Friday, July 31, 2009

Back already?

I was surprised to learn that teachers in the US are already headed back to the classroom in some areas. Doesn't the calendar still say juillet? The 2009 rentrée scolaire in France is scheduled for September 2nd, which means we still have a full month of family vacations, long evenings, and of course, les barbecues with friends.

But even with all this summer-ing yet to do, some have already turned their attention to the annual back-to-school shopping ritual. France's Minister of Education published the list of must-haves and negotiated with vendors to ensure that there are no major price hikes since last year.

Sneak preview: There's an amusing 3-page article in the upcoming issue 65 of Bien-dire magazine on a French family's adventure preparing for the rentrée.

In an effort to help out parents, the items on the must-have list will bear a logo reading "essentiels de la rentrée" from July 15th to September 15th. Here's a sampling:

Large notebook, 96 pages (21x29.7 cm)
Small notebook, 96 pages (17x22 cm)
Ballpoint pens (blue, black, red, green)
5 tubes of water-based paint (primary colors)
Sturdy backpack weighing less that 1 kilo (2.2 pounds)
Compass (metal)
Pencil sharpener (plastic)
Pack of 12 markers (non-toxic)
2-4 glue sticks (non-toxic)
Roll of plastic for covering books

I can't say that reading over the list put me in a back-to-school kind of mood. But hopefully by the time September 2nd arrives, all the students in France will be ready. (I'm sure the parents will be!)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Message Board challenge

The message boards are now up and running, and we hope to see a lively exchange of ideas, experiences, questions and answers about your language learning journeys.

While I was tempted to get the conversations started, instead I'd like to issue a challenge. We have three boards - one for learners of French, one for Spanish and one for English - and I'm offering three prizes.

  • The first person to register and post a relevant conversation starter on the French board will be awarded the Bien-dire Essential audio learning guide of their choice;
  • The first person to register and post a relevant conversation starter on the Spanish board will be awarded the Hispanica Esencial audio learning guide of their choice; and
  • The first person to register and post a relevant conversation starter on the English board will be awarded the Go English Essential audio learning guide of their choice.
Whether a travel anecdote, a funny language quirk or a question about an idiomatic phrase, we want to hear from you. We're all involved in this rewarding but sometimes frustrating process of learning a new language, so let's share our experiences and learn from each other.

And speaking of frustrating, I have nothing fun to report from this week's French class. Numbers, numbers and more numbers. I can't tell you how many times I confused 61 with 71, 86 with 96, just listening to telephone numbers and transcribing them. Then there was an exercise listening to a long dialogue with numbers scattered throughout, and we all found it almost impossible to pull the numbers out. I think I need to put Master French Numbers on auto-repeat on my computer.

Hope to see you on the message boards! If you're the first to post, just send me an email with your contact information and your choice of prize at

Monday, July 27, 2009

France gone country - look at them boots!

(c) Fox News

The French administration has moved to create an official country dancing diploma. Authorized instructors who have completed publicly funded training courses will be put in charge of line dancing lessons and balls.

Why the need for such regulation? An estimated 100,000 people across France line dance several times a week. “It's growing at a crazy rate. There are thousands of clubs and more are springing up all the time,” said Jean Chauveau, the chairman of the country section of the French Dance Federation. And if that many people are into it, France wants to be sure the activity is submitted to the same rules as sports, such as football and rugby. So there will be mandatory training courses for line dancing teachers and a state-approved diploma for anyone who wants to give lessons or run clubs. Vive le red tape.

(c) Fox News

In case you were wondering, the most popular line dances in France are the “Tush Push”, the “Electric Slide” and the “Boot-Scootin’ Boogie”.

According to Chauveau, the trend illustrated France's “complicated and ambiguous” relationship with the US. “We love American magic and the American dream,” he said. “But we hate Americans when we confront the hard reality of their behavior throughout the world. We go for the cowboy hats but not George Bush.”

I'll start worrying when I see Skoal rings on back pockets , but until then, I'm enjoying seeing posters in town advertising Le Country and Le Cow-boy Night.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ma belle-mère

French class last night covered two immediately applicable subjects for me - the terms for various family members, and numbers higher than 60. Family members had not been on the agenda until one of my classmates - a young doctor from Puerto Rico - said that she was exhausted after a wild weekend on the town with her visiting fille (as she is not old enough to have a daughter older than a toddler, we were relieved to find that she had meant to say soeur).

After going through all the blood relations, I asked Marie-Laure for the term for mother-in-law, as my wife and I will be traveling to the beautiful horse country of Maryland this weekend for her mother's 80th birthday party. I had to wonder (and perhaps some of my colleagues in Lyon can enlighten me) is the term belle-mère an example of French irony or an indication of a major cultural difference? While the image of the mother-in-law as tormentor is a stereotype so very often proven wrong (my wife's mother being one such example), the term has a coldness that stands as a polar opposite to belle-mère.

Now, my mother-in-law may not be my tormentor, but those French numbers are definitely making my last few blond hairs go gray. Okay, so I suppose I could compliment ma belle-mère by telling her that she is not an 80-year-old woman, she is four 20-year-old women. That could work.

