Les Miserables

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Learning a language is a huge investment with very limited returns unless you go out of your way to live or work in another country. On the surface, there is no downside to speaking more languages, but the opportunity cost of learning a language is big enough to have kept me from seriously trying to learn a language in years. Unless you put in a lot of effort, you’ll end up knowing how to say hello and ask where the bathroom is, with an accent.

This is exactly what happened to me with French. I spent a good eight years learning French in middle and high school. Given the caliber of our curriculum and teachers, those eight years of countless 40-minute blocks have largely gone to waste. Knowing that I could probably never master the French accent, I didn’t pursue it further in college and instead tried to keep up by reading French books. 4 years ago, I read Chamber of Secrets in French. It’s the only time I’ve read an HP book in any language. And it was really surprising how much I could understand. Now, 4 years later, I decided to test myself again by reading a simplified version of the first part of Les Mis.

Here are my top ten of the many words/phrases that I put into Google Translate (the majority of which I knew at one point):

1) Cela me generait – I’d be embarrassed

2) l’usine – factory

3) Depechez-vous – hurry up

4) tousser – to cough

5) l’eveque – bishop

6) l’orage – storm

7) Il se rend compte – he realizes

8) guerir – to heal

9) le poing – fist

10) le brouillard – mist


As I read on, I looked up fewer and fewer words. I’ve found this to be the most enjoyable part of reading French books. I felt myself learning with each page. By the last ten pages of this adaptation, I barely needed Google Translate. Another fun aspect is the piecing together of sentences. No language is richer than Latin in sentence construction, but trying to move words around to make sense of French sentences┬ádefinitely made my brain work in ways it hasn’t for a long time.

I’m glad I decided to read in French again. It was not easy to find this book on the online catalogue since it was difficult to tell if the book was actually in French. It turned out that this was a “facile” adaptation, meaning that it was only part one (Fantine) and each chapter was dumbed down to 500-900 words. I might try to read at the “moyen” level, if I can find it. It might take another 4 years.

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