Learning French For My Neighbors

Little French bulldogs with that certain je ne sais quoi. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

My neighbors speak French and they have now inspired me to learn the beautiful language as well. Both of them speak French and English and a handful of other languages pretty fluently, so I should be able to learn one more language, right? It only seems fair. And I’m sure it will be good for me as well. Couldn’t hurt.

Plus, French seems like such a beautiful language. You can take a tongue lashing in French and just smile at the person like they just read a lovely poem from the inside of a fortune cookie.

And I like learning new languages. I started with Spanish about 20 years ago when I borrowed a set of cassette tapes (which is French for Podcast) from a co-worker. I listened to all 30 hours of instructions and I only learned four phrases, como eta, usted? (How are you?), donde esta el bano? (where is the bathroom) and tiene cerveza fria? (do you have a cold beer?) and, finally, esta agua me ha dado los carreras (this water has given me the runs). I didn’t help me much.

Then about five years ago, I bought one of those Rosetta Stone learning packs and started over. It wasn’t too bad, helpful actually. My education definitely paid off last year when my family took a 10-day vacation to Peru.

Since I was the only one who felt comfortable enough to speak Spanish at all, I was crowned official translator/interpreter for the family. The. Whole. Trip.

We flew into Lima, and quickly found Alvaro, our driver, who was tasked with taking our little group of five to our Airbnb. Our host told me that Alvaro could speak a little English, so there shouldn’t be any real communication issues. I thought that would really take some of the pressure off me.

Long story short, Alvaro did not, in fact, know English. Zero. Nada.


No problem, I thought. I can speak enough Spanish and I have my handy phrase book if we ever get in a bind and need to ask about the availabilities of local “restaurantes” or “discotecas gay”.

Alvaro was super cool and patient with me as we conversed in the front seat. He spoke very slowly and enunciated all the words as best he could and I sounded like a 3-year-old trying to speak Spanish for the first time.

We got all the pleasantries out of the way — how you doing, are you married, do you do this full time, are you a sports fan, do you know where Texas is, ever been there, etc. About five minutes into our 35-minute drive I was fresh out of Spanish. I used up my whole vocabulary and made up a few new words. But that didn’t stop my family from passing up questions like they were typing funny phases into Google.

“Ask him what that is?” “What did he say?” “Does he know if they have cold beer there?

Anyway, I learned a lot of Spanish by being the only Spanish speaker amongst our little pack. I was forced to speak it and I could communicate pretty well after the immersion.

Now I want to learn French too. And since I have somebody to speak French with that can help with pronunciation and usage, it should be fairly easy to learn, you know, relatively speaking.

So far, I know homme (man), femme (woman) and ces crepes me donnent les pistes (these pancakes are giving me the runs).

It’s actually amazing how many words that are French in origin there are in the English language. We use them every day. Phrases like rotisserie chicken is one. Did you know “chicken” was French? I can’t wait to go to Paris and try that out.

There is a phrase that puzzles me though: je ne sais quoi. It means “I don’t know” in French but the only time English speakers use it is when they are trying to describe a person or thing that has something “special,” something they can’t quite describe. And every time I’ve ever heard the phrase it always begins with “that certain.”

For instance:

Jackie Kennedy had that certain je ne sais quoi about her.

And Troy Aikman just had a certain je ne sais quoi as a quarterback.

I asked my neighbor if “that certain” is a French phrase and I need to use it whenever I say “je ne sais qui.” He said je ne sais quoi. Which I think means “no.”

I better get back to my French lessons now. My family want to go to Paris next year and they are gonna need a translator.

Until next time, Au revoir, dear readers, and stay away from the crepes.

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