Life Storytelling

Finally Useful

I’m reading a Richard Scarry book to my kids and the story is set in Paris. There’s a drawing of a poster pole: one poster simply says, “Le crayon est sur la table.” This makes me smile, both inwards and out.

Why? This was exactly the kind of thing that school books were filled with when I was learning French as a kid. The cat is under the chair. The ball is in the wardrobe. The crayon is on the table.

On Scarry’s poster pole, there’s even a helpful picture of… a crayon on a table. Like it’s a message in itself – what more do you need? Language books almost had me expecting to see this sort of thing when I finally made it to Paris as a grown-up. And in Scarry’s world, it makes perfect sense.

But I really can’t explain the joke to my kids. They’ll just have to wait and see for themselves.


19 replies on “Finally Useful”

I took Spanish in school and we had the same terrible dialogues. Do they still write the course like that? I think French is a very pretty language and your post reminds me of a dialogue a friend of mine wrote for me, to help me learn French, of course. (I had to cheat and use Google translate to recreate it and the last line is still not exactly what she wrote)

Où est la vache ?
La vache est dans la maison.
Oui? c’est vrai?
Oui, et les autres vaches du village sont dans ta maison.

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That made me laugh! Thank you for the little anecdote. I have no idea if they still do this today. As I was writing this, a song started playing in my head, “Ton vélo est blanc, mon vélo est rouge…” We actually sang it in class! Oh, the memories!

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Oh yes! Museums and travel directions, I remember those. I also took Italian, and remember a catchy phrase, “Que bella macchina!” (What a beautiful car!) It was a Ferrari, of course. (Very realistic that I’d ever be in that situation myself!)


How uninventive the authors of readers were. I get they have to get kids to understand concepts and need loads of repetition but really those primary readers that have sentences like that are so boring. It must put some kids off reading altogether.

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We learned in first class with French lessons: Maman est dans la cuisine et Papa fume une pipe. (enter a questionable joke with maman, fume and papa). Later a funny show made up: Où est l’abattoir le plus proche ici? Alas my French stayed tres immature and I’m genuinely jealous of people speaking it beyond Le crayon. But yes, one day your boys will laugh about the same kind of thing. 🙂 (Belles photos au passage!)


Merci, Peter! Lovely stereotype with maman et papa, but somehow I’m not surprised. Honestly, I didn’t learn much during my 12 years (!!!) of French lessons. I was a good student, but it was just so far from how people talked when I went to Paris to study and work. It was only during my uni internship in Paris that I understood where to place the accents on the letter e! It was such an epiphany! And I wondered why the teachers never managed to make it so clear. One of the mysteries of life, I guess.

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OK – I’ll have to chime in! Over the years, I have studied Spanish, French, Greek, German, and Italian, but the bizarre phrases that still stick with me are: “La vida es como una montaña que tenemos que escalar” and “Ich rauche nicht!” My brother and I still often use the first one (to be silly), but I must say I have never had to tell anyone in German that I don’t smoke!

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But it’s great that you donated them, you spread the joy! To be honest, I find the dialogue in Scarry’s books kind of odd, hectic, it’s like the sentences don’t quite fit together. But I don’t know if it’s just the Finnish translations’ fault, I haven’t seen the originals as an adult. Or maybe it’s Scarry’s style.

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I agree, you have to start somewhere. And if I were to write such a book, maybe I’d notice it’s difficult to think of examples that are simple enough to illustrate the point. In a way, I find it comforting (in the way of a warm childhood memory) how universal this method was.

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