Learning new words in French & English while traveling in France: Des Oiseaux / Birds

By   September 4, 2010

Yesterday David and I went to the Parc des Oiseaux in Villars-les-Dombes and then to the medieval city of Pérouges, both in the département of Ain. The only things I knew about Ain were its capital city (Bourg-en-Bresse) and its number (01). I had never been there before or heard much about it. Even though it’s the départment directly to the north and west of Savoie and Haute-Savoie, there really aren’t many mountains and the landscape is mostly flat (at least in the western Dombes area) with lots of cornfields, forests and ponds.  Since it’s bordered by both the Saône and Rhône rivers, fishing and wine are also important industries. It seemed radically different from Savoie even though it’s only 1.5 hours away – yet another reason why I love exploring France. Everywhere you go, it’s as if you enter a new country every few hours.

Département de l’Ain

At the Parc des Oiseaux, I learned several new words in both French and English for different types of birds. I do love animals, but I’m not exactly an expert on the classification of birds or know where their native habitats are. The park was divided into Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and Oceania, with over 100 species of birds and the signs had translations of their names in English and German so I was able to learn more vocabulary in more than one language.

We started in la forêt tropicale des toucans and then walked through la volière (aviary) du Pantanal and saw beautiful colorful birds from Brazil. Next was the crique des manchots where we watched the adorable penguins swim in their little wave pool.


Le bush Australien was my favorite part because there were wallabies! I love wallabies!


La vallée des rapaces (raptors/birds of prey) was a bit creepy because of this guy sitting next to the entrance. Not that vautours (vultures) will kill you… but they wish you were dead so they could eat you already.


Past le champ des cigognes (storks) was la plaine Africaine with the largest bird of all: l’autruche (ostrich). Some males can weigh up to 155 kilos / 340 pounds! They can run 70 kph / 45 mph for half an hour! Their wingspan is 6 ft. 7 inches / 2 meters and their height can reach 9 feet / 2.75 meters! In short, they are one badass bird.  Except for their adorable, funny-looking faces and eyes that are bigger than their brain.


Afterwards, we entered the terre des calaos where I learned about the hornbills. These birds were the most unfamiliar to me. Their beaks are slightly like toucans, but with an extra something (apparently called a casque in both English and French) on top.


We ended our tour du monde of birds with the étang des pélicans and the baie de Cuba with the bright flamants (flamingos). But before returning home so I could look up the differences between nandous, émeus and autruches (rheas, emus and ostriches) or why manchot is the translation of penguin even though most books still say it’s pingouin* (though no one in France ever calls them that), we decided to stop in the medieval town of Pérouges.


Pérouges is listed as one of the plus beaux villages en France and it is indeed a beautiful place. Founded by Gauls returning from Perugia, Italy, in the 12th century, the town officially became French in 1601.


Most of the buildings date from the 15th century.


I don’t think I would want to live in a medieval town today, but they sure are interesting to explore.


Check out my Flickr account for the rest of the Parc des Oiseaux and Pérouges photos!

*Pingouin in French is actually a razorbill in English, which is technically an auk and not a penguin. Manchot is the correct translation of penguin in French, even though most other Indo-European languages also use a word similar to penguin. French just likes to be different. It still doesn’t explain why the character of Penguin in Batman was translated as Pingouin though!

La Rentrée en France: Back to School… and Strikes

By   September 2, 2010

The official back to school shopping list for all French public school students is not only a lesson in vocabulary, but also in culture.  Most people know that France is a very centralized country and that all roads (and railroads) lead to Paris. The academic calendar is set in stone for the three zones of France years in advance and the school curriculum is essentially the same throughout the entire country. The joke about every student studying the same subject from the same textbook at the same time everywhere in France isn’t exactly true, yet take a look at the specificity of the school supplies that parents are supposed to buy for their children:

