The waiter looked at me rather oddly. “Not feeling on top form today, are we?” he observed sarcastically...
On Saturday, whilst waiting for Mr Frog and Tadpole’s (delayed) TGV train, I sought solace in a café opposite the Gare de Lyon and ordered a spot of lunch to pass the time. I was a little ‘hanged over’ (as Mr Frog says), so I ordered a Croque Madame, thinking to myself that if I couldn’t have a traditional English breakfast, then a béchamel, ham and egg toasted sandwich would at least provide an equivalent amount of cholesterol.
“Une croque-madame, s’il vous plait,” I muttered, ‘et un carafe d’eau…’
The waiter looked at me rather oddly. “Not feeling on top form today, are we?” he observed sarcastically, before turning and shouting my order over to the bar: “Un croquet-madame et une carafe d’eau pour Mademoiselle!”
I was altogether too fragile to care that I had just made some glaringly obvious gender mistakes, but it occurred to me afterwards that far from making the allowances that a French person would normally make for a foreigner speaking his fair language, his sarcastic comment probably meant that he thought I was a French person with a pathetically poor grasp of the grammar (in general, or when hung over). A backhanded compliment of sorts, I suppose.
These days I'm often mistaken for a French person, especially over the phone. That is until I make the mistake of pronouncing a French word with my ‘English mouth’, (it happens sometimes, when switching from French to English, and then back again), or if I make an unforgivably basic gender mistake. You can study a language to graduate degree level, live in the country for what amounts to almost a third of your life, but none of this enables you to re-programme your brain to know instinctively that a table is feminine and a glass is masculine. I'm just not hardwired that way.
My theory is that when a French person learns to speak, the le or la is learnt as an extension of the noun in question: the two elements become indivisible. Whereas when I learn a new French word, I have no problem remembering the noun itself, but the gender eludes me. That is the main reason I didn't feel capable of teaching French to English schoolchildren: "Please Miss, you just said une verre but yesterday you taught us it was un verre..."
The way Tadpole is adding French words to her rapidly expanding vocabulary seems to bear out this theory. For her "labouche" is one entity. As are "lesoreilles" and "lafourchette." I suppose she will separate these out later on, but retain the magical, innate knowledge of which gender is which. And I imagine it won't be long before my toddler starts correcting my gender-bending tendencies. In fact, soon I will have my very own walking, talking dictionary.
What really doesn't help non-native French speakers is that many words simply have the wrong gender, in my humble opinion. How can I possibly be expected to get my head around the following mismatches between concept and gender?
- masculine: le repassage (ironing), le ménage (housework), l'accouchement (childbirth), le feminisme
- feminine: une moustache, une barbe (beard), la guerre (war), la paresse (sloth)
I rest my case.
Petite Anglaise / Expatica
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