The Sounds of Sofy’a
Published. There it was. I made a grave linguistic snafu. A le placed hastily in front of a feminine word. The classic rookie French error- mixing articles. In French if a word is masculine, then le is the article. If the word is feminine, then la is the article. Le jour (the day)- masculine. La nuit (the night)- feminine. That’s French 101- know your articles. How could I have been so careless? What was I thinking? Sure, chandeleur does not have the usual ‘e’ at the end, which would be indicative of its feminine nature. However, La Chandeleur, the pancake holiday, is a beloved French tradition. To the newbie Francophile, my linguistic brain lapse might have gone unnoticed, but surely my French comrades caught the blunder. Mortifying. When I noticed the mistake on my social media post, I thought of all those times I read a tweet or post with the word ‘da’ instead of ‘the’, and thought how pitiful that slang sounded- a butchery of the English language. Given a mistake, my article mishap essentially begged the same type of desecration to the French language. I started to wonder- am I losing my French skills? A few pep talks to myself during the morning commute later, and I realized that my French skills, albeit mediocre at best, were far from lost. They were not perfect, but they were still there. With this self-assurance, an old college French class recitation came to mind- Mon. Ma. Mes. Ton. Ta. Tes. Le. La. Les. Repeat. Of all the language teachers during my journey for fluency, each one offered something different to the conversation. My high school teacher had a passion for French literature, and it was through her I adopted a fondness for the likes of Madam Bovary and Waiting for Godot. During the infamous study abroad, my terrifying French teacher showed me the ways of le subjonctif. Then there was the composer of that little, comforting recitation- Sofy’a.
“Classe, répètez après moi- mon…” Sofy’a instructed.
“Mon.” The class echoed, careful to swallow the ‘n’.
“Ma.” Sofy’a continued.
“Ma.” The class repeated once more.
“Mon. Ma. Mes. Ton. Ta. Tes. Le. La. Les.” With each word, Sofy’a pointed to her mouth with a perfectly manicured finger and directed the appropriate facial movements. With every repetition of the word ‘mon’ or ‘ton’, she pursed her lips into a demure ‘O’ and watched for the rest of us to mimic. The class practiced the odd recitation for ten minutes. To any outside peeper, we looked like a group of lunatics. This was the first day of French class in the fall of my junior year of college, and I felt like an idiot. I thought Sofy’a- a short, chic, Ukrainian woman with a blonde bob that could rival Anna Wintour- was insane. Why was this woman growling and making kissy lips at me? She had to be nuts.
This was the start of Sofy’a’s Monday-Wednesday-Friday morning phonetic chants. With each week, she added grunts and sounds that corresponded with different French words. This was new to me. For the first time, I was learning how to speak French instead of learning how to speak French. Sofy’a taught us- a room of gritty New England college students- that there was no room for a Boston accent in the French language. Wicked magnifique.
The class did not take kindly to Sofy’a’s style. They rolled their eyes and snickered at her sounds and instructions. One classmate, an eccentric gal who shaved her head and dyed the stubble in rainbow spectrum, loudly sighed and played with her nose ring, obviously bored. “What’s the point of this… thing we do…?” Her question dripping with petulance. Sofy’a, amidst one of her famous ‘-oeur’ facial gestures, delicately paused and lowered her hands.
“You must know how the French speak if you ever want to be fluent. Practiquer. Practiquer. Practiquer,” she politely responded.
“Well, I think spending twenty minutes on this every class is ridiculous,” my smug classmate huffed.
Sofy’a took a moment to process the insult, but instead of defending herself, she softly answered in her thick accent, “What a pity. Maintenant classe, répètez après moi encore… “ and we continued our lesson. She never let the comment alter her teaching. We recited vocabulary and phrases on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Fridays, we watched French film snippets or interviews, and dissected the language.
I enrolled in every French class that Sofy’a taught thereafter. While her methods always kept me interested, I never felt her impact more than when I found myself alone in the outskirts of Paris to survive among the non-English-speaking Parisians. They do exist. Instead of greeting with a solid ‘bonjour’, I knew to greet everyone with a whimsical ‘bonjoooooour’. When my apartment’s washing machine broke, and I had to understand my landlord, I was able to watch his facial expressions, understand a word or two, and string together what he was trying to convey. Sofy’a’s unconventional phonetic lessons offered a perspective on the language that I had never considered or been taught. Memorize vocabulary. Memorize verb conjugations. These are all valid teachings. Those approaches were pummeled repeatedly through time, and yet, I still struggled. Until Sofy’a. My petite, stylish instructor with a fondness for chiffon scarves taught us how to listen to French and comprehend the unique culture that the language itself possesses. Whether it was appropriately inflecting our questions, ensuring our facial expressions were correct as we spoke, or deciphering from where certain phrases originated, Sofy’a extricated us from the grammar books and introduced us to the actual speaking francophone world.
I mixed my le and la. So what? The sun will rise again. I am still learning. The most challenging lesson in learning French was Sofy’a’s- applying the book stuff to actual real life conversation. I’ve got that. Perhaps, I can’t argue politics, but I couldn’t do that in English anyways. When I went to Paris last year, I was able to flex my French-speaking muscles and survive. My goal on every trip to France is to avoid being spoken to in English. That’s how you know you’re good. The locals don’t pity your sad attempts at their language. It’s the highest compliment. In the future if I crucify myself for a slight grammatical error, I will remind myself that French is a complex and expanding passion, and passion should challenge -not deplete- the spirit. Thank you, Sofy’a, for your weekly chants.
À la prochaine!