Tuesday, January 4, 2011


In my French classes, I always emphasize what will be the key words of the semester: marquer, se débrouiller, and se depayser. I tell my students that my mission is to "mark" them with a lifelong passion for French, and that our classroom is a place for them to get out of their element--to free themselves to invent a French persona that may be completely different from their usual self. Maybe in their mother tongue they are a shy person. But in French, this does not have to be the case. Sometimes a name change helps. I have had reserved Heathers (unpronounceable in French!) who became Gabrielles, and nerdy Sammys who became suave Pierres.

For me, one of the most exciting things about speaking a new language is the opportunity to become someone else, and I am told that I have a different personality in each language I speak. If by some accident my students overhear me speaking English, their shock is palpable. In any case, the key to survival in an any language is to be able to se debrouiller--literally, to be able to "defog oneself" and carry on, regardless of the circumstances.

"Se debrouiller" is, in fact. such a French expression that it is rarely taught and is pretty untranslatable. I learned it in an embarrassing way. I was dancing with a French guy in the boite de nuit across the street from my first French "home" (our landlady had sent my roommate and me there to meet some natives), and the young man was trying to compliment me on how well I spoke French:"vous vous debrouillez TRES bien en francais!" But I, who had never heard that expression before, wrecked the whole moment by saying, "Se debrouiller? Qu'est-ce que ca veut dire?" "What does that expression mean?" Duh...

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