The Unfathomable Abyss of the Human Brain…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I have always been staggered, if not fascinated, by the functioning of the human brain (especially when that brain belongs to an Anglo!)… This ugly grey spongious “raw material” is extremely “hi-tech”! No computers will ever think like a human brain, as sophisticated they might be… every time I see a story on the latest technological gadget, I am quite impressed! Not with the whatsit itself though… rather with the brain behind it!…

In the early 70s, I had come across an article saying that the human brain was getting more information on a daily basis than the brain of a man from the 19th Century during the course of his life. That was almost 40 years ago (am I that old? Gee!)… before the computer age! Just try and imagine