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hysterical conjugating, or how to learn French during a pandemic

French was the first foreign language I studied. I really liked my French teacher in high school, Mr. Shafranski; he hadn’t actually been to France, but in that school, located in the small farming community my family moved to when my Dad retired, he was a Renaissance man. He also ran the French Club, and he taught what was then called “college prep” English, where we read Shakespeare, among other notable authors. We acted out several scenes from Macbeth, and my two best friends and I were selected to portray the three witches, a rather dubious distinction to have when you are 17 years old.

My French professor in college seemed a bit elderly to me, and her approach to teaching a foreign language definitely leaned toward the very traditional, rote method. I remember her clearly enunciating répétez every time she directed us to do a choral recitation. (Thankfully, this old-school language class staple has now mostly been dropped from language pedagogy.) She never smiled; teaching French was a serious business, and there was no merriment whatsoever.

I think I chose to study French because France was the first foreign country I traveled to and lived in. In 1965 my Dad was an optometrist in the Air Force, stationed at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, TX. That year he received orders to transfer to the American air base at Evreux, France, near Paris. Before leaving the United States, we drove across the country and stopped to visit my grandmother and other family in Florida, we did a tour of Washington D.C. and its many historic sites, and then we continued on up to Trenton, NJ, where we eventually flew out on a military transport jet, landing at Orly Field on our arrival.

Soon after settling in, my Dad started to study French from a neighbor in our new neighborhood. We got to be good friends with this French family, and I still exchange holiday cards with them; theirs always arrives in the new year, as is customary in France. We got to know other neighbors, too, including an American family that had a TV. My sister and I would go over to play with their kids, and inevitably we’d watch the American shows that were dubbed into French—I remember watching, “Bonanza,” “The Wild, Wild West,” and “Mr. Ed.” My Dad said if that darn horse could speak French, he could learn to speak French, too.

I have recently started to study French again and have taken several classes through the UW-Madison Continuing Studies program. Some things I learned all those years ago came back to me immediately, and some things I don’t remember learning at all. I don’t remember anything, for example, about this nifty pronunciation rule, which goes like this: if a word ends in a consonant, the consonant is silent and is not pronounced. If the word ends in a consonant followed by an “e,” however, the “e” instructs you to fully pronounce that consonant—but—you don’t pronounce the “e” itself. It simply exists as a marker.

The reason some words have a word-final “e” and some do not, really has to do with gender. Adjectives with this spelling pattern, when used to describe a male, don’t carry the word-final “e,” and therefore, the final consonant “t” is not pronounced, as in il est impatient. But when the same adjective is used to describe a female, it will carry the word-final “e,” and the consonant “t” will be pronounced, as in elle est impatiente. Here’s another example: un petit garçon/une petite fille. There are other instances of this, as well, such as the masculine/feminine forms of occupations, such as un étudiant/une étudiante.

This kind of esoteric exercise has proven to be the perfect way for me to become absorbed in something and thus removed from what is currently happening around me. And so perhaps it explains why I have turned to French to help me manage the pandemic.

The French class I was taking this past spring suddenly went online, like so many things did in April, and then was cancelled altogether when our instructor sadly had to deal with a family emergency. I was sorry to miss out on this class with our warm, encouraging teacher (who has been to France many times with many groups of students). My belated return to language learning was thus set adrift, amid mounting and terrifying news of the coronavirus.

I decided to keep studying on my own, and I started by learning a wide range of verbs and conjugating them in the present tense. We hadn’t yet covered the past tense in the class I was taking, so I ventured into le passé composé, as well, and then as the weeks continued to go by, curious to see how much I could digest, I kept adding in different tenses to my study sheets.

I have now expanded my repertoire to include l’imparfait, le futur, le futur proche, le conditionnel, and le subjonctif. And I found that when I worry most about the pandemic—when I fear for my family’s safety; when I stop to think about the catastrophic number of deaths and the many, many families in mourning; the fear and suffering of people who have gotten sick and have been put on ventilators; the overwhelmed hospitals and medical staff; the beloved, local businesses and organizations here and elsewhere that may not be able to withstand this prolonged loss of income; the people around the world who have suffered and will continue to suffer until we get a viable vaccine; the wild uncertainty about how long this can possibly go on—I find I can forestall the panic by doing conjugations in my head, repeating for each 1st, 2nd, and 3rd singular and plural person.

I eventually developed a sentence that I could say for each verb, as well, something rather fun—which makes me think of Noam Chomsky’s theory of language learning. This theory explains why children, who undoubtedly learn about language from their parents and the other language speakers around them, can nevertheless also generate utterances that are completely novel that they’ve never heard before. I certainly have not heard anyone say these silly sentences, and I doubt there are any French speakers who would produce them, so perhaps this is an indication that I am indeed learning the language.

As I methodically repeat these sentences in my head for each tense, and for each person, my mind slows and calms, because I must focus on “seeing” the different word ending that each different conjugation requires.

I have now come to think of this exercise as “hysterical conjugating,” partly because of the hysteria of those first few months of the pandemic when no one knew what was going on, and now, because of the reckless, willful ignorance of those who refuse to take the pandemic seriously and act responsibly. This is the craziness I want to block out, and my conjugations on sleepless nights allow me to do this. These are my novel utterances: Je mangerai les pêches violettes à huit heures. Tu mangeras les pêches violettes à huit heures. Il mangera les pêches violettes à huit heures. Nous mangerons les pêches violettes à huit heures. Vous mangerez les pêches violettes à huit heures. Elles mangeront les pêches violettes à huit heures. Apparently, everyone will eat purple peaches at eight o’clock. Allez-vous?


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