Learning to Read in French

I don’t really remember learning to read.

I do remember, vaguely, a time before I knew how to read, but I don’t remember being baffled by letters, or staring, puzzled, at pages of text, I simply remember that instead of reading for myself, people (i.e. my parents) read to me. As far as my memory serves, the switch to reading to myself occurred seamlessly. I imagine it happened something like this: one day I sat staring out a window, and the next I sat by the same window, reading a book, and looking up from it occasionally to make sure the universe I was familiar hadn’t disappeared while I’d been immersed in some new world that opened to my imagination as I turned the pages those slim, simple books that were the first ones I’d ever read.

It’s glorious, really, that as a child I didn’t have to struggle to learn to read, and in this gloriousness, I mean to include the absence from my life of all the challenges that come between children and reading: lack of books, lack of teachers, lack of time, dyslexia, disinterest, disease, all the chance happenings of health, money and location that decide so much and yet over which we ourselves have so little control.

Reading has always been easy for me. At least in English…reading in French, however, is a whole different cup of noodles. Reading in French is really, really hard. I’ve been working at it for a few weeks to the detriment of my other (Anglophone) reading and hence to my frequency of posting here, and I’ve seen some progress. This whole foray into books in French began by the chance discovery of a French children’s bookshop with a really friendly owner, who understood my mangled request for something read and sent me home with the first of what’s become a (very small, slow moving) stream of French books that I’ve been working through kind of the a salmon works to get up stream: large periods of extreme effort without much measurable forward progress. Though I have to say, on behalf of the salmon, I think if I had the motivation and determination of biological imperative, I’d be doing rather better…swimming against the current with a thousand of your specie-al (is that a word? Is there a better word? Bio-people, help me out?) best friends and under constant threat of being munched on by bear is definitely harder than reading a children’s book in French. Sans aucune doute.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still doing my best to single-handedly support each and every Anglophone bookshop in Paris, and I’ve still got three or four English-language books going at the moment (one should barely count as English, though, as it’s a history of Paris). But as books are really the only thing I spend money on (well…books…and pastries…and

One of my favorite pages from Francoise Place's "Le Vieux Fou de Dessin." I bet you can guess why I liked this page so much!

museum fees) French bookstores clearly deserve my custom too. With that in mind, I’ve gone to some lengths to diversify my book-spending, and I’ve managed to acquire a small–but growing–stack of books in French, most with miraculously simple grammar, limited vocabularies which still greatly exceed my own and lots and lots of pictures.

Pictures, vocab, simple grammar and all, I am still finding it really hard to read in French…I’m not sure, but I think this may partially be because my mind isn’t as open to “not-knowing” as it was when I was first learning to read. I’m not as willing to let blanks fill themselves in slowly over time: I want to know what this word means, and I want to know it now! I want to understand the full sense of this phrase, and the next phrase, and the next phrase. I don’t want to feel like I’m missing constantly something,  and learning to read in a new language is full of “missing somethings”; it’s full of unknown words,

Sherlock Holmes

A page from a translation of a Sherlock Holmes' story. Words I don't know are circled.

confusing sentence structures and baffling idioms.

I remember reading someone’s answer to the question “Do you read with a dictionary?” She responded “No, never, I learn words through the context.” At the time, I remember thinking that was admirable but certainly wouldn’t work for me. I love looking up English words in the dictionary. Even though I often find that definitions lack the richness that I attribute to particular words within my own mind, the layers of definitions weave together into what appears to me to be a tapestry of language in which definitions are essential but the beauty of the whole is composed of something far more subtle than the rigorous restriction of words to meanings.

In France, I’ve been using a pocket English/French dictionary and a much larger French/English dictionary to aid me in my reading, but recently I’ve switched to just using a French dictionary, and I think this may be a step in the right direction (if the destination I’m hoping for is one with a good view of the tapestry of French language as a whole). Sure, now I’m baffled by my dictionary just as much as by the books I need the dictionary for, and that can be frustrating…but I’m beginning to sense the way words connect to each other, and I’m beginning to see the subtle differences between so-called synonyms. The language is getting richer, and it’s a little bit frightening. But then English frightens me too sometimes – – Plath’s English, for example, the author who said “The blood jet is poetry and there is no stopping it.”

But the power of language to frighten isn’t something I’m willing to give up for the sake of an easy translation. Easy translations usually end up dull and lifeless. Take this short poem by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, “L’adieu” (“The Farewell”):

J’ai cueilli ce brin de bruyère
L’automne est morte souviens-t’en
Nous ne nous verrons plus sur terre
Odeur du temps brin de bruyère
Et souviens-toi que je t’attends

Here is a rough translation courtesy of me and my Webster’s New World Pocket French Dictionary:

I picked this blade of heather*
Autumn is dead, that you must remember
We will not see each other again on earth
The smell of time blade of heather
And, you must remember, I await you.

And here’s a much lovelier translation, courtesy of Donald Revell:

I picked this sprig of heather
Autumn has died you must remember
We shall not see each other ever
I’m waiting and you must remember
Time’s perfume is a sprig of heather.

Big difference, right? And it’s with that difference in mind that I’m putting aside my French/English dictionaries, designating them for emergency use only, and diving into L’histoire de ma vie, by George Sand and the fantastic Belgian Bandes Dessinées, Tintin with only my new, all French dictionary to keep me afloat. And though the water does


Some of the choice expressions of Captain Haddock (or 'le capitaine Haddock') from Herge's "Les Adventures of Tintin: L'Affaire Tournesol."

look choppy, cold and terrifying, I think I’ll have more luck learning to swim in the ocean than I would in a bathtub, to beat a not-so-successful metaphor to death.

Obviously, I don’t think the difference has only to do with dictionaries—a semester of the Philosophy of Language was more than enough to make me abandon any conception I might have had of dictionaries being the real home of the spoken or written word—but it’s a good jumping off point, I think (or a jumping in point, to keep with the now-definitely-dead swimming metaphor). And like I said, English scares me sometimes too; but I love that it’s able to do that, and I hope that someday French will scare me the way English does:  with the threat of understanding all too well, instead of the dread of being incapable of understanding anything at all.
*(bruyère didn’t make the cut for my little Webster’s, so I googled it for the translation of ‘heather’).

3 thoughts on “Learning to Read in French

    • what level are you at, to begin with? get a good dictionary and maybe a grammar book? Youtube has lots of useful video series for learning French. For reading, maybe Madeleine, Barbar, or le Petit Nicholas (by Goscinny with illustrations by Sempe). There are also a lot of great Bandes Dessinées (comics/graphic novels) like Herge’s Tintin or Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adele Blanc-Sec. Sometimes reading books you know in English translated into French can be good (harry potter, for instance).

      Also I try and read the news (Le Monde or Le Figaro). But I’m far from an expert on this!

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