Two Great Little Books for Learning French

With less than $5.00 in your pocket and fewer than five minutes of time, you can pack a whole lot of French into your skull with these "Cliff's Notes" style books on language acquisition.

The first is 1001 Most Useful French Words (Beginners' Guides) by Marcella Offolenghi Buxbaum. Apart from having a mysterious and spectacular last name, Ms. Buxbaum has written a fantastic and singularly useful mini dictionary. Each word's entry includes the word in French, the definition in English, an example sentence in French, and an example sentence in English. Here's what I mean:

ennuyer: to annoy, bore. Il m'ennuie toujours avec ses plaintes. He is always annoying me with his complaints.

So, you not only get the word and its meaning, but a simple sentence to translate, and also a useful phrase you might need to describe your dishwasher or gall bladder or husband while traveling. As you work your way through the book at odd moments -- standing in line at the bank, waiting for your child to finish his violin lesson, suffering through the commercials in live television -- you will start seeing the useful words reappear, and get more accustomed to the grammatical forms, just by reading these sentences and translating in your head. The only thing better would be a phonetic pronunciation guide. But we can't have everything -- as evidenced by the lack of a teleportation device for me to use whenever I find my keys. Not to bring me the keys, of course, but to bring me a husband to tell me where they are.

The second book is Easy French Phrase Book: Over 750 Phrases for Everyday Use from Dover Publications. This book is a highly utilitarian shortcut, and provides the humble traveler with French phrases in the context of different common situations. Everything from "Bonjour!" to "Au revoir!" including "Parlez-vous anglais?" (Do you speak English?) and "Merci beaucoup!" (Thank you very much!) and popular favorites like "Dois-je tout ouvrir?" (Must I open everything?) and "Derriere" (Behind.)

I don't know whether I'm meant to commit all this to memory or suffer the indignity of carrying around a tiny book called "Easy French Phrase Book." If I memorize it all, good for me, but if I'm toting it about as I tramp around in Paris, am I not marking myself as a lazy ignoramus, unwilling to splurge for the "Freakin' Difficult Ball-Busting French Phrase Book" or even the "Moderately Challenging French Phrase Book"? In my defense, those titles were not available on Amazon.com, but imagine the indulgent grace with which I would be received at Cafe de Flore if I arrived with "Stunningly Exhaustive List of 10,000 French Words to Blow Your Mind" in my hand? Hmm.

There are a few outdated or useless entries (I want to buy a bathing cap! What is the charge for developing a roll of film?). But there are lots of phrases here that one could imagine being very very thankful for, such as "I want a guide that speaks English" and "I did not order this _____." (The book gives you words you might use to fill in the blank: soup, cattle, lobotomy.) Speaking of operations, I've been through this whole book at least once, and my favorite by far has to be the following: Je ne veux pas faire arracher cette dent. It means "I do not want this tooth extracted!" Yes, I can imagine that might be the most useful phrase you've ever learned in your life.

Unlike the dictionary above, this book provides phonetic pronunciation guides, and is great fun. Put it in your bathroom, and watch your family begin to ask for the telephone, a taxi-cab, and the time in beautiful, useful French.

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