Fournitures : Qualité type attendue
Grand cahier 96 pages (21 x 29,7 cm) : Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Grand cahier 96 pages (24 x 32 cm) : Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Petit cahier de 96 pages (17 x 22 cm) : Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Feuillets mobiles perforés (21 x 29,7 cm) : 70 à 90 g/m2
Copies doubles perforées (21 x 29,7 cm) : 70 à 90 g/m2
Cahier de musique de 48 pages (17 x 22 cm)
Classeur rigide (21 x 29,7 cm) : Cartonné recyclable
Classeur souple (21 x 29,7 cm) : Plastique
Protège-cahiers (17 x 22 – 21 x 29,7 – 24 x 32)
Pochettes transparentes perforées (21 x 29,7 cm) : Lot de 90 à 100
Rouleau de plastique pour couvrir les livres
Stylos à bille : 1 bleu, 1 noir, 1 rouge, 1 vert – pointe moyenne
Crayons à papier : H.B. – bout gomme
Pochette de 12 crayons de couleur
Pochette de 12 feutres de couleur : Lavables, sans solvant, non toxiques
5 tubes (10 ml) de gouache – 5 couleurs primaires : Peinture à l’eau
Stylo correcteur
Bâton de colle – lot de 2 à 4 : Non toxique – sans solvant
Rouleau de ruban adhésif : Sans dévidoir
Porte-vues – 21 x 29,7cm – 40 à 60 vues : Matière plastique ou recyclée

I certainly don’t remember my back to school lists being this specific. Teachers just told us to buy a notebook or folders or colored pencils. I was never told dimensions or numbers of pages or stapled, not glued. Maybe things have changed since my school days (I graduated high school in 2000), but somehow I don’t think American schools are quite as exigeant with their school supplies as l’Education Nationale in France.

I’ve worked in 3 high schools, 2 middle schools and 1 university in France and I can attest to the fact that all students use the same pens, plastic rulers, glue sticks, notebooks, sheets of paper, etc. Students may not all be studying math at 10 AM on Tuesday mornings, but they most likely are all using the same blue pens and grid paper and not one will attempt to draw a line without using their ruler, or without asking where exactly on the page to draw it. To Americans, this rigidness seems like a lack of imagination or creativity, whereas to the French, it is essential to suivre le modèle and not step out of line (or color outside of the lines).  I’m not saying that one country’s education system is better than the other – because I have a lot of problems with both – but maybe we should strive to be more like Finland instead. Just sayin’!

To learn school supply vocabulary online, I recommend browsing paper store websites such as www.ma-papeterie.com. You’ll notice that certain supplies that are common in the US don’t actually exist in France or aren’t used very often (two-pocket folders, spiral notebooks, lined paper).

Another facet of French culture that is evident at this time of year? Strikes! Even though everyone is just returning from summer vacation and going back to work and school this week, there is already a nation-wide strike scheduled for Tuesday. I love you, France, because you make me laugh and cry at the same time.

Free English as a Second Language (ESL) Lesson Plans and Activities

By   August 31, 2010

This weekend was the end of les grandes vacances in France because all public school students start the school year on Thursday. I actually love this time year of because it means that France is alive again. It’s not just back to school, but back to work since a lot of stores and businesses close in July and August when most people leave on vacation. I’m looking forward to getting back to regular life this fall even though that means unemployment for me once again.

Even though I don’t exactly have a rentrée of my own this year, I figured it was time to update the ESL Lesson Plans page for those who will be teaching English this fall. Most of the lessons I used as a lectrice were designed as interactive exercises for students to do while using a computer in class. I’ve reformatted some of them so that they can be printed and copied more easily, and will continue to add more lessons as I finally clean out the English folders on my hard drives. My first two years as an assistant I spent a ridiculous amount of time on planning lessons and therefore thinking in English, when I should have been  improving my French everyday. I hope these resources will help future assistants take advantage of their short time in France.

My lectrice job at the university was a 12 month short-term contract, renewable for only one extra year. So as of October 1, I will be unemployed because even though there are vacataire jobs at the university that have been offered to me, you must already have a job in order to be hired, because vacataires are only paid every 6 months. (Yes, sometimes you must have a job in order to get a job in France.) My only option now is to wait to see if there are any open English assistant positions at high schools in the area, but I have to wait until the original assistant assigned to the school has resigned or just doesn’t show up by October 15.

