(Catching up on blogging–this was written during our stay in Paris a week ago)

Joy and I both had a decent knowledge of French back in college, but that was a long time ago. Being in Paris is re-activating it, but the brain seems to have a “you are speaking a foreign language” switch which makes one respond to being addressed in a foreign language by spewing words in any language except one’s native tongue. These are not necessarily words of the local language, and for both of us, they tend to be Spanish.

It makes me aware of which Spanish words and phrases I know so solidly that I’m not translating from English but thinking in Spanish. They just pop out: I say “señor” instead of “monsieur,” “gracias” instead of “merci,” unless I stop and think and deliberately translate what I want to say into French. This makes common words the hardest: maintenant, aujourd’hui, aussi. Ironically, aussi (French for “also:) gave me trouble when I was learning Spanish. I distinctly recall having trouble remembering the word “tambien” (Spanish for “also”) because “aussi” kept coming to mind instead, which is when I started consciously suppressing my French.

My French pronunciation is coming back to me, but again, Spanish infects words that look similar. “Rue St. Martin” becomes “San Mar-TEEN.” The similarity of a word can make me doubt whether I’m remembering it right, but yes, semaine is the French word for “week,” not just my invention of something likely when my brain reaches for semana.

In general, knowing French grammar helped me to learn Spanish 20 years later. It meant, for example, that I already understood reflexive verbs. But the differences between the grammars are now coming back to get me. In Spanish one does not need a subject pronoun unless it’s necessary for clarity. If one wants to say, “I’m going to watch a movie,” “Voy a mirar una pelicula” will do just as well as “Yo voy a mirar una pelicula.” This has become so ingrained that when I brightly walked up to a store clerk to say, “We’re looking for soy milk”–“Cherchons du lait de soja”–and oh, how proud I was of remembering that it’s lait, not leche–the woman of course looked at me in confusion. “Of course” because, by leaving off the nous, “we,” I was saying to her, “Let’s look for soy milk!”

French. A lovely language. Not the same as Spanish. We’re going to be so happy to get to Barcelona. That is, if we don’t offend the Catalan speakers by speaking Spanish.

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