People best learn a second language at a young age. That’s a well-known fact. I had my chance at 5. I blew it.

So here I am, 60 years later, trying to teach myself French.

C’est une aventure.

I’ve got plenty of baggage for my journey. In that first valise is my experience at St. Mathieu’s School in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s. I’d begged my mother to send me to school but there was no public kindergarten. So she sent me to a parochial school in the city, where 5-year-olds wore uniforms, learned cursive and practiced French.

I had been hoping for more Play-Doh time. This place was no fun at all. Many of my classmates already spoke French at home, making me feel like a nincompoop. Though my father’s maternal grandparents were Québécois, I never heard my mémère speak French. She even learned Portuguese so she could communicate with her Brazilian mother-in-law.

I was bullied by a mean girl on the bus ride home, and midway through the year, I developed the mumps.

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Luckily, after that disastrous start to my education, I spent six blissful years at the Village School, a mile from my home, where no language other than English was spoken by students or staff.

Once I entered junior high, however, there I was in French class. I felt destined to fail. Having learned about heredity by then, I hoped that genes might count for something. They didn’t. I struggled. I hated it. When it came time to choose a language to study in high school, I picked Spanish.

And there, to my complete surprise, I was a star. My teacher even asked me to tutor other students. Spanish was much more straightforward in sentence construction, grammar and pronunciation than French.

I was gratified to know I could learn a language after all.

In the ensuing years, ironically, I became a Francophile, interested in French films, lifestyle and culture in general. I’m not sure why, given my traumatic experiences with the language. I did like listening to it. I was just terrified to speak it.

Then online language-learning programs became available. So I tried some French on the Duolingo app. I realized two things. One, clicking answers, parroting phrases and typing in translations on a keyboard was fun. Two, doing so in the privacy of your own home, where no one witnesses your mistakes or terrible accent, made for a stress-free experience.

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I dabbled with the app, in Spanish as well, on and off for a few years. Then last August, I decided to make a commitment to learning French. It helped that Duolingo keeps track of your sign-ins. Once I’d completed a streak of 10 days, I wasn’t turning back. As of this writing, I have practiced French every day for 152 days, generally for about half an hour per day.

One of the first things I noticed was how some of my junior-high language learning had stuck with me. I knew the days of the week and how to count to 20. Most importantly, I remembered how to conjugate the verb avoir (to have). It’s an irregular verb, so we must have had to learn it by heart in school; i.e., we recited it endlessly.

That’s all I had. Soon I was in the weeds, suffering the same difficulties I had in 1969. The silent “s” at the end of words continued to confound. Why is there a “de” in “Je dois acheter de la brioche”? (I have to buy a brioche.) I played trial and error with the subtle differences between the use of the two words for “to know”: connaître and savoir.

Meanwhile, my husband, Paul, was listening to me.

Now that I was taking my language lessons seriously, I was doing them at the kitchen island, not in the privacy of my reading nook. Paul spoke only French at home before entering Sainte Jeanne D’Arc elementary school in central Massachusetts. There, half the school day was conducted in French and half in English.
He also took French in college, where he earned a prize for his accomplishments.

In 1995, as a reporter for the Portland newspapers, Paul went to Québec to cover the secession referendum. He interviewed people in French and wrote their answers down in English.

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Sitting in the living room and listening to me attempting “Avec qui est ce qu’il fait du sport tous les jours” (who does he exercise with every day) has been pure torture for him.

Usually he restrains himself from saying anything. Unless, that is, he passes through the kitchen. Then, he’ll say, “Purse your lips. It’s a sound that we don’t have in English.”

That advice can be applied to more French words than I could list here.

I do appreciate his help, and even ask for it sometimes, but pronunciation is definitely not my strong suit. As I like to say, I’m not really fluent in spoken English.

I have my own ways of measuring my success, such as it is so far. I can look at the word “oiseux” (birds) without cringing and thinking, “What the heck?” I can even pronounce it — something like “wahzo,” with the emphasis on the second syllable. If I purse my lips just so, I sound a little bit French. Even Paul says so.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]


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