Thursday, August 2, 2012

French or foe?

I started my French class a few weeks ago. I am in a class with some really fun people, and we have an awesome time. Some of us are newbies, some have been around the FSI block a few times, and many of us are headed towards West Africa.

For our first full week of French, we were told we would focus on health, and we should learn as much pertinent vocabulary as possible. The professor asked for examples.
"HIV," said one student.
"Hospital," shouted another.
"...And one that will be très important for us," I added. "Stool sample!"
"Ugh!" the student to my right said with a groan. "We just ate lunch! That's gross!"
The classroom fell silent as we all looked at him, amused and stifling our laughter.
"Tell me again where you think you're going..." I began.
"Dude, you're going to poop your pants within a week of getting to your post, guaranteed!" chimed in another classmate.
The look of horror and disgust that washed over the face of our disenchanted classmate made all of us howl with laughter. To his chagrin, we decided then and there that we would refer to him from now on as "Poopy Pants."

Unfortunately, Poopy Pants was not alone in eliciting uncomfortable laughter during our class. In an unfortunate demonstration of my feeble attempts at French pronunciation, I would soon inadvertently introduce my class to several inappropriate words.

The first incident occurred when I misspelled a common word while trying to explain something to my class. I was confident that I was spelling it the correct way, and asked my instructor to write it on the board to assess my pronunciation. He resisted and tried to change my spelling several times, before giving in to my insistence and writing it on the board. Proud of my obvious linguistic progress, I emphatically explained the definition of the word and the pronunciation (the way I understood them) to the class.

He erased it dramatically, said "non!," and would not discuss it further.

Remember when your parents used to say "end of discussion," when you were old enough to understand that you had apparently crossed the line, but still too young to know exactly why? That's how I felt. I knew my teacher wasn't mad, he was just disappointed in me. And the shame that accompanied that disappointment was so great, I shut up for the remainder of class and hung my head while recalling memories of having to sit at home, grounded, while all my friends were hanging out without me. Thanks a lot, mom.

Of course, after class we all immediately rushed to pull out our dictionaries. We turned to the correct page and found... "boobies." Yes. "Slang for breasts." In our first full week of French, I had taught my entire class of diplomatic professionals how to say "boobies."  Hi five, guys!

The second incident was my introduction of a verb that roughly translates as "to benefit," which I came across in an article about malaria. Apparently, this verb has many uses, and some of them are graphically sexual. I found this out by saying the word in a very loud manner while practicing pronunciation with Mr. Kate in a restaurant that many FSO's frequent for lunch. After being on the receiving end of several uncomfortable glances, we looked up the word in my online dictionary and were astonished to learn that "benefit" was far from the only definition of this seemingly innocuous word. Thus, we assumed the glances in our direction were solely the result of our impressive mastery of the French language.

As we were reviewing the same article in class, I emphasized that there were several X-rated ways to use this verb and to make sure you were using it in the appropriate manner, lest you receive dirty stares in a restaurant. But I told everyone they would have to look up the specifics themselves, because I wasn't going to be the cause of another boobie incident. The teacher looked at me with a grimace and shook his head in what I can only guess was an attempt to convey his disapproval. Nevertheless, I suspect he was at least somewhat relieved that I had not involved him by asking him to write it on the board this time. You're welcome, Monsieur le professeur. You're welcome.

A few days later, our professor asked us to write and bring in sentences for the class. Most of us had simple sentences with simplistic translations along the lines of the following:

Hello, my name is Kate.
I wake up, shower, and dress myself in the morning.
I have two naughty dogs. 

Poopy Pants was having a hard time coming up with original ideas, but happened to be listening to the radio while doing his homework. His sentences ended up like this:

Hello. I just met you.
And this is crazy.
But here is my number.
So call me maybe. 

Our French teacher had no idea what was going on, but it was certainly the highlight of our day. In reward for his hilariousness, we allowed Poopy Pants to pick a different nickname- one he didn't hate quite so much... as long as he promised to keep using song lyrics for his sentences.

So far "Scooter" has performed spectacularly (sometimes with the assistance of some superb suggestions from our other classmates). Thus far, we've been treated to several fantastic sentences such as:

I wear my sunglasses at night.
I have 99 problems, but a female dog is not one. 
The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire.
Apple bottom jeans, boots with the fur. 

Unfortunately, despite his general lack of familiarity with bad song lyrics, it appears our teacher might be starting to catch on.... What is "le jean de pomme derriere"?


  1. WHY did I not think of song lyrics for my language studies?!

    Language is always good for a few laughs, usually at someone's (my) expense. For example, in Estonian, the verbs "to ask" and "to urinate" are perilously close, as are the words for flag and prostitutes.

    But my most stellar moment was when I was interviewing a little old lady at the visa window and tried to say "I thought" in Hebrew. Turns out, if you transpose the syllables, you have "I f*cked."

    I have not thought of anything in Hebrew since.

    1. Hahah, it's always awesome to learn new swear words... intentionally or not...

      Have you heard this? It might be the best thing ever...!

  2. Please keep writing! I'm dying from laughter over here. I don't know you but found you via Digger and am an aspiring FSS (OA date TBD) and a RPCV as well. I love hearing from your point of view.

    1. Thanks so much! I'll try to keep finding things to write about! :)
      If you ever have any questions, let me know!

  3. Oh my god, Kate, this is freakin' hysterical! I would LOVE it if my Hebrew students thought to use song lyrics for their sentences.

    And the Hebrew mistake above is one I've never heard! My most embarrassing mistake was turning "returning in repentance," a.k.a. born again Jews, into "pigs in repentance." You know, Ultra-Orthodox Jews just love being compared to pigs.