We spent a good part of the class listening to telephone numbers in French and trying to write them down (leading my Puerto Rican classmate to mutter, over and over, what I think is one of the most amusing expressions of dismay in any language, "Ay, chihuahua!"). While we all improved with repetition, it was certainly far from instinctual. At first I had thought that our Master French Numbers audio learning guide was going to be pretty basic, but now I see why it is so necessary and why I will be spending much time with it in the coming weeks.

Finding France near you

Since living in France I've developed a new hobby: scouring the store shelves for American products. It's like a game of hide and go seek - and I'm very happy when I win. (Just yesterday I spotted Dr Pepper in a local grocery store for the first time since arriving in France five years ago!)

On my last visit back to the US, I changed the rules of the game and kept an eye out for French products. I didn't find many, I'm afraid. So I took my research to the internet. Lots of companies specialized in importing French products, but what I wanted were products that were already on the shelves.

A little research and digging later... voilà! Below are some items that you may find at your local grocery store in the US. I'm sure there are more, so let me know as you find them! If you are friends with a francophile, consider making them a gift basket filled with items from France.

(And if you do buy one of these items, be sure to exclaim "Oh là là!" excitedly as you toss it into your cart.)

Bonne Maman is the number one imported line of preserves and jellies in the United States. And if you’ve ever tasted them, you know why. May I recommend the apricot or raspberry? That said, they’re all délicieux. You can find them at Kroger.

Côte d'Or chocolates are available at Bed Bath and Beyond, Cost Plus, Safeway, WalMart and nine other stores. My favorite is the Noir Orange (deep, dark chocolate with orange chocolate-truffle and pieces of candied orange zest). For an added treat, try their chocolate pairing ideas.

The Maille mustard sold in the US is a milder version of what's available in France, but apprently the recipe works for the American palate because it comes out on top in tasting rankings.

LU biscuits, founded in 1850 by Monsieur LeFevre and Mademoiselle Utile, began as a small family operation in France that grew to become a market leader. LU cookies are available in th US, including favorites like Le Petit Ecolier. Look for them at Harris Teeter, Kroger, Publix and Target. (Buy enough for the kids to try them too.)

No French shopping cart is complete without yogurt - but I don't recommend it for a gift basket. I don't usually eat much yogurt in the US, but French yogurt is a totally different thing. La Crème by Dannon is a good example of this. Click here to find it in a store near you.

Nutella - the chocolatey hazelnut spread known around the world. I love this stuff. On crêpes, bananas, bagels, waffles, a spoon... Click here to find it in a store near you.

Wash it all down with...Evian, of course!

To round out a French gift basket, you may want to include some Savon de Marseille or other goodies from Savonnerie de Bormes. I actually bought some of their muguets (Lily of the Valley) spray recently in a shop down the street, so I can attest to the fact that it really is made and sold in France. These are available from Cost Plus World Market.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Who's speaking what and where?

The Modern Language Association has developed a Language Map generator based on US Census data. The result? Très cool.

(c) MLA
Highest concentrations of speakers of all languages other than English combined

In just a few clicks you can find out which languages are spoken in your county or ZIP code, where the highest concentration of speakers of a certain language are found, and even the number and percentage of speakers per language. Maps can be generated from data covering more than 30 languages.

Let's take it for a spin, shall we?

(c) MLA
Highest concentrations of French-speakers

(c) MLA
Highest concentrations of Spanish-speakers

(c) MLA
Highest concentrations of Korean-speakers

(c) MLA
Highest concentrations of speakers of African languages

(c) MLA
Highest concentrations of Italian-speakers

To find out which languages spoken in your area, visit the Language Map generator here. Who knows? It might generate an interest in learning one of your 'local languages'!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

To have or to be, that is the question

This week in my French class we tackled what I think may be one of the more difficult concepts for beginning French students - when to use avoir as opposed to etre. When my wife asks me to bring her a glass of water, it is not because she is thirsty, but because she has thirst (Eleanor a soif). I turn on the air conditioning because j'ai chaud - not because je suis chaud (which is purely a judgment call that I will leave to the eye of the beholder).

As I sat in class I was still aching from the 13 hours of driving I had done over the weekend, and as we were covering avoir I asked Marie-Laure if she could tell me how to say "I have neck pain." She told me J'ai mal au cou, although I had to be very careful of my pronunciation of cou or else I might be ascribing my pain to a lower region. So it's back to my copy of The Good Pronunciation Guide for more practice.

Speaking of neck pain, yesterday was Bastille Day. (Sorry about that, I couldn't resist). My colleague in Lyon, Cheryl, just sent out a terrific newsletter (subscribe here) covering exactly what is being celebrated on le quatorze Juillet (it is not, as many Anglophones believe, a commemoration of the storming of the Bastille). She also covers the three different ways that one could say 1789 correctly in French. Three ways to say one number... well, for the moment, I'm happy that Marie-Laure has only taken our class up to 60.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Are you wearing your language learning jacket?

