I am now parlez-ing French, y’all

Part I: Jules et Jim et Connie et Nigel et Moi
In an effort to model my life after the movie “Breathless” except without the crime, I’ve started teaching myself how to speak French. My goal is to become as fluent as I can using a few tools so that I don’t have to impose on anyone who actually speaks French. This way, when I say I’m new to the language but then reel off a stream of properly conjugated verbs, they will think I’m smart and offer me a Contrex and a Gauloises. Merci!

So far, I’m kicking ass. Or “Je frappe les fesses,” as I might say in French.

I’ve been using a couple of mobile apps: iTranslate (type in a word or phrase, get a translation — pretty simple) and Duolingo. Duolingo is almost a game. It introduces words and phrases and then quizzes you on those words and phrases. You’re asked to type in a translation from French to English (or vice versa) or speak a phrase into the phone. There’s even a “chat room” where you talk to different characters about different things. My family loves it when I throw out random French expressions.

“L’éléphant mange un insecte!”

But the bulk of my learning has come from French With Michel Thomas: The Fastest Way to Learn a Language, an eight-disk program. I’m not familiar with many different learn-to-speak-the-language courses, but this one strikes me as pretty spot on. M. Thomas teaches two students (neither knows any French) by teaching them little chunks of the language which can then be pieced together with other parts.

It’s unscripted. The students have no idea what’s coming up, though Thomas, I’m guessing, has it all worked out in advance. One of the students is an American female and the other is a British male. And while the program makes no effort to personalize them (their names are never said and there’s no other information given about them), I’ve created a dossier on each based on context clues throughout the lessons.

Both students are voice actors in their mid-30s.

The woman is named Connie Pantsuit (I made this up, but I’m confident I’m right). Her voice sounds like she would do the pre-recorded announcements for the Admiral’s Club of a second tier airline. “Your attention please, for the next 30 minutes, get a free gimlet with every Harvey Wallbanger you order.” I believe either Ms. Pantsuit is less interested in learning to speak the language than she is in saying French words out loud or she was paid per word spoken. She repeats things constantly throughout the course, often interrupting M. Thomas in order to repeat something that was said moments earlier.

She does a lot of guessing and I don’t think she’s a very good listener. Thomas will say something like, “Can you say, ‘magic wand’?” and Connie Pantsuit will say, “muhBIT WANT.” Other times, she will take erratic guesses at a translation.

MT: How would you say, “I am very tired today”?
CP: “Shuh… Puh. PAH. DAH. DAH-PAH. PUH-DAH. PANTSUIT!

I believe she smokes a lot. Her voice has that edge to it and also there are long stretches throughout the course where she is nowhere to be heard. During these times, I believe she is outside, in the alley, smoking two Virginia Slims that have been taped together, end to end.

I also believe that though this course was recorded at least 20 years ago, she continues to play them for her dinner party guests, and these dinner parties are designed to gather people so she can play them these recordings.

“Now, listen carefully,” says Connie, cradling a Yeti travel mug filled with Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante. “ I feel I really captured the essence of that word. ‘Avec.’”

The gentleman student, who starts off quite promising, also has a dubious aura about him. At first, he sounded like a British intellectual, someone you might hear on “BBC World News” and might cover rural elections or farming accidents. But then, at some point, he turns on the smooth and all of a sudden he sounds like someone who might do the voiceover in commercials for a line of flavored decaffeinated canned coffees.

“Get caught up in the Wuthering Heights of romantic coffee-like magic with Javatopia Brand hazelnut and pimento flavored canned coffee drinks,” he might say, while Schubert’s Trout Quintet played on a zither drones in the background.

It is for this reason that I have determined this guy’s name is Nigel Pleasant-on-Hampton.

And then there’s Michel. Kind and gentle and intelligent, though with a quick temper and a rage that burns bright. At the time this course was recorded, he was 400 years old. He knows language and he knows how to teach it, or how he would like to teach it, but he does not suffer fools lightly. And this time he’s been handed a couple of Grade A fools. Also, his hearing has all but pooped out.

How does this all play out? Stay tuned!

In the next issue, “Part II: Ignite, fury! Ignite!”