Opportunities exist everywhere to learn language. This is especially true when you are learning a second language within the country where it is spoken. However, when we travel or when we live day to day in a foreign culture we have to deal with a lot of difficulties, not just linguistic ones, and often we don’t find the time to make a conscious study of language. Here’s an idea of 15 minutes of language consciousness that can help you climb out of that rut.
Living in Paris, I need to speak French. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of patience for language study at this time, and sometimes I find myself going for weeks without making a concerted effort to improve my French skills. This is not good, because continued use of a foreign language for survival skills without constantly monitoring grammar rules can lead to fossilization, a pernicious and intractable set of interlanguage grammar rules.
Fossilization occurs when your language use exceeds your language knowledge. When you communicate with people in a foreign language without knowing all the rules, you tend to make up your own rules. Then when people understand you in spite of your mistakes, you feel successful and move on to the next task without correcting yourself. Thus, you create your own grammatical patterns (interlanguage) that become engrained in your mind, and like trying to move your cartwheels out of the eroded ruts in the road, you find it extremely difficult to get away from those mistakes and to stay away from them.
For this reason, I find it urgent to get myself thinking consciously about grammar rules and the French language in general at least for a few minutes every day. How? I have to trick myself, at times. A new trick I’ve found is to promise myself fifteen minutes in the sun on my balcony, with a notebook and pencil and my dictionary.
I sit there and watch the trucks and buses that pass by on the busy boulevard, and read what is printed on the sides, making sure I comment to myself on everything I see. My language lesson for the day! Fifteen minutes can give a surprising grab bag of linguistic points to ponder. An example, today’s harvest from 15 minutes on the balcony:
An office supplies truck: Juste à temps! So close to the English expression. Is the meaning identical? Never take it for granted. Yes, it means “just in time.”
A rental van: Le pouvoir de rouler moins cher: a guy rolling a hand truck. Is rouler transitive or intransitive here? The word “roll” here does not refer to the handtruck, but to the van. This is the power to get rolling, to move your belongings, at the cheapest price.
A moving company: Ça va déménager sur xx.fr. Puzzling at first. It means that things are really “moving” at www dot xx dot fr.
A rental van: Louez-moi! Rent me!
On a company car: L’assurance qualité. Remember that assurance is the French word, not insurance. Simple differences like this need constant reinforcement.
On a van advertising flooring. Service Pose. Pose has a somewhat different meaning in French, meaning laying the flooring here.
Rental van: It has a name, Locamion. The word for rental is location, and one word for truck is camion. Location is another false friend, a word which looks like an English word with a different meaning. Another thing to note is that various abbreviations, apocopes and, in this case, combined words, are used gleefully often in French.
Another rental: location de vehicules. Rental of automobiles.
On a truck: Etes. Handecoeur. Handecoeur is an unusual sounding name. The French genealogical website geopatronyme which shows births by surname for the Twentieth Century agrees with me: they have only one person born with this family name in all of France during the past century.
On a tour bus: Voyages. Voyages are not always to far distant shores, overseas, as we tend to think in English.
On another bus: Villes Gares Aéroport. I have an anglophone’s tendency to say “gäre”. I practice saying gare. Notice the accent mark on aéro. Always notice accent marks!
On a municipal bus: Le bus roule à aquazole. Aquazole, what an odd word. It turns out to be a diesel fuel with water molecules, and the word comes from aqua plus azole which is a type of organic compound containing nitrogen. Nitrogen is azote in French.
On a van: La logistique du dernier km. Much more commonly used than the English “logistics” it refers here to delivery of goods, and in this case, to its final customer.
On a truck: Cours transports urgents. Remember the word for emergency is urgence. When you have an emergency, you are not going to want to be fishing around in your head for words.
On a small van: Menuiserie. Such a strange name for carpentry. Odd spelling, too. Double check the spelling. It comes from Latin “minutus”, giving the idea of small pieces of wood.
On a moving van: Déménagements d’entreprises. Entreprises is far more common in French than in English. Déménagement means removal, or moving, but in the second case people use it both for moving out and moving in.
On a white van: Dépannage, installation, chauffa…. I couldn’t write fast enough. That’s okay, just the words I got, forget the words I have to guess, I don’t want to see them without their correct accents! This prefix dé almost always has an accent, and dépannage refers to repairing breakdown for all kinds of machinery, not just automobiles.
On a work truck: Location de nacelles de 7 a 70 m. Nacelles? My dictionary translates nacelle as “nacelle” in English as well, but what can that be? It turns out to be a cherry picker.
On a white van: boucherie. It means butcher shop. It looks like la bouche, the mouth, and le bouchon, the cork, and all the various secondary meanings of those words, but it is unrelated, coming from bouc, meaning billy goat! Like the English word “buck” which originally meant male goat. Both the English and the French come from old German. Now,… what was I talking about?
On a bus advertisement: Palais des Congrès. Remember rules for forming plurals, in this case when the singular already has an s on the end.
On a tour bus: Autocars: name of the bus company. Car is not a word that we would use in English to describe a bus. But this is not English.
On a repair van: Maintenance: always good to notice words that are identical to English: the tendency is to forget them, since they don’t make much of an impression on the mind. Practice pronouncing it in French. It is all too easy to fall into an English pronunciation when the word is identical.
On another repair van: Contrat d’entretien This is also a maintenance contract. entretien is synonymous with maintenance.
On a company car: Maintien à domicile. Yet another variation on the theme! Maintenance at your home.
On a garbage truck: Propreté de Paris. It’s not saying it’s the property of Paris. Propre means clean and this is the Sanitation Department. How do you say property, then? proprieté. with the addition of one letter, “i”.
A movie ad on a city bus: La colline a des yeux sounds like a borrowing from Italian. My Hachette dictionary says it comes from Latin. The online dictionary of the Académie Française is more specific, saying that it is from Latin, imported in the 16th Century. Mmmh, that seems a bit late for Latin, doesn’t it? Perhaps it was used on maps?
Another movie ad: Aladin: has only one “l” in French. Double “l” sometimes gives a different pronunciation.
A small van: Peinture; painting, contracting.
Another small van: Bien rouler. Boy, they really like that word rouler. I have got to make sure I know it in all its tenses.
That was fifteen minutes, I timed it. Now, if you are not living in your target language context, you can try other ways to get the same effect. For students learning English, an assignment might be to jot down every borrowed English word that they hear on television, even if they know the definition. Or to copy all the English borrowings they see on a busy downtown street, making sure they know the exact meaning of each word and the exact pronunciation. However, a word of warning about allowing students to go out on linguistic safaris: the teacher who gives this assignment had better be prepared for an unpredictable and potentially confusing batch of words coming in. Students very often make mistakes in notating the words, or they will find unusual bits of slang and hiphop lyrics that may be unfamiliar to the teacher.
I would suggest this method only to a native speaker teacher because he or she will find himself playing linguistics detective at times. I remember one day in high school when a fellow student asked the Spanish teacher about a phrase that he had heard in a Spanish language hit song then making the rounds in New York. The teacher was not a Spanish native speaker, and she was stumped by the phrase he mentioned. “Saquitumi” she said to herself over and over again, “saquitumi.” She had to admit defeat. It was only a few days later that we students realized that the phrase in the Spanish song was actually spoken in English: “Sock it to me!”