Luckily I still have one more month of paid vacation so I have some time to figure things out. Teaching English is really the only job I can get in France since I’m not an EU citizen and don’t have a degree earned from a French university. In all honesty, I would much rather teach French than English, but that’s not going to happen in France. I’ll probably start a French as a Second Language page so I can upload lessons and materials for French teachers to use, and I’ll work on creating more audio flashcards and exercises to go along with the tutorials.

For more information on the English assistant program in the French public school system, read the Guide for English Language Assistants in France. If you’re interested in working at a university in France, then check out How to Become a Lecteur/Lectrice d’Anglais or Maître de Langue at a French University.

Free and/or Public Domain Materials for Listening to & Reading Languages Simultaneously

By   August 22, 2010

Previously I explained how reading subtitles while watching TV shows or movies helps enormously with foreign language comprehension. I wanted to expand on the Listening & Reading method – because it is what I use foremost when studying languages – and list some freely available resources where you can find text and audio in several languages.

When I first started learning languages in the mid 90’s, audio was an expensive component of language resources and even when cassettes or CDs were provided, the recordings were limited to an hour or so of common phrases and simple dialog. It was never enough to progress beyond the beginning stage. Luckily the internet and the ease with which materials can be accessed and downloaded changed all that – especially concerning materials in the public domain.

Below are websites with free and/or public domain audio files and transcripts to download for your personal use. There’s never any reason to spend hundreds of dollars on language courses!

  • When learning a new language, I like to start with Book2 because they offer 100 phrases & sound files in over 40 languages. You can choose any combination of languages instead of just using English as the first language. It’s handy for comparing two languages or using one language to help you learn another at the beginning A1/A2 level.
  • LangMedia offers many videos of common conversations and situations that you’re likely to encounter, filmed in the country where the language is spoken. A lot of cultural notes and even realia are also provided. About 30 languages are available.
  • If you already have a certain text in a foreign language, but you want to hear how it is pronounced, request a recording at Rhinospike. Native speakers will record an mp3 that you can listen to online or download – and usually more than one person will do the recording so you can learn from a variety of accents.
  • There are a lot of language podcasts these days, but many do not offer the transcripts for free. The type of speech available can be put into two categories: rehearsed and spontaneous. Sites like Spanish NewsBites, Radio Arlecchino, and Slow German provide recordings of native speakers reading a text with no mistakes because it has been rehearsed, while sites like France Bienvenue and my French Listening Resources provide spontaneous speech with false starts and fillers. I prefer the latter because it’s more representative of what you hear in normal everyday conversations, but spontaneous resources are much harder to find.

FSI Italian FAST course

  • Foreign Service Institute courses can be a bit boring because the vocabulary is aimed at diplomats serving abroad, but nevertheless, they do contain common phrases and useful conversations for everyday use – not to mention hours and hours of audio and materials for languages that have very little resources available. The books can be downloaded in PDF format, but I am still attempting to create HTML and perhaps eventually DOC or EPUB versions for some of the courses. (I just uploaded six more units of Italian FAST this weekend.)
  • For a more literary approach, Librivox and many other e-book sites, such as Logos, offer many classic books and children’s books in several languages, with recordings done by volunteers. I tend not to use these books as much as other materials because literature is very different from everyday speech, but they are helpful for pronunciation and vocabulary nonetheless.
  • News sites, such as Euronews which is available in nine languages, sometimes do not offer exact transcripts of what is said in each video. This is the same problem with subtitles for a lot of programs or films. The sentences are similar enough so the meaning is generally the same, but it can be really distracting for beginning learners. At an intermediate level, you can start comparing what is said to what is written and learn two ways to say the same thing.

Learning Italian through French, or a Third Language through a Second

By   August 17, 2010

I’ve mentioned before that I find learning a third language using my second language much easier than using my native language. Currently, I am improving my Italian by using resources written in French rather than English. Switching from French to Italian takes much less effort than switching from English to Italian, and the same is true regarding German, so I’m reluctant to say it’s merely because of the genetic relatedness between French and Italian. Granted, learning two Romance languages together is probably easier than learning two unrelated languages for most people, but for me it’s more of a question of my second language having priority over my native language when other foreign languages are involved.

