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Larousse de PocheLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Here are two good tips for anyone learning a foreign language. First, read comics. Second, get a monolingual dictionary. Both are methods of getting your mother-tongue out of the way. If you read comics, you’ll see words illustrated by actions. If you get a monolingual dictionary, you see words illustrated by words. In both cases, you’ll stay inside the world of the language you’re learning, rather than stepping backwards and forwards across a linguistic frontier.

For example, here are some definitions from this Larousse de Poche, or Pocket Larousse:

albâtre n. m. Marbre transparent et tendre. Fig. Blancheur extrême.
béchamel adj et n. f. Sauce blanche faite avec de la crème.
colibri n. m. Oiseau exotique de très petite taille; oiseau-mouche.
fou ou fol, folle n. et adj. Qui a perdu la raison : Charles VI mourut fou.
foudre n. f. Décharge électrique aérienne, accompagnée de tonnerre et d’éclairs. Fig. Coup soudain, rigoureux, irrésistible. Coup de foudre, événement soudain. Amour subit et violent.
glouton, onne adj. et n. Qui mange avec avidité. N. m. Mammifère carnivore des pays froids.
métallurgie n. f. Art d’extraire, de purifier et de traivailler les métaux.
ramoner v. tr. Nettoyer l’intérieur d’une cheminée.
vinagrier n. m. Qui fait et vend du vinaigre. Burette à vinaigre.

If the definitions work right, you’ll understand without an English word intruding. That’s the ideal when you’re learning another language. C.S. Lewis explained it well in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (ch. ix, “The Great Knock”)

If the English word intrudes, you don’t build up your mental muscles in the second language. Or you see the second language in a distorting mirror, rather than looking at it directly. That’s why comics and monolingual dictionaries are good for muscles and eyes.

Even a small dictionary is good. The French lexicon isn’t very big, so this Larousse de Poche usually helps even with the exotic vocabulary of a novel like À Rebours, let alone a straightforward text like Les Hommes Volants. And dictionaries have a literary appeal of their own. A good definition is like a good stroke in cricket, making minimum effort for maximum effect. This definition flies off the bat and skims away for four:

crâne n. m. Boîte osseuse contenant le cerveau.

And if understanding a language is like using a knife to cut into the world, then a bilingual dictionary is like using two knives at once. They get in each other’s way. It’s bad for the weaker knife: it gets blunt and chipped. Using a monolingual dictionary, by contrast, sharpens and shines the weaker knife. My French has never been very good, but I think it’s improved since I’ve started using this dictionary. The Ramones sang about a “Rocket to Russia”, so you could say that this book is a “Pocket to Laroussia” – the world of French in which that famous publisher has worked for so long.

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Les Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

This is one of the best books I’ve ever owned. And also one of the most enjoyable to read. But if it had been the original edition in English, I’m not sure I would have bothered reading it. It might not have seemed worth the effort, because the effort would have been so slight.

It would have been like walking downhill. Reading French, on the other hand, is like walking uphill on difficult ground. It’s much better mental exercise and much more interesting. The scenery is stranger, the flora and fauna more exotic. And the appeal of reading in a foreign language is summed up in this book:

« Toutes furent unanimes, écrivit Chanute, « à affirmer que voler dans les airs procurait un monde de sensations extraordinaires. » (« L’apprentissage du vol », p. 92)

“Everyone was united,” Chanute wrote, “in agreeing that flying through the air produced a world of extraordinary sensations.”

The extraordinary nature of language isn’t apparent when you’re in your mother-tongue. You have to enter another language, because each language is a world of its own. That quote is by Octave Chanute (1932-1910), one of the pioneers of aviation, but he didn’t make it in French or in France. Although he was born in Paris, he emigrated with his parents to America and grew up to become a civil engineer.

He then got interested in aviation and was one of the inspirations for the Wright Brothers. But this book goes back well before Chanute and the Wrights. Men have been dreaming of flight, and dying in the attempt, for millennia. It looks so easy for birds, but it took a long time to master. Like mountaineering, it was a Faustian quest and white European men proved to have the necessary combination of intelligence and daring. Those who challenged the air, like the German Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), often paid with their lives.

Lilienthal was another inspiration for the Wrights, but they had to correct some of his aerodynamic findings before they could finally achieve powered flight. Their success ends the book, which begins with the experiments of Persian kings and medieval monks, and the story of aviation presumably continues in La Conquête du Ciel, or Conquest of the Sky, which is listed with other Time-Life editions at the beginning.

The Time-Life books are well-designed and full of interesting pictures and photographs. Seeing is good for saying: as I point out in my review of a monolingual French dictionary, if you’re learning another language, it’s good to see words and images combined, because each reinforces the other. And translations into the second language are a good place to start too, because you’re often already familiar with the story and translations are usually simpler than texts composed directly in the second language.

The flood of the original has to be channelled and controlled to irrigate the minds of new readers, because French can’t do everything that English can, and vice versa. But Les Hommes Volants seems to be a good, idiomatic translation: it’s rarely obvious what the original English would have been, though I think the book must have been well-written and interesting in English too. And the font goes perfectly with French: it’s an elegant yet precise serif.

The intricacy and complexity of French also go well with the intricacy and complexity of the mechanical task that the pioneers of aviation were confronted with. English is intricate and complex too, of course, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d read this book in English. The translation into German would have been too difficult: French is in a kind of linguistic sweet spot for me. Difficult enough to be challenging, not so difficult as to be exhausting or frustrating. I glide effortlessly in English; I have to flap my wings hard to stay up in French; I can barely get off the ground in German or Georgian. The second kind of flight is often the most satisfying.

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Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

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