Recently I saw a friend in town as I was taking advantage of the semi-annual soldes in France. She was talking on her cell phone as I walked over her direction. I didn't want to bother her, so I stood back and waited for her to finish talking before saying hello.

My friend is bilingual and so it was possible that she was speaking in either French or English. I was surprised to realize that when I looked at her to figure out which language she was speaking, my inital instinct wasn't to try to read her lips. Instead I found myself looking at her posture, hand gestures and facial expressions. I could see immediately that she was speaking French, even without deciphering actual words.

Apparently I'm not the first to make this discovery that languages are spoken from more than the person's mouth. In 2007 a study from the University of British Columbia found that infants can tell the difference between two languages without hearing the spoken words, simply by watching the face of the person who is talking.

What should language learners glean from this? Pam Bourgeois, the founder of Bien-dire magazine, France's best-selling magazine for adults learning French, answers this question in A Practical Guide to Learning French.
"Without mimicking people so that it becomes a mockery, it is important to try to "be" French in your gestures and general body language. It's part of getting the "feel" of a language. While it may be simply copying at first, you will be surprised how soon it becomes part of your "French" personality. Many bilingual people say that they have somewhat different personalities in the two languages they speak. This is because, as good speakers of the foreign language, they have also taken on its cultural connotations.

A good way of thinking of it is to visualise yourself putting on a jacket when you are speaking French as a way of signalling that you are moving into your French way of being. You can mentally take off your "French jacket" when you move back into English."
I first read this a few years ago, shortly after arriving in France. This idea has been one of the most useful language learning tools I've found. I actually personalized the idea a bit to make it more "me". Instead of a jacket, I mentally put on my "French scarf". For me, the image of a scarf gave me the flair and boldness I needed to express myself in French. It works well for other languages as well. When speaking with a Senegalese person, I put on my "Wolof flip-flops" as theirs is a more casual culture and I needed a reminder to slow down and value time with the person rather than getting straight to business.

Dressing the part - even if only mentally - can give you the confidence you need to find your personality in another language.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The boule is in our court

The game of boules or pétanque is very popular in France How popular, you ask? An estimated 17 million people play the game - and I think many of them use the court in front of our apartment. Now that sunny weather is here, we can open our window and hear the soft metallic clinks as the neighborhood elders play in the afternoon and evening.

The origins of the game go back to the Ancient Greeks in the 6th century BC. Back then it was tossing stones. The Ancient Romans added the twist of a 'target' (think horseshoes). Appparently the competition got heated when they brought the game to Provence and Italy because they added the step of measuring distances to keep score points.

By the Middle Ages, playing this game was the in thing to do. All of Europe was playing, although now with weighted wooden balls. Some people must have been a little obsessed and played it too much because in the 14th century the game was banned for commoners by kings Charles IV and later Charles V. But in the 17th century the ban was lifted and the boulistes were back at it.

Pétanque in its current form was developed in 1907. It is played in courtyards, squares, playgrounds and parks in every corner of towns and cities throughout France.

But if I may toot our local horn, boule lyonnaise was invented right here in Lyon. It's basically the same idea, but you get a little running start. That's right. We like our pétanque with a twist.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

For whom is Bien-dire written?

I received a thoughtful but mildly alarming email from a Bien-dire subscriber last night, which she had sent in response to a renewal offer sent out yesterday. While she was interested in renewing her subscription, she was concerned that Bien-dire was being changed into a publication aimed primarily at beginners. As I look back over the newsletter and my blog post from last week, I immediately saw how that assumption could be made.

However, let me assure you that the focus of the magazine has not changed at all - the majority of the content is and will remain at the level of the intermediate to advanced French speaker. All of our issues have contained a few features that have been classified at the "1+" level, and we will continue to pepper the magazine with these pieces. Our goal is to help to enhance the skills of the intermediate to advanced speaker, to introduce them to nuances of the language and elements of the culture that are unlikely to be found in the classroom, but we should also include a few features that can be accessible to the motivated new learner.

That's me - the motivated new learner - and when I receive a new issue of Bien-dire (issue No. 65 just arrived!) I will readily admit that my appreciation for the majority of the content doesn't go beyond picking out a word here and there that I recognize and looking at the pretty pictures for context. The new issue has a short feature on common terms used at a shopping center, in which I learned that when I buy my next pair of pants in France I should ask for une cabine d'essayage. But the article on Marseille's preparations for 2013, when it will take center stage as the capitale europeenne de la culture was far beyond my comprehension, as was the serialized novel, the quiz, and the content on roughly 50 of the magazine's 52 pages.

So fear not, dear intermediate and advanced readers, Bien-dire is still a magazine that is written for you, and remains the only magazine written and created in France for learners of French. I strive to join you in your enjoyment of the entire magazine one day, but there is a long long way to go.

Speaking of my strivings, I am sad to say that I will need to miss my French class next week while my wife and I go on a short vacation. However, after 12 hours of driving from Philadelphia to Lake Michigan and 12 hours back, I believe Bien-dire Social Conversations and The Good Pronunciation Guide will have helped us to make Marie-Laure (our instructor) proud. If we listen to them as often as we plan, the dog may even start barking in French. Ouah-ouah.