Some people discourage learning two languages together, especially languages that are closely related such as Spanish and Portuguese, because they believe that learners will get too confused. That’s quite insulting to learners who are quite capable of learning several languages at once, or using one language to learn or improve their knowledge of another. Perhaps some people do confuse certain similar words, but once an advanced level is reached, everything sorts itself out and humans are able to speak several languages on a daily basis. Multilingualism, not bilingualism and certainly not monolingualism, is the norm throughout the world and is highly beneficial to the health of the human brain, so shouldn’t we all strive to be polyglots?

Once you’ve gained a sufficient level in one foreign language, all of the others that follow are increasingly easier and easier to learn. You’ve already learned how to learn a language and familiarize yourself with the grammar, so now you can focus on learning useful vocabulary and collocations for communication and trying not to get stumped by polysemous or homonymous words.

Italian through French

At first glance, Italian seems a million times easier than French, especially regarding pronunciation. There are only seven vowels and every word is pronounced how it is spelled. Compared to the 15 or so vowels in French, plus the nasals and numerous silent letters, I am in heaven. I don’t have to wonder why in the world a singular noun such as œuf ends in /f/ but the plural œufs contains no consonant sounds at all because Italian pronunciation is not a cruel joke against foreigners, unlike that of French. Italian does have some irregular plural forms, but they are still pronounced exactly as they are spelled. Uomo (man) becomes uomini (men) in the plural but at least -ini isn’t silent for no darn reason!

Articles are slightly more complicated (what’s with lo?) but the possessive adjectives and pronouns are the same. No new forms to learn. Changing from spoken to written Italian is much easier thanks to the phonetic spelling. I never have to worry about if I need to add that extra -e or -s for feminine or plural as in French (they’re silent! how mean is that?) because in Italian, the final vowel simply changes according to person and gender so there is no confusion.

Verb conjugations are also easier. A bunch of v’s? Imperfect! An r in the stem? Future or Conditional! Too many s’? Imperfect subjunctive! Just as in French, the preterit isn’t used in speech (except in southern Italy) so I can spend more time on recognizing the forms instead of producing them. Subject pronouns are rarely used with verb conjugations, which takes some getting used to since they are always required in French.

Some phrases are very similar – passer une nuit blanche / passare la notte in bianco (to have a sleepless night) –  while others can be deceiving: le monde entier / tutto il mondo (the entire world) compared to tout le monde / tutti (everyone). Of course, idioms between languages are often different and need to be learned individually. Yet it is these subtle differences between close languages that I find the most interesting and spend most of my time learning. Both French and Italian came from vulgar Latin, so how and why did the languages change over time and how can we use that to our advantage in learning both languages? The Loom of Language explains this rather well, though I am still looking for a more contemporary book on the subject.

As I reach fluency in Italian, I will continue to update both the Italian and French & Italian tutorials. I am also returning to Italy next week – to the Aosta Valley, where both Italian and French are official languages – so I should have more realia resources to upload.

Just out of curiosity, for those who are learning a third (or fourth, fifth, etc.) language, do you use resources in your native language or do you prefer to use resources in another language that you know well?

Le Grand Robert & Collins French/English CD-ROM Dictionary

By   August 11, 2010

Since I’ve been doing more French-English translations lately, I decided to invest in a CD-ROM dictionary instead of a standard paper dictionary. Wordreference.com is of course a great online resource but I wanted something more.

Le Grand Robert & Collins French/English CD-ROM Dictionary contains 425,000 entries, all with standard IPA pronunciation and plenty of sample phrases and expressions. You can also listen to the pronunciation of about 15,000 French words. It is possible to search for phrases instead of individual words, though you must spell everything correctly because no suggested words or entries appear as you type.  You can copy & paste from the entries as well as double click on another word that you would like to look up and it will take you automatically to that entry.

Le Grand Robert & Collins CD-ROM Dictionary

Also included are 15,000 entries of business vocabulary, a guide d’expressions which provides many set phrases for communicating (opinions, preferences, apologies, etc.),  cultural notes mostly about France, common proverbs (which are included in regular dictionary entries as well) and some PDF files in the Help section on verb conjugations; numbers, time and dates; and weights, measurements and temperatures.

