French class: Present, imperfect, tense

27Oct09

For the past month, I’ve been attending an advanced French conversation class through community ed. It’s been wonderful to discover that I understand everything that’s being said, no matter the topic. It’s also been humbling to realize just how far I have to go.

Although I’ve worked hard to build my vocabulary—which now includes a smattering of slang such as “quel temps de chien” (“what crappy weather”) and “tant pis” (“too bad,” or “what a pisser”)—I still struggle to form complete sentences.

Last night it became painfully clear to me why: I’m stuck in the present.

If the topic of conversation is happening right now, I’m fine. But the instant I need to express uncertainty, inquire about some future event, or reminisce about the past, I’m sunk.

In a sense, it’s a very Zen approach to French. The past melds with the future, and I am forever experiencing everything right now.

But from a practical perspective, it’s totally unsatisfactory. Last night my fellow students squinted and cocked their heads as they struggled to unravel a timeline of events that I described as happening all at once.

Clearly, if I’m going to improve my French, I’ll have to memorize some verbs. The very thought fills me with dread. (In English we are blessed with 7 verb tenses. French has 14—that I know of.)

I realized last night that I have a choice: I’m either going to get truly serious about learning French, or I’m going to be content with just being a listener for the rest of my days.

Tough choice.



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