May 31, 2011 | French

French Class Closes

I enjoy the pleasant last days of French and tremble (just a bit) as Polish approaches.

My focus during the last week of French was on the history book I mentioned previously, Histoire de New York, a survey of the city’s history in French, by François Weil.

As I read along, I found it helpful to write down in the back of the book, more or less alphabetically, unfamiliar vocabulary that seemed important or likely to recur.

My Homemade Mini-Dictionary

My Homemade Mini-Dictionary

Some words recurred with surprising frequency. Lessor, meaning “the rapid expansion,” showed up often (rapid expansion apparently being an important characteristic of New York City history).

Writing down key vocabulary helped reinforce it in my head so that I didn’t have to look up the same word 10 times. (That kind of thing happens to me a lot, and it drives me crazy.) And, if a word disappeared from my brain—as the words for “stevedore” and “slaughterhouse” tended to do—it was easy and convenient to consult my customized mini-dictionary. 

By the way, I am pretty sure this is the first history book I have ever read in a foreign language. My foreign-language reading in school was, as far as I can remember, limited to fiction and essays.

That’s pretty standard in university foreign-language departments, and I regret to say I did not continue to read in languages other than English once I was out of school and no longer had syllabi to follow.

Union Square This Week

Union Square This Week

Following are some random observations and details from the book that I found interesting.

In 1643, a priest named Father Jogues was apparently stunned to discover that there were 18 sortes de langues (not sure whether this should be understood literally as “kinds of languages,” or just plain old “languages”) among the 400-500 people (!) he encountered on and around the island of Manhattan.

If he could have imagined what was to come! According to Sam Roberts in his article “Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages,” (New York Times, April 28, 2010), “While there is no precise count, some experts believe New York is home to as many as 800 languages—far more than the 176 spoken by students in the city’s public schools or the 138 that residents of Queens, New York’s most diverse borough, listed on their 2000 census forms.”

Times Square This Weekend

Times Square This Weekend

Back to the book. It is funny to read Mark Twain quotes in French. Also funny: seeing The Great Gatsby rendered in French: Gatsby le Magnifique.

On another kind of cultural note, Saturday Night Fever showed up in the book as well, as La Fièvre du samedi soir. The French in this case doesn’t seem to have quite the rhythm of the English original!

The author mentioned that there were floating baths on the Hudson and East River in the 1870s. This was news to me. A quick search online yielded this page, with a picture and descriptions. Amazing!

I read that during World War I, anti-German sentiment led Coney Island hamburgers to be renamed sandwiches de la liberté (well, “liberty sandwiches” in English). That reminded me of the french fries-liberty fries hullabaloo back in 2003. I had forgotten that we had such a long tradition here of xenophobic food-naming.

Seen May 26 from the A Train to JFK: Can Someone Please Tell Me What Cemetery This Is?

Seen May 26 from the A Train to JFK: Can Someone Please Tell Me What Cemetery This Is?

I found it funny to read in French about the 1955 World Series, which pitted the Yankees against the Dodgers. I mean the Brooklyn Dodgers, of course, though when I was growing up in Los Angeles, and before I moved to New York, I had no idea that that team had ever had anything to do with New York. My apologies to any longtime baseball fans.

I finished my Histoire at about 1 a.m. this morning. I am really, really happy that I was able to get through it in a relatively short amount of time. Plus, it was a lot of fun, and the experience makes non-English texts, even long ones, feel more within reach.

On to Polish! Good luck to me. From what I hear, I’ll need it.

Comments (2)

Katherine • Posted on Wed, July 20, 2011 - 9:15 am EST

I can’t believe I never heard of these floating baths before!! Very interesting. Reading in a foreign language in a great experience.  It’s something that becomes much easier a lot faster than the ability to speak or understand a foreign language. When you are reading you have control over the situation, if you don’t understand something you can stop and figure out what is being said and continue whenever you are ready, or you can skip over it and worry about it if it comes up again. Conversational situations are usually sink or swim. Reading is definitely a good way to become more comfortable with a langauge. Glad you enjoyed your experience and learned some interesting facts about NY!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, July 20, 2011 - 2:26 pm EST

I completely agree with your points above about reading. I do often enjoy making a fool of myself with conversational attempts, but sometimes that “sink or swim” feeling can be a little scary or, after a while, at least overstimulating. Reading can be a low-stress alternative when you’ve had enough for the day of the live attempts!

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