This CD-ROM is a bit expensive at amazon.com ($190 USD) but slightly less at amazon.ca ($96 CAD / $91 USD) so Americans might want to just pay for the extra shipping from Canada. At amazon.fr the price is 67€ / $86 USD but they only ship within the EU. There are also versions from 2007 and 2003, which I’ve heard are nearly identical to each other, but I don’t know how different they are from this latest edition.

Update on the Easyjet Drama: Refusal to Pay Compensation

By   August 7, 2010

Oh Easyjet, how I loathe you more and more everyday. Remember how they abandoned us overnight in Venice without providing food or hotels like they are legally supposed to? Even though I was reimbursed for the canceled flight, I never received the insultingly low 120€ for alternative travel costs (we paid nearly 1,000€ out of pocket to get home). I sent another e-mail to Easyjet’s customer service explaining our nightmare at Marco Polo airport (along with receipts for car rentals, gas, tolls, etc.) and stating that I am entitled to 250€ compensation per person according to Regulation 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the European Council.

This regulation is supposed to help passengers in case of delays or cancellations in the EU, but there is one problem:  “An operating air carrier shall not be obliged to pay compensation in accordance with Article 7, if it can prove that the cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.” Extraordinary circumstances is not defined, which unfortunately means that the despicable airlines will claim every cancellation is beyond their control in order to not pay compensation. That is exactly what Easyjet is doing now.

Even though the flight was canceled due to crew shortage, Easyjet is claiming that it was because of the storms. Funny how every other flight was able to take off from the airport after the storms had passed. And funny how Easyjet themselves originally told me the flight was canceled due to crew shortage and not because of the storms. Does lying come naturally to Easyjet employees? Is that in the employee handbook?

It’s bad enough that we were abandoned at the airport for 18 hours with no food, water or hotel accommodation (which is BEYOND ILLEGAL!!!) and that because of this, grandma nearly passed out and had to see the airport doctor. But to have them completely lie to me just to get out of paying compensation makes me LIVID. BOLD LIVID.

Crew shortage is not an extraordinary circumstance – in fact, it’s a rather common occurrence with this “less punctual than Air Zimbabwe” airline – and a standby crew is supposed to be provided in these cases. It’s just fortunate for Easyjet that there were also storms that same day so they can use that as an excuse.

So my next step is to involve the ENAC, the civil aviation authority in Italy (where the flight was supposed to originate) and hopefully they can help me get compensation. After that, hello small claims court!

French Slang Nouns (New Video)

By   August 3, 2010

Here are some common informal nouns used in everyday speech in France. Once again, it is more important to simply understand these words and not worry so much about trying to use them. The standard vocabulary is given after the sample sentences.

Are you a Juillettiste or an Aoûtien? and Another Reason to Visit France

By   August 2, 2010

We are in the middle of les grandes vacances in France and it certainly shows, even in smaller towns rather than just Paris. Many shops are closed or not nearly as crowded as usual, most of the people wandering the streets have cameras around their necks, and I can always find a parking spot directly in front of my building. Some things haven’t changed – there are just as many loud scooters on the streets that drive me insane – but France in August is definitely my favorite time of the year. And every summer I’m reminded just how much French language and culture are inseparable by the fact that there are words for people who take their annual vacation in July, les juillettistes, or in August, les aoûtiens.

Most French people have 5 weeks of paid vacation per year, and some have even more time off with the inclusion of their RTTs (essentially, personal days) for those who work more than 35 hours per week. My fonctionnaire (civil servant) boyfriend has nine weeks off per year, all paid of course – and this is only his second year as a fonctionnaire.  Even the education system makes sure there are 2 week vacations after every 6 weeks during the school year, which consequently means summer vacation is only 2 months instead of 3 like in the States, and hence why there are no real juinistes (people who take their vacation in June; very few people use this word and it’s not in the dictionary). Nevertheless, French law makes sure everyone gets plenty of vacation!

Regardless of whether you are a juillettiste or an aoûtien, there is yet another reason to spend your vacation in France: UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has just inscribed a new cultural site in France on their World Heritage List. The episcopal city of Albi, located in the southwest near Toulouse, is the 31st World Heritage cultural site in mainland France and there are also natural sites on the islands of Corsica, La Réunion, and New Caledonia. Of course, you should visit countries to learn the language, meet the people, eat the food, etc. instead of just hopping from Heritage site to Heritage site, but the list is a nice way to get an overview of the history and culture of an area.

