Speaking French in the café? Oui! Oui!

Bonjour, avez-vous déjá visité la France?

The first rule of French conversation: You must say Bonjour or the social interaction that follows will be hobbled. The authors of “The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed,” wrote a book stressing this very important social custom, one which we Americans forget at our peril if we want a friendly, cooperative attitude in France.

The answer to “Have you visited France?” lets the several intermediate-level Francophiles around the table at the Cafe Dantorels know whether the newcomer is serious or not about speaking French. The answer often is, “Yes, I’ve visited there a long time ago.” Oui, je l’ai visitée il y a longtemps. This brings up another annoying French habit of not pronouncing half the letters in their words. Longtemps (long time ago) is pronounced “longton” with some kind of nasal mumble at the end, like you’re stifling a sneeze. The “mps” sound at the end is completely mute. It seems a French mystery until you think how thoroughly we hit every letter with English words, right?

We meet most Saturdays from 1 to 3 p.m. at Cafe Dantorels.

There are only a couple of rules. We agree with the values of liberté, egalité, fraternité. So,

1) do not dominate conversations—everyone has equal time to speak, and,

2) do not interrupt a speaker unless they’ve made a major error in grammar or vocabulary and only after waiting until the speaker finishes their phrase or idea.

Other than that, it’s pretty free-form and flowing depending on who shows up. There are about three to four regulars and it suits us since everyone gets a chance at la pratique.

A retired professor joins a psychotherapist, dental hygienist, poet, actor-director and the occasional former French professor for two hours on the 24th Street side of Dantorels. Most of us have been students at Sacramento Alliance Française, now moved to the Clara Center for the Performing Arts (the old, remodeled Fremont School at 24th and N streets). We also welcome advanced and native speakers, bien sûr!

Then there’s our friend Mario, a native speaker from Montreal. He is an enthusiastic and competent French speaker—we’re thrilled to have him in the group—but his delivery is in Québécois, the dialect that is definitely not what you’d hear in Paris, or even in the south of France.

Le Cercle participants are mostly in our 50s and 60s. We in Le Cercle are happy to plod on with conversations in the belle langue and invite neighbors and friends (who are at least at the intermediate level or higher) to join us. We don’t feel bad because our native French Skype pals tell us they often have difficulty, especially with written French. Nobody in the group, save the occasional professeur, deludes themselves they’ll ever speak elegant French.

That would be trop! (Too much!)

If you can’t be in Paris for the spring, at least you can feel a little bit of the magic of the language during our conversations. Come and introduce yourself. We will resume on March 31. Please send any questions to me at [email protected] with “French Conversation” in the subject line.

Au revoir!

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