Why an Artichoke?

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It may come as a surprise to you — as it did to me — to learn that mastering grammar and sounding French won’t make you fluent. More important than the perfectly constructed sentences Francophiles often crave are communicative savoir-faire and intercultural savoir-être. Who knew that beginning an exchange, almost any exchange, in French with bonjour takes a speaker farther than an impeccably rolled R?

Claire and I debunk a few other comparable myths as we peel back the leaves of the artichoke. Above all, learning a language is learning to communicate — to achieve a purpose. Instead of rules and exercises, try communicating “for real,” as I did in a fan letter to a beloved Gallic actor, or brace yourself for a new registre de langue with Claire’s down and dirty glossary of street argot. As you read about our adventures and come up with your own, remind yourself how you got hooked on French in the first place. Reculer pour mieux sauter. Sometimes taking a step back really is the way to leap forward.

So what does learning have to do with an artichoke? A nineteenth-century French maxim says it best, “Coeur d’artichaut, une feuille pour tout le monde” — heart of an artichoke, a leaf for everyone. There’s something fresh for French fanatics to discover on every page.

Claire and I talked, laughed, and anguished about what sometimes seemed like a crazy endeavor, frequently returning to our central metaphor and what it represented for each of us. We knew our answers wouldn’t be the same as the ones we began with, et tant mieux. No matter how much or how often our opinions diverged, we always agreed that pleasure must remain at the core of an enterprise meant to last a lifetime.

— Linda Phillips Ashour