Parlez-vous français?

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Trying to learn about thrombosis in French is pointless for someone (like me) who doesn't speak French. But for the writer and word-nerd in me, the foreign phrases are fun to look at anyway.

Trying to learn about thrombosis in French is pointless for someone who doesn’t speak French (like me). But for the writer and word-nerd (also me), the foreign phrases are fun to look at anyway.

The answer to the question posed in this blog title — whether I speak French — is a resounding “no.” The little I do know about French is that it is a beautiful language, one gentle on the ears, eyes, and tongue. When I hear it spoken or see it written, I have little idea what the words mean. But to me they are lovely words nonetheless.

This love of French words extends, I learned this week, to medical texts. Yesterday our class received an e-mail with this subject line: “Dr. Erkan’s Printed Material – The English Version is Now Posted on Canvas.” (“Canvas” being our online education portal.) I was immediately intrigued. This implied that at some point, a non-English version was available (clearly an accident), but had since been removed. A kind classmate who’d inadvertantly downloaded the foreign language version — in French! — forwarded me the PDF. I had already watched the lecture in English, and had read the English slides. So as I skimmed through the French materials, I had a vague idea of what I was reading. My fluency in Spanish helped a little, as both are Romance languages, with some similarities. This was not at all a productive use of my precious time. I had a test to study for. Looking at the French version obviously would not help. This was pure linguistic voyeurism.

My first childhood crush was on Jaromir Jagr, a Czech hockey player. More than anything, I was enthralled with his last name, which according to English grammar rules was mysteriously missing a vowel between the two terminal consonants.

My first childhood crush was on Jaromir Jagr, a Czech hockey player. More than anything, I was enthralled with his last name, which according to English grammar rules was mysteriously missing a vowel between the two terminal consonants.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at this fascination with a foreign tongue. The signs were there at an early age, when I started watching National Hockey League games with my dad. It’s a fast-paced, exciting game, which helped hold my attention. But just as fascinating were the players’ names — especially the Eastern European ones. My first childhood crush was on Jaromir Jagr, a Czech who played then for the Penguins. I didn’t even really know what he looked like, as he was covered in protective padding and a helmet all the time. My true attraction was to his last name, which was seductively missing a vowel between the “g” and the terminal “r.” “How was this possible?!” the young grammarian in me wondered. It was my introduction to foreign languages, to rules so different from the familiar English ones that they took on a magical, mystical quality. I had to learn more.

But life puts time constraints on you. Fluency takes years of dedicated practice — you must choose a language to focus on. So I chose Spanish, and I’m glad I did. It, too, is a lovely language with curious and detailed rules whose application can make me giddy. Spanish is also highly practical in the United States, especially in urban areas like my former home, Chicago, and my current one, New York City. If I could choose another language to learn, disregarding practicality and difficulty, it would be Russian. It hearkens back to the genesis of my linguistic interests, which started with those Eastern European tongues.

I’m in medical school now though, learning a foreign language of another kind: doctor-speak. Fluency here is by fire and immersion. No time for nation-languages. So I must be content, at least in this season of my life, with things like browsing medical texts in French. And dreaming about how someday, I might have time for more.

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