When you learn French in school, you learn how to say “the past recaptured,” “finding time again,” and other such useful Proustian phrases, but you don’t learn how real people talk today, as in, “I would like a dozen of those luscious dark chocolate religieuses, please.” School vocabulary is often formal and outdated, and omits teaching you useful, everyday phrases.
When I arrived in France, people would kindly smile at my textbook phrases. I quickly caught on that when they smiled, it was best to just ask them how they would say it, in plain French, because I sounded like Proust, which makes an ordinary French person want to go to sleep.
This applied in particular to the most ordinary, commonplace words. I had read Flaubert, Maupassant and Proust, but sometimes didn’t know the words for the simplest objects.
My best example is café au lait. For some reason unbeknownst to me, when you order café au lait in a café in France, you call it café crème. There is no logic in this, because it doesn’t contain an ounce of cream. It is made with steamed milk, just like the café au lait you make at home. It’s the same thing, but you call it by another name, depending on the context.
When I moved to Switzerland, this distinction became even more confusing. The Swiss call a café au lait a café renversé, which means literally “spilled coffee.” Don’t ask me where they got that one.
Decades later I find myself in the same situation. I’ve read Don Quijote de la Mancha from front to back, but I’m incapable of asking my Spanish-speaking cleaning woman to clean the toilet. I was discussing this with a friend recently, and he said, “The obvious thing to do is to take a cooking class in Spain.”
It was indeed in cooking and wine school that I perfected my French, and learned the names of ingredients, furniture, utensils, flowers, rocks, a wide range of curse words, and all the vocabulary required to describe affairs, sex and love.
Going to cooking school in Italy, France, Spain or any other country is a great way to learn everyday, useful vocabulary as well as to hone your cooking skills. It gives you an insider’s view of the country’s culture, and you meet native speakers with whom you can perfect your conversational skills
Many modern language schools now offer programs that combine language classes and cooking or wine classes. If your conversation skills are up to snuff, you might even choose a cooking school that does not give language classes.
The visual element is central. When the chef-instructor picks up a bowl and calls it a bol in Spanish or French, you form a visual connection with the word, and when you taste a dish, you’ll form a “taste” connection. If you’re studying French, Mexican, or Italian cuisine, many of the words will already be familiar, which helps put you at ease and give you more confidence.
Cooking school is a way to bring your textbook knowledge to life as well learn new cooking skills, but above all to learn everyday language.
Photo courtesy of Antony Mayland.