I bet this is the dictionary I’ve owned the longest. My Collins French-English English-French Dictionary is held together with tape. The ends of the pages are worn velvety soft. It’s gotten things written in it that would have seemed very clever when I was 12. I imagine I acquired it not long after the ninth printing, in November 1986–apparently from a French teacher, because it’s got a semi-legible inscription on the title page. Bonus points to any reader who can figure out what my teacher’s name was.
French was the first foreign language I learned. I haven’t taken a French class since 1989, but I’ve had to dredge up my middle-school-level Francais while traveling on three continents. It comes in handy at home sometimes, too.
I started on French when I was 7, before my family spent a month in Europe. For most of that time, we were in Britain–I had a life-changing encounter with a plate of orange duck at a Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh–but we also hopped over to France for a week. My mom took the opportunity to get me started on languages. A good move, as it turned out. I can’t imagine that I ever actually produced a word of French. I was a shy kid, and even at this age I’m embarrassed to speak languages that I’m not very good at. But we listened to lessons on records and I learned things like how to tell time, and the seed of language-learning was planted.
I suspect the dictionary came from an after-school class that I took in fifth or sixth grade. In seventh grade, I took a French immersion class. Not the kind where you use the foreign language all day, learning math and science like the natives do; I was at a regular English-speaking school, but just the fact that Madame Louvet never spoke English in her class was a big deal.
Learning French seems like a throwback to the time when the upper classes learned this poetic foreign language of love, snootiness, and wine. It’s perceived as less useful than Spanish, and in the U.S., of course that’s true. You aren’t going to meet a lot of people here who are more comfortable in French than English.
But, in a lot of the rest of the world, the balance shifts.
On a trip to West Africa in 2005, I discovered that everyone in Mali seemed to speak about two languages at a minimum; some spoke five or six. If your mom’s village speaks one language, and your dad’s village speaks another, and then you go somewhere else and learn the language there, you’re up to three before you even get to a colonial language. Most people speak Bambara, and there are more than 50 indigenous languages, but French is the official language, and even really bad French is useful.
Later on the same trip, I chatted off and on with a Moroccan taxi driver in French as he drove my dad and me on a day trip up into the Atlas Mountains. He asked me a question about my husband and I realized he meant my dad. Gack. “Ce n’est pas mon mari!” I exclaimed. “C’est mon père!”
In 1998, at an outdoor museum in Bucharest, I ran into an older man who, when he realized I couldn’t speak Romanian, tried French on me. It sort of worked. He asked me where I was from, which I understood, but then I was mortified to realize I couldn’t remember how to say “United States” in French. I managed to get the idea of “America” across. “Les États-Unis!” he said. “Oui, oui, oui! Les États-Unis!” I agreed. After that mess, the conversation was pretty much over.
One day on a trip to Cambodia in 2001, I caught a ride on the back of a moped to a research institution in Phnom Penh, where I poked around and asked about science projects. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, some signs of education, like wearing glasses or speaking French, could mean being singled out for mistreatment. My impression was that not a lot of professors had made it through that awful time in Cambodia’s history. Using a combination of English, French, and paper and pencil, a professor told me about his time working in the field, yoked like oxen to other men. He pointed to himself. Then he pointed to the other men. “Morts.”
All of the times like this when I’ve actually needed French, I never had this dictionary, or any dictionary. My limited vocabulary and weak listening comprehension skills had to make it on their own. These encounters show just how little of a language you have to know in order to connect with people who may themselves speak it as their second, third or fourth language.
Dictionary Stats: Collins French-English English-French Dictionary
publisher: Berkley Books, New York
length: 495 pages
guide words on p. 214: régaler vt: ~ qn to treat sb to a delicious meal; ~ qn de to treat sb to; se ~ vi to have a delicious meal; (fig) to enjoy o.s. rejet nm (action, aussi MÉD) rejection; (POÉSIE) enjambement, rejet; (BOT) shoot.
introduction: It includes a pronunciation guide with three columns: a left-hand column of French words with a particular sound, the phonetic symbol (m, tʃ, etc.) for that sound, then a right-hand column of English words with the sound. So, if you read across the line for the “sh” sound, you get “tache chat,” “ʃ” (the IPA symbol for “sh”), “sheep sugar crash masher.” There are sections for Consonnes/Consonants and Voyelles/Vowels. Most of these sounds are in both languages. The last two categories are less balanced. Diphtongues/Diphthongs has an empty column for French examples. Voyelles Nasales/Nasal Vowels has an empty English column.
obscenities: Mais non!