The Importance of Learning Collocations instead of Individual Words

By   July 29, 2010

As Randy from Yearlyglot pointed out recently, word pattern recognition is an important concept in language learning and attaining fluency. Word patterns or collocations are simply the way certain words (whether function or content) habitually occur together. These conventional sequences are instantly recognizable to native speakers of a language, but remain difficult for second language learners to acquire and use properly.

It is usually recommend to learn the gender along with the noun or the plural along with the singular or the feminine form of adjectives when studying vocabulary. But we should go a step further and include collocational information (as well as alternate meanings) for every word we learn. Every time you learn a new adjective or verb, make sure to learn if a preposition follows it before a noun and/or a verb. In French we say se marier avec quelqu’un while in Engish we get married to someone, not with someone. Even with closely related languages, such as French and Italian, the prepositions can differ. In French we are intéréssé par quelque chose, in Italian we are interessato a qualcosa and in English we are interested in something. The verbal counterparts of “to be interested in” in French and Italian are s’intéresser à and interessarsi di. Don’t you just love prepositions?

Translating collocations is also problematic even when there are no prepositions involved. In English we say safe and sound whereas in French it’s sain et sauf (healthy and safe).  Students who are unfamiliar with the concept of collocations will most likely attempt to translate literally from their native language, which results in the common mistakes that language teachers hear over and over again. Even after a year of university English, a lot of my students still said I listen music even though to listen to is one of the most basic verbs that is taught in their middle and high school classes. It is certainly not possible that they had never been exposed to this verb before freshman year of college. And yet, they still had not learned to express themselves properly in English by using fixed phrases instead of translating word for word.

Common two-word collocations in English

I remember learning vocabulary from my textbooks in college and being surprised that collocational information was often not included in the glossaries. In my first grammar class, I was confused that Je lui ai dit (I told him/her) was grammatically correct instead of Je l’ai dit because my textbook simply taught that dire meant to say/tell and did not specify that the correct phrase was dire quelque chose à quelqu’un (to say/tell something to someone or to say/tell someone something). I was also confused about seeing demander à and demander de and not understanding why both prepositions were used. Then I learned the expressions demander à faire quelque chose (to ask to do something) and demander à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose (to ask someone to do something) and the little light bulbs in my head went on all over the place. Why couldn’t my textbooks have taught those full expressions immediately instead of just the verbs dire and demander?

If only all uses of prepositions were this easy to learn…

Prepositions are highly idiomatic in all languages and therefore, can be quite unpredictable. Why does French say prêt à faire quelque chose (ready to do something) but content de faire quelque chose (happy to do something)? I suppose it doesn’t really matter why, the point is to simply memorize the collocation instead of the adjective. This also helps with verbs that change their meaning depending on what preposition and/or complement follow them. If you only learn that défendre means to defend, then the expression défendre à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose will make no sense until you learn that it actually means to forbid someone to do something. The same goes for assister – it doesn’t just mean to help. Assister à quelque chose means to attend something (an event, a performance, etc.)

A good dictionary will always include this information for each entry. There are also collocation dictionaries like Robert’s Dictionnaire des Combinaison de Mots that are useful for quick reference. And if you have no other resources, try Google or Google Battle to see which preposition you think should follow a certain word. Not that everything written on the internet is grammatically correct, but it’s at least something!

For other linguistics nerds who are interested in the lexical approach to language learning (i.e. that lexical items, such as collocations, and not simply individual words and definitely not grammar alone, is the basis of language and therefore should play a central role in language teaching and learning), check out books by Michael Lewis, Paul Nation, Alison Wray and Ann M. Peters. Related to collocations is the research done in the field of corpus linguistics and how we use concordance analysis of authentic language to create frequency lists of these lexical units. If you’re confused by this last sentence, read John Sinclair’s Corpus, Concordance, Collocation.  There is a lot of research in this area nowadays, especially with the emergence of CALL (computer-assisted language learning).