Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 16, 2021


Dueling with Duo

According to Wikipedia, 72 million people speak French.

According to me, I'm not one of them ... but I AM gaining on it!

I've mentioned before how I enjoy languages and am reasonably fluent in Spanish. I also studied German and Russian in college. But while husband Art mentioned how French was the language kids were pushed to study in the 1950s and many of us of can still recall some of the words and the tune to "Frère Jacques," French always remained a mystery to me.

Daughter Katie said she likes languages where if you see it, you say it - like German or Spanish. But with French, figuring out the spelling from the spoken word is often difficult to impossible. Since English has adopted so many French words, perhaps we can blame the language of the Gauls for the chaotic mess of our own language. Cough, though, thought, spout and ghoul all have an “ou” vowel combination, but are all pronounced differently.

Art's home state of Wisconsin has a lot of French place names - Eau Claire, Prairie du Chien, Fond du Lac, Trempealeau - but very few French. Pierre and François were great explorers and traders, but then moved on and didn’t leave the footprints that the Germans and English did. In this part of the country, they moved from Louisiana up the Mississippi River to settle St. Louis. The Chouteau family placed a trading post where the Missouri and Kaw rivers met - now called Kansas City - but they gave their name to Chouteau, Oklahoma and Chouteau County, Montana. The Marais des Cygnes River and the towns of Vermillion, Belle Plaine and Louisville are Kansas names with French roots.

So what has prompted my recent focus on French? Art's and my project of creating a book about the 1948 connection between Morganville, Kansas and Fèves, France inevitably meant we would be spending a significant amount of time in France. Knowing even a smattering of the language would help, so when we were there in 2015, Katie and I downloaded the Duolingo language app on our phones. But we didn’t find it overly practical. After all, how many times would we hear or say in casual conversation, "je suis baleine" - I am a whale?

But it regularly improved. It was more useful when husband Art and I returned to France with the Morganville mayor and his wife in September 2016. Upticks happened during our subsequent trips in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Still, I was only marginally successful with keeping on after returning to the States.

Then COVID-19 hit and suddenly I had a little more time. I began practicing every day, spending 15-20 minutes on four or five small units - usually between 5 and 9 p.m. If I haven't opened the app by 5 p.m., Duo - the little green Duolingo bird icon - reminds me it's time to practice. Our friend Bryce also inspires me as he has been using it for more than three years.

It also helped that the beginning of the pandemic coincided with our starting work in earnest on a French version of the book. Four friends who are native French speakers have enlightened me on some of the nuances and quirks of their language. I had no idea just how complex the translation process could be. Even within this small group, there have been occasional disagreements as to which word might be a more precise translation and when to use uppercase or lowercase, which is quite different from English.

Take World War II. We use uppercase, so Seconde Guerre Mondiale seemed reasonable. But we had also seen it written as Seconde Guerre mondiale, Seconde guerre mondiale and even Deuxième Guerre Mondiale. In French, it is apparently just a matter of style. When Art discovered the local newspaper for the region where Fèves is located rendered it all lowercase, we decided to follow suit.

When I told friend Hervé, who was raised in and near Fèves, about our trouble finding agreement, his texted response made me laugh: "Not surprised. In France, no oil and gas and not much going on but, my god, they like to make it difficult for irrelevant things."

I have also learned about French diacritical marks and accents:

ç – the cedilla (la cédille) - converts a “c” into an “s” sound
é – the acute accent (l'accent aigu)
â/ê/î/ô/û – the circumflex (l'accent circonflexe) - I call it the "little hat"
à/è/ì/ò/ù – the grave accent (l'accent grave)
ë/ï/ü – the trema (l'accent tréma)

While this was all foreign to me - pun intended - we probably could use some of these in English. A child - or adult - wouldn't have to remember that the "c" in receive is pronounced like an "s" if it were written reçeive. The vowel accents guide the reader as to which sound to use.

Punctuation is also different. French uses spaces between words and their accompanying question marks, exclamation points, colons, dollar signs, percentage signs and quotes. So, "Very good, thank you!" is written as: " Très bien, merci ! " Note the three additional spaces.

For that matter, the French even have their own version of quotation marks. They are called guillemets, and they look like chevrons lying down. so « Très bien, merci ! » is how the French would write it. For a quote within a quote we have ‹ ... › available.

The Guillemet is apparently named in honor of French printer and punch-cutter Guillaume Le Bé (1525-1598), although he evidently didn't invent the symbols as they first appeared in a book published when he was only 2.

Then there are numbers! A decimal points is placed where we use commas and a comma is used for a decimal point.

Of course, there are differences in expressions as well. What we would call a "juicy" bit of gossip, they call a "crispy" piece of gossip.

So while it is all a bit daunting, Duo recently informed me I had passed a milestone. On March 23, I had studied French for 365 days in a row. Time to reward myself with a croissant, a little fromage (cheese) and a glass of vin (wine)! Now if I only had a beret!


Left: In 2015, some of our Fèves friends read a historical marker near the Missouri River in Kansas City about the French settlers. Right: Art and I about to celebrate my year on Duolingo with Duo looking on at the upper-right.



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