Condensate
- LaPlace Transform
- Cthulhu fhtagn
- Benny Lava
- Blown Diffuser
- Scandinavian Flick
I guess you could say I know one or two extra languages’ worth of words already, so French shouldn’t be too hard. It’s just a matter of learning new habits of speaking.