French Lessons to Retain...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

French Lessons to Retain...

Just a few edits...
Next week I finally hand in the final edit of my French mémoire, my master’s thesis at the Sorbonne Nouvelle.  Two years in the making, I’m happy with the results and hopeful that the jury reviewing it will be equally enthusiastic. 

The process, however, has taught me as much as the research itself.  Writing in French is no cake walk, and certainly not a boost for anyone’s self-esteem (even for French students).  I’ve learned some things though that will come in handy during my next writing endeavor that should come in handy…

1. I’ll never do it correctly: I’m not a native speaker, and that’s fine.  I give in.  But after a heavy edit session of 100+ pages with a real live French person, I’ve realized that my written French will never (anytime soon) stack up to a native speaker’s.  More focused on content than structure, I’m a sucker for misusing “de” and “à,” for using less formal “comment” instead of “la façon dont,” and accidentally adding “en plus” instead of “de plus.” 

All of these are shades of gray to me, rarely changing the meaning of what I’m trying to say. To a French speaker, however, they mark the difference between a 10/20 (a decent grade) and a 14/20 (a great grade).

2. Word counts are never an issue: The French are fond of verbose, complex, long-winded sentences that touch the very heart of the spirit of the meaning that the writer intends to achieve.  In short, they’re wordy.  My professor commented that my writing was easy to read and very clear, a feat that he congratulated me on.  Little did he know that most of that concise writing was just an accident.  I accepted the complement with a nod.  He didn’t have to know.

People give me a gentle “wow” when I say I wrote a 100 page paper in French, but I like to remind them that the same paper would have been about 50 pages in English.

3.  Even French isn’t French enough:  After having a friend, a colleague, and a professor (all French) read my paper, I realize that no two French edits are alike.  The friend, a total amateur, corrected edits that the professor, a professional, had given me.  The colleague disagreed with a word use that the professor said made sense, while the friend had no idea what the word meant.  Imagining a jury of French professors debating my paper, I realized I was in for it. 

Everyone has their own take on how something should be explained and written, and having correct grammar and vocabulary isn’t enough.  Whereas in English, saying “the cat is red” gets the idea across, it seems that the French variants among three people would be akin to “crimson is the cat’s shade,” “the feline is not blue, green, or yellow, but other,” or “the dog’s nemesis, hunter of mice, is the hue of blood.”  Each one would be correct to one person and wrong to the other two.  What luck.

I’m at the point where all the words on the page make sense, and my ideas are clear with a thin, but present veneer of eloquence.  That should be enough.  Let’s hope.


  1. Slightly discouraging in hopes of ever having a complete grasp of the language, but fascinating nonetheless. I'm a two semesters in beginner, but already have similar hang-ups writing for class—good to know it's perfectly normal for non-native speakers.

    Best of luck!

  2. Wow, I am thoroughly impressed with you! So glad you are nearing the end of the tunnel. Congrats!!!!

    On a similar note, I recently had my mother-in-law, my husband and my sister-in-law proof a simple 2-page document I had written in French. I found the exact same thing -- there was a lot of disagreement on much of the text with each person adding and deleting some of the suggestions made by the previous reviewer. It's a bit hard to understand the subtle nuances but seems that French is not as cut and dry as English. I can only imagine what this experience would be like with a 100-page document. Quel horreur but kudos to you for persevering!

  3. Ha, so true about the variations in phrasing. I particularly like your last example :) All will be fine and you'll likely score better than the French, mistakes and all.

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