How French is like golf, to me

I pray your indulgence as I attempt to articulate my present stage in learning French.

I came to Luxembourg with a dim memory of taking advanced French in high-school, and a few hours of practice during trips to Paris and Nice. It wasn’t long before I was reading signs and speaking easily with shopkeepers. (Lest I forget: There were a few incidents where I asked Anita to ask a question in English due to my fear of stumbling through a conversation in French.)

Now, when I want to express myself in French, I can find most of the words I need without effort. I don’t compose a sentence in English in my mind and then translate it into French. Occasionally, I struggle to find the word I want, especially for abstract ideas. According to most metrics, I’m an independent speaker (with working proficiency, i.e. probably B1 per CEFR).

And I’m not counting unusual or technical terms, even ones that French children would know. For example, I recently went looking to buy a coat-stand. So, I looked up the word before I set out. As it turned out, the stores don’t use the term I learned: they were labeled portemanteau rather than cintre. (Fans of English etymology should find that pretty funny.)

I don’t know the precise words for animals, types of trucks, or other things that a young child would probably learn from picture-books.

Here’s the challenge at hand: I make grammatical errors frequently. When I want to speak French well, it feels like there are dozens of rules to keep straight. Those rules seem like obstacles to expressing myself.

Here’s where golf comes in. In terms of how it feels, it is very close to the way that I feel when I stand before a golf ball when playing with in a foursome much better than myself. I need to do so many things right — and remind myself to do them right — in order to hit the ball well.

  • keep your wrists straight
  • swing smoothly
  • don’t reach with your hands
  • don’t lift your head
  • and so on

And when I swing, I fail to do one or two of those things. That’s the nature of the game.

Right now, speaking French feels like swinging a golf club. In each sentence (of some complexity), there are so many little rules (and exceptions) that may or may not apply. I know those rules and exceptions pretty well. When writing French (slowly), I can apply them with few errors.

But when I’m just trying to tell a story, those rules are like good advice for my golf swing: they don’t come all together and I make a mistake. A mistake that, strictly speaking, I “know better” than to make.

There are several techniques for getting over this hump in learning French. It won’t be easy.

What’s tempting is to adopt my attitude to golf. Years ago, I decided that I didn’t want to spend the time and money to become a golf enthusiast. I could see the pleasure in swinging the club well more frequently, but I could also see how much effort it would take to get to that point.

So I stopped at a different level: the point at which I could strike the ball — with irons but not woods — well enough to keep from being an annoying companion to better golfers.

In general, I hit the ball straight, so there’s rarely a need to search for my ball in the rough. In general, I hit the ball a distance which is unimpressive but not pitiful. (Well, nearly pitiful, given my frame.) As long as I don’t touch my woods, I don’t get too frustrated. (With the usual exception of one or two nightmarish holes per eighteen — I am human, after all.)

I feel like I am at the analogous point in my knowledge of French at this point. I can tell a story in French, and get the point across. I commit many grammatical errors that make me sound a bit stupid. Occasionally, I make errors that render a sentence unclear to the listener. My interlocutor needs to speak slowly for me. I ask for clarification from time to time, when a fluent person would not need to.

It’s tempting to declare victory and quit the field. I don’t think I will, because this is a great opportunity since, unlike golf, I have the time and resources to do it right. But it is tempting to move on to something new — something fascinating and probably easier.

3 Comments to “How French is like golf, to me”

  1. Dave said...
    29 January 2010

    Don’t quit! You can do it! Plus, if you learn to speak french well, think of how that may help you if you’re ever chosen for the Amazing Race.

  2. Asif Islam said...
    1 February 2010

    Mr Bakker I used to love your anti-British stuff. When are we getting some more?

  3. Doug said...
    1 February 2010

    I believe you have time and resources for golf now too! Just knock that one out too – heck play with frenchmen on the golf course and get the benefit of both.