French Across Time and Dimension


Last week, I moved on in my study of French to a couple of new tenses. I understand le present, le passé composé, l'imparfait, le plus-que-parfait, le passé recent et le futur proché. By "understand" I mean I get the rules, have many of the participles memorized and can--with some difficulty--employ them. The distance between "understanding" and "mastery" is significant--as you shall soon see in this post.*

All of these tenses are degrees of present, past and future. 

Some refer to a past event that happened at a specific time--"On Saturday, I went to the market." (En samedi, je suis allé au super-marché 

Others refer to a past event that happened with some consistency or did not happen at any specific point--"When I was a child I liked to play football." (Quand j'etais jeune, j'amias jouer au football.

Still others refer to something I can show, but (Horde help me) don't know how to explain--"I have heard that French people talk to Americans in English." (J'avais entendu que les gens de France parlent en anglais avec les Americains.)

But toward the end of our lesson, we touched on "The Conditional," which I guess isn't quite a tense, but is more of an aspect. (Again, Horde help me out please.) The conditional expresses a kind of wish, or a desire. "I would like to go to Paris one day." ("Je voudrais aller à Paris.)

It isn't a definite like "I am going to go to Paris one day." ("Un jour, je vais aller à Paris.") 

It also connotes politeness as in "I would like a cup of coffee." ("Je voudrais un cafe.")

In my mind I see tenses as lines in space--the past tenses are down the line, the future tenses are up the line. But then there are these other intersecting lines which offer more information about how you are thinking about the statement. Are you trying to be polite? Or are you trying to give an order? Are you expressing a wish? Or are you expressing a plan?

When you are learning a language all of this is slowed down for you. It's like The Matrix and you get to see the bullets coming at you. Accept that native speakers (and fluent speakers, I guess) actually can do The Matrix trick in real time. The bullets are slowing down for them. In a milliseconds they can decide what they want to say, when the thing happend, adjust for who they're talking to (Il ou Elle? Tu ou Vous?) and how they wanted to say it. Sometimes they can even invert forms. The "Vous" in French is supposed to be formal and polite. But if you've watched as many French thrillers as I have, you'll know that your hero is in trouble when the villain uses "Vous." It connotes a sinister irony--think Agent Smith sneering, "Mr. Anderson."

Seeing the thing laid out like this, you really start to marvel at the power of the brain.

*I have intentionally not used google translate or babelfish to correct or check any of my French in this post. I have written as it occurred to me, and I have done that because this blog (web-log.) In that spirit it is not the display of knowledge, it's about the acquisition of knowledge. In that spirit, I encourage the Francophones among us to correct my French. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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