Cracking the Code

When I committed to this learning French thing I thought I had a good handle on what would be required of me, but I missed one. A big one. A huge one which is so easy to overlook when devising your plan of attack but in the end is really all that matters. That’s right — I now hold in my hand the secret to learning a foreign language and I’m about to give you the key that will open all those doors for you.

After you read some other stuff.

My three most recent barfy moments speaking French went down like this, and they all happened at family Christmas gatherings which made them just all the more delightful.

1) Ever see a squirrel get backed into a corner? He’s whipping his head left and right frantically searching for an exit route. That’s me whenever I’m visiting my in-laws but then the family leaves the room and it’s just me and Grandpa. He’s a sweetheart and has lots of great stories, but he’s 92 years old. In English this would already present challenges for a grandson-in-law; having to do it in French is like trying to fill in a Sudoku grid from scratch. I’m always scrambling for topics and thus never bringing my A-game, resulting in unfortunate sentences like this one flying out of my mouth when he asked me about oysters:

It was simple enough. I’d wanted to say “When I grew up in Maine I ate a lot of seafood…” and I thought I was nailing it at the time. His confused look suggested otherwise. Seconds later after leaving for the kitchen I realized my mistake and wanted to go stick my head in the oven. The past tense of “to grow up” is j’ai grandi, but instead I confused it with a similar-feeling word, j’ai grossi. Of all the verbs to hijack my sentence I get j’ai grossi, which translates to “I got fat”. Imagine that — you ask a foreigner if he’s ever eaten oysters and he replies “Back home when I got fat I ate a lot of seafood.” Ugh…this oven’s gas-powered, right?

2) An hour later at the Christmas Eve dinner table a bottle of wine was poured. Against the backdrop of lively conversation I sipped, sniffed, sipped and decided I tasted a green pepper component. This isn’t a crazy notion, as I’d seen wine tasters mention the same thing occasionally for red wines. I can’t remember exactly what my brain said to me at the time but I’m sure it was something like “Go on man, share. You’ll totally get points for such an astute comment.”

After a quick mental rehearsal I thrust myself into the conversation and everyone went silent and turned to me like they always do when the quiet guy finally perks up. I proudly announced my knowledgeable critique of the wine – to a sea of dead silent, perplexed faces. Sigh…I’m a squirrel again.

Finally the awkwardness dissipated and everyone slipped back into their respective conversations. I turned to Charlotte to find out what the hell just happened. She informed me with a giggle that instead of saying “I taste…” I’d mistakenly said “I drink”. On top of that I hadn’t made the distinction of saying green pepper, so as far as they knew I was talking about the black powdered kind.

So again, I ask you to imagine this setting: you’re enjoying a festive holiday evening when the new foreign guy, and out of nowhere he grinds everything to a halt and confesses to the table “I drink pepper.”

Um…yeah, ok.

3) Finally, this time at my father-in-law’s house, I found myself in the kitchen with Charlotte, her 15 year-old sister, and her step mother. Just me with the ladies, laying on the charm. The sister was standing next to me while we prepped snacks for the apéritif, and I happened to notice the scent of a perfume she doesn’t normally wear. Like I would in my own family, like no big deal, I put a friendly hand on her shoulder and said something off the cuff as a compliment, “Mmm, tu sens bon!” (You smell good!)


Scrreeech goes the music and the kitchen vibe gets real weird all of a sudden. Turns out this isn’t quite as innocent a phrase in French.

In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have rolled the dice on this one; surely there were dozens of other low-risk compliments at my disposal. Plus I know that other deceptively simple lines like “She’s good” translate to something rude and sexual when Frenchified, so saying “You smell good” couldn’t have been far off.

Ahh, just Co with the ladies, laying on the charm. Luckily they know me well enough to understand it was just a lost-in-translation-moment, and eventually it became a joke to be told and retold. And it’s better this way because now I get to re-live the agony over and over.

So: now the long-lost secret to learning a foreign language, if you haven’t figured it out already. It’s your single strongest weapon that will accelerate your progress faster than any book or CD or classroom. The key is, frankly, everything written above – or more specifically how you react to it. It’s the one thing I missed when prepping for the big move with my nose in all the Learn French books: you must come to terms with being that guy. The guy who blows it, who embarrasses himself, who never quite gets to show his true personality. In a word, you’ve got to be fearless.

Have I gotten there yet? Hardly. I may never get there until right around the time I’ve become fluent enough for it not to matter anymore. But boiling it down to one true goal brings everything into better focus, with the rest hopefully falling into place along the way. Until then all you can really do is take it on the chin and step away from the oven. I hear people say life presents us with the lessons we need most. If that’s true then surely this squirrel is right where he needs to be, snagging nuts wherever he can and crackin ’em like Da Vinci codes.


  • Great article! Any chance you could read my last blog and leave a comment with your blog address, so my readers can read this article – it’s just what we are talking about!

  • Ha! I got a kick out of this. I’m in gay Paris, too. The hardest thing about being in a second-language environment is feeling like the world’s biggest bore! Or accidentally saying something “sexual”. Trust me–this is equally tough as a woman. Men are secretly expected to be sexual predators. Not women, though. One wrong gesture–usually in a moment of communicative desperation!–and everyone in the room thinks you’re a tart(e)! Gah!

    • “…feeling like the world’s biggest bore.” — couldn’t have said it better myself! Also I like your term “second-language environment”; it seems to add a bit of class to the whole concept. Thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed it.

    • Oh my, to me Japanese makes French look like a cake walk, because you have the different alphabet to work with as well as all the inflections they use in the sounds of the language. How’s it going for you? What is it like grammatically — complex, simple, intuitive/not?

  • I’m killing time at work going through your more recent blog posts and this one had me rollin’!! The fact that our local Dept of Education rep walked in the moment I almost started crying (around the part when you wrote, “I’m a squirrel again.”) totally delighted her into thinking I really enjoy my job.

    • Lol, love this! Part of me was hoping it’d go down something like: your supervisor sees you in the throes of reading enjoyment, and when she asks what’s up you show her and next thing you know the whole office is gathered ’round your screen high-fiving and pulling skateboard tricks against an 80’s hairband soundtrack. But that you were able to use the blog to fake legitimate job satisfaction is equally as awesome. Thanks Dena!

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