Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mon Professeur de Français

I signed up for my French lessons today.

At first I wasn't sure about taking lessons at all. Regular, traditional language lessons, especially taught in your hometown instead of a native-speaking location, seem to be OUT in a big way. You can find numerous blogs that talk about other ways of learning languages; no one seems interested in talking about language lessons. So I was thinking to myself... shouldn't I be trying to learn French for free, with only the tools available to me on the Internet, plus meeting up with native speakers for conversation practice?

Then I remembered that I have nothing to prove, or to sell. There's nothing wrong with paying for language lessons--I'm happy to give my business to a local entrepreneur.

So I went around the corner and down a couple of blocks to a store that sells African clothing, home decor, jewelry, and cosmetics. There's a sign in the window that says "French lessons". I've often passed it, wishing that it said "Spanish lessons" (or, more recently, "Portuguese lessons") instead. But as happens so often in life, what I have here is actually what I need; I just didn't know it at first.

My teacher is Roosevelt, an immigrant from Liberia who teaches French, Swahili, and African drumming in addition to running the African store. During our conversation I commented that his accent is quite different from my Liberian friend who is a doctor at the hospital. He explained that he has lived many different places and his accent shows it. I understood that immediately: people are always commenting on my own "different" accent and asking where I'm from. Here in Illinois I'll tell them "Oregon" and they'll say "oh, that explains it"; rather than defensively argue that Oregonians do not HAVE an accent, which is true, I laugh and say they ask me the same thing back home. I don't actually know if it's because I've lived a lot of different places (and actually the comments about my accent started when I was a teenager, before I'd been much of anywhere), but that's how I explain it to people. (Because lots of times they won't let it go.)

Roosevelt is engaging and warned me he was going to expect intensity. He turned on the African broadcast of Radio France and told me to start listening online--one of the learning tools often recommended in language blogs. I was glad to hear that he incorporates stuff like that into his method; I know I won't be translating Dick and Jane sentences. Both from the broadcast and from listening to Roosevelt speak French, I think the African accents will be much easier for me to understand and produce than the Parisian accent. If someone told me she was going to learn Italian with a Sicilian accent because it was easier than the Florentine accent I would think she was crazy and possibly tell her she was making a mistake--but I figure if African French is what I need, there's no reason to insist on learning classical French. Not that I have any idea of what the differences might be. But I'm sure they're there.

Aussi, je vais faire la queue quelques films français sur Netflix. Amélie est en streaming et je ne l'ai jamais vu.


  1. Ugh, comment just got eaten. Anyway, the biggest differences are in pronunciation and pacing/tone of voice. African French has more of a flipped R like in Spanish (not the rolled R, just the basic flipped R), whereas Parisian French does the throat-based, guttural R French is so famous for. This might make it easier for you to learn the pronunciation, since the Parisian R is really tough for beginners - I didn't get it down until French 103 or later.

    African French (Malian is what I know, to be exact) also has a different pacing and tone of voice range (pitch-wise). You just have to hear that to understand it. After hearing it a while, you'll be able to recognize someone who learned African vs. Parisian French really quickly - even without the Rs.

    If you need a practice buddy, I'd be happy to practice French with you - African-centric, or otherwise!

    - Jane (From Caucus)

  2. Merci, Jane! What do you mean by a flipped R?