Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Working with Brain Minions in Language Learning Land

A fair warning: today's post features some rather colorful language. Read at your own risk.

Back when I was a middle school and high school student, I often heard my fellow classmates complain about how utterly pointless it was to even bother learning a foreign language and that the subject's sole purpose for existence was to give employment options to the optimistically deluded individuals known as "teachers." I was quick to point out to my classmates that their reasoning was unjust and simply not true. Taking a foreign language class surely had other virtues.

"Oh, you're right, Barbara. It isn't just about giving jobs to teachers; it's also about fulfilling the foreign language requirement to get a high school diploma. All this work for a damn piece of paper..."

"No, no, no! Guys, learning another language is great!" I expounded to these misguided teenagers. "You get to experience and learn about another culture from its grammar and ways of being. Plus, what if you travel abroad? Being able to speak another language other than English might prove to be helpful."

At which point, said classmates would demonstrate their unanimous agreement with my argument by rolling their eyes and yawning in my face. Years later, though, I am indeed very, very happy to have to have stuck by my principle of paying attention in French class because I found myself in the odd position of packing my bags to become an optimistically deluded individual in France.

While learning a language other than the native one you speak can be a fulfilling goal, at times, I think that language acquisition and cultural immersion should come with either a disclaimer, or a cautionary sticker or a warning label directed at those who embark on such an adventure, preferably found as a sign when you cross into another country's border.

The confusions that arise on a day-to-day basis would be enough to drive any expat insane, and this is ever the case regarding conversational exchanges. The expat or foreign speaker will think about what their want or need is in their native tongue, take a moment to translate it in the language-translation area of their brain, let the synapses process the meaning, let said words travel towards the mouth, and then finalize the journey by expressing what was on their mind to the native language interlocutor.

That action alone is a hazard for what is thought in the mind can occasionally be warped: crucial words go missing, grammar tenses and syntax become skewed, syllabic mispronunciations result in incomprehensible misunderstandings.

A recent example happened when some visiting friends of mine and I placed some orders for three coffees in a café only to then change one of the beverages for a bottle of water because my gal pal needed to quench her thirst.

Waitress: "So, do you still want the three coffees?"

Me: "Actually, it'll just be two coffees now and one bottle of water because my friend is in heat."

I had meant to say that my friend was "hot" (elle a chaud) and yet, in the Language Learning Center of my brain, my nearly 10 years of speaking French went out the window when I mistakenly said that she was "en chaleur." I noticed my error instantly and sputtered the correct words, but it was too late. The damage had been done and the waitress was chuckling at my basic A1 level French.

While I was still beating myself up about this incident, I began to wonder: why do these mistakes happen? Or, rather, what causes them to occur?

My theory is this: tiny, hardworking minions who reside in the brain are solely in charge of making sure that messages make it out of my mouth, and these minions, like all living creatures, sometimes make the mistakes which lead to misunderstandings.

I would image that the process of cooperating with minions goes like so. My body is presented with a stimulus and has to have a verbal reaction to it.

(This is an actual song, one which I had caught my students "singing.")

French mistake to NEVER make: "baisser" means "to lower," whereas "baiser" means "to fuck." 

However, if used as a noun, "un baiser" means "a kiss." Yet the proper verb that means "to kiss" is "embrasser." Be careful if you kiss someone and then proudly proclaim "je l'ai baisé" to your friends...

I'm not angry with my brain minion team, but they have instigated some unfortunate incidents during my time in Language Learning Land.

To any expats who may read this: Don't worry or beat yourself up. Whatever throngs you've faced in Language Learning Land, just remember to enjoy the stay.*

*Results and experiences may vary.

Barb the French Bean

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lessons in French: How to Say "Mullet"

In my four years of living in Croissant-and-Baguetteland, I am happy to report that going throughout life isn't always a high fashion runway that requires you to look your absolute best. While French women certainly make a point to look slightly more chic and elegant to their male counterparts, one isn't obligated to look ready to go to a party. What is expected in French dressing sense is that you look presentable: never leave the house in pajamas, keep your bits covered with reasonably lengthy attire, don't look like you just rolled out of bed then went straight to the shower.

Being someone who is perpetually late*, I've been able to cut some corners and get away with wearing just a minimal amount of make-up (lipstick and moisturizer) and my otherwise unkempt hair is kept in a tight bun. I admit that cartoon me, who is always sporting flouncy, untamed locks, is not the best representation of my day-to-day existence.

Sorry if I mislead you guys. 

*Unless I have to catch a train. I'm almost never late for trains. And if I AM late, its nice to know that I can always count on the SNCF to have my back with their own tardiness.

Still, living far away from the familiar American shores and all of the subtle cultural nuances from back home, I never, NEVER thought that I would see the day when I saw a French person sporting the dreaded Mullet. For those who are not in the know, the Mullet is a particular hairstyle that is reputed for being a "business in the front, party in the back" cut, meaning that it provides an odd combination of commencing with what would seem a normal short hairstyle that is abruptly tapered by a long mane.

When you look at a Mullet, you get the uneasy sensation that something is aesthetically off. Heck, when pronounced with an American dialect, the word itself is phonetically unpleasant.

I'd like to imagine that it was probably created by someone who was inept at cutting their own hair and, rather than admitting to their friends it was an accident, decided to convince them all that it would be the latest trend to rock trailer park communities.

Yes, the humble Mullet, with its short, spiky fringe and cascading rear, insinuates a stigma that the wearer is an uneducated, low-income loser who is probably addicted to beer and trucker hats, and terrible movies like Joe Dirt certainly didn't help to improve that stereotype.

Those who are brave enough to sport the Mullet effectively have placed themselves to be a laughingstock in American eyes and are portrayed as being as American as apple pie, bald eagles and Old Glory.

So imagine my horror shock when on one fine Saturday morning I encountered a Frenchman sporting this American hairdo.

Then imagine my further urge to regurgitate my lunch shock when I saw that the Frenchman's wife also sported a Mullet.

Then, dear reader, place yourself in my shoes when I resisted the desire to urgently call child services to report parental abuse saw that their two kids also had Mullets of their own! An entire French family with Mullets!

The Mulet Family Portrait

I was struck dumb. Had American cultural invasion to surreptitiously integrate itself into other countries finally taken its toll? Was I going to start seeing more and more beer pong parties with red Solo cups being advertised on T.V.?

(Of course not; France doesn't need to advertise alcohol, duh.)

After the initial wave of confusion ebbed and flowed from my mind, I courted the idea that perhaps this little odd family was just a one-time fluke. But then I attended the town's carnival and to my surprise, I spotting some more children donning the hairstyle! What is going on, I thought. This isn't right... I tried to reason that this style couldn't possibly be on the rise in France. No Mullet-based craze had yet to hit the runways in Paris and even in my most dreary days in Dijon, I had yet to have spotted a local wearing said 'do. Maybe, just maybe, the Mullet was concentrated to the area I reside in the Sarthe département.

I decided to consult my theories with my hairstylist, but since she is French and I didn't know the French term for "Mullet" (nor if there even WAS a term for it), I resorted to describing the physical aspects of the style.

"Have you ever seen a very particular hairstyle in which the hair is cut short in the front and kept long in the back? Do you know what I'm talking about?"

Her serene features scrunched when she cringed and she nodded.

"What is that hairstyle called in French?"

"Le Macgyver."

I unintentionally paused for emphasis.

"Le Macgyver?"

That bomb should nuke Macgyver's Mullet out of existence. 


"As in...?"


"As in the T.V. character?"

No amount of string and paper clips will let you worm your way from my wrath, Macgyver.

"Yes, that one."

I went to explain to her that I was extremely surprised to see the French sporting this hairstyle and had never seen one until I had moved to Sablé-sur-Sarthe. I mentioned to her the social stigma that the Mullet evokes back home and how people who wear it are considered to be very "particulier." She drew a sharp intake of air and said that a similar stigma also exists in France.

"Years ago, when the show aired, from its popularity, it started a craze and people wanted the same style. You see it less and less these days in France, but there are people who still have a hard time letting things from the past go."

Goddammit, Macgyver. Who knew you'd have this effect on deluded French people?

I then asked my hairstylist another question.

"Have you ever had somebody ask you for le Macgyver?"

Her brown eyes widened with the recollection of one woman who, despite my hairstylist's suggestions and pleas to consider other options, insisted on having her hair cut into a Mullet.

"I didn't even know how to go about this hairstyle! You see, haircuts are supposed to fit into a 'frame,' and le Macgyver, with its irregular combination of two different frames, made it very difficult to reproduce."

She then leaned next to my ear and, with utter scandal dancing in her tone, whispered,"Things about it just don't go at all because you can't distinguish when one part ends and another begins. It looks so bad."

AH-HA! Eureka!, I thought. No wonder the Mullet looks aesthetically unbalanced; it's because the techniques to style it aren't even right in the first place!

To console myself, asked my hairstylist to give me a non-Mullet cut for the special occasion of celebrating my last full day in my mid-Twenties*.

Take that, Macgyver.

Barb the French Bean

*I turn Twenty-Seven on April 6th. As people back home in Miami would point out, "Estás vieja."