The first sentence I learned when I came back to the language after the Paris trip was “ne tentez pas mon passager noir.” Which, for all you fellow Dexter fans means: Don’t tempt my dark passenger. While it was fun to utter this to my ex when he angered me or to guys who were being pervy, it isn’t exactly functional in day to day life.
When looking at a language as a whole, it is like staring at the vastness of an ocean. From your perspective on the beach, it is endless.
Fortunately, there are 600 French words that represent 90% of French text. Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian economist famous for the 80-20 rule. 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Applied to languages, this means that 20% of words are used in 80% of conversations.
While it is completely okay to learn a French catch phrase for fun or maybe even a few gros mots, to functionally use the language, you have to lay some groundwork.
I was reading a fitness article that was talking about the foundations of exercise. As a yogini (female who practices Yoga), I often see those pretty poses on Instagram and get frustrated when my body just can’t do firefly pose. Broken down, I can’t do this posture because I have not built upon the basics of a strong core and strong wrists. Yoga for me is more about taming that aforementioned dark passenger than being wildly flexible. My body could do firefly, it just needs to build on the foundations.
There are two things that really rapid-advanced the abilities of mon loulou. One is basic conjugations, which will be the focus of the next post. The other was nailing the core structures he would need the most. Vocabulary is the easiest thing to pick up for most people, so if you know what to do with it, even in the most basic of ways, you are off to a great start.
Here are his top six picks to build a strong French core (avoid the croissants for a strong physical core!)
- Où est (where is): We started building on this as a game. I would ask where something was in French and he would find it. Being able to ask where things are is a crucial skill.
- Est-ce que (is it that): Yes, I am aware this sounds strange to us anglophones and it really has no meaning in French either. So why is it in here? Because it is the basic way to form a question. Est-ce que je peux avoir un biscuit? Am I allowed to have a cookie? Est-ce que tu es malade? Are you sick? Est-ce que on va à la bibliothèque? Are we going to the library? While it isn’t MANDATORY and you will be understood without it, it makes you sound a little more sophisticated.
- Je voudrais (I would like): The polite way to ask for something. Whether ordering food or asking your mom for a glass of water, this is definitely a staple.
- Et toi/vous (and you/you formal): I learned this trick early on. When trying to speak with people, they will ask you questions which you can probably answer on some level, but keeping the conversation all about you isn’t very polite! If they ask your favorite movie, you can give your answer then simply say “et toi/vous” which shows that you are interested in them as well without having to conjugate verbs in your head to ask them complicated questions.
- Je ne comprends pas/Je ne sais pas (I don’t understand/I don’t know): It is okay to admit that you don’t understand/know something. Believe me, faking it can lead to some pretty embarrassing situations.
- Comment dit-on (How do we say): You will use this phrase a million times. It is the simplest way to ask the french word/phrase for something and is arguably the most valuable tool in your box.
He is now at the point where he can say what he needs in most simple situations. But most importantly, he is feeling confident enough to do so. We went to the store the other day to use a gift card he had received for his birthday when he overhears a group of elderly women speaking french. He goes up to them and says proudly: Je parle aussi le français and held his own in a brief interaction with them where they asked where he learned french, his name, how old he was and what he was at the store for.
This is a huge milestone. Not only did he understand and have what he needed to answer their questions, he had the confidence in his ability to approach them. He has his core knowledge down and is now more focused on expanding. In other words, in that ocean I referenced earlier, he is ready to leave the port and start sailing.
*mom cries in French*