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Struggling with French

Week 5, Episode 9

Truth been told, French —the third language on my Langventure— by ear always seemed to me like something Joey from "Friends" would hear when it is spoken. Being a big fan of this series myself, I remember an episode where he asks his friend Phoebe who is fluent in French to teach him the language so he can pass the audition and get the part in some movie. And he is trying his best to repeat what she says, but another strange language occurs when Joey speaks French. And in this sense, I am no different to this poor fellah.

This part of my "trip" turned out to be frustrating: I was struggling, I was stalling, I was freaking out and struggling again. Even those who love French with all their hearts know: it is not an easy language. If insofar in Italian and Portuguese it was "what you see is what you get", meaning that with some simple logic you could easily learn to read words pretty fast, then here we see no such connection.

The word can be written "chant" (song), and you would guess that it would be pronounced like "chah-nt", "cheh-nt", or something like this, but it is not. It is "shah" with long "ah" sound. You see "vin" (wine), but "i" and "n" are not read as you think, they make sound "ir" like in the English word "bird". And now try to say this out loud: "emprunt" (loan). Aha, you almost got it right. No, you didn't, because in fact it sounds almost like Oprah's name: "ahp-hrua".

The way you say a Spanish guy's name Manuel in French means "textbook", and a Russian guy's name Petr — "painter" ("peintre"). And the word that we all heard and that seems to have just 4 sounds —"boh-koo" as in "mehr-see boh-koo"— is actually spelled with 8—"beaucoup"

And then these combinations of vowels occur: eau, oeu, ueu, eoi and others, which are not making complex sounds like "eh-ah-u" for eau, for example, as you would expect, but one—"o". More and more, the French "decided" to use what seems to be like all possible diacritical marks in the language: all types of accents (`, ´, ˆ), cedilla—little coma-like sign under a letter (¸), diaeresis—two dots above a letter (¨), and, sure enough, cut and glue words with an apostrophe or a dash.

Where are the good news? I do have some. You can be almost 100% sure that the accent in any French word will be on the last syllable. Also, consonants, letter "e" and the combination "ent" indicating plural for the third person at the end of the words are usually mute, so just pretend they are not there and don't read them. Though here —beware!— there are some exceptions. To make plural for a noun, you add "s" at the end, just like in English, but here is the twist: you do not pronounce it! So single or plural—it will sound the same.

Anyway, after several hours trying to understand and pronounce French sounds and words, I was about to give up and just quit the whole thing when I bumped into this word: vraisemblable [vʀɛsɑ̃blabl] (believable, plausible). It sounds like "vrer-so-blah-bl" with typical to French pronunciation of "r", as if it is coming rolling and boiling from your throat, and soft "l" at the end. And this "blah-blah" sound of the second half of the word made me laugh. So I decided it may be fun to persevere in French, to open my mind, embrace its colouring and accept that all the languages are different, have their own particularities, and that is exactly what makes them authentic and interesting.

So, even though I am still "Joey" in French, getting to know this intricate and whimsical language promises to be memorable ("mémorable" [memɔʀabl]). Blah-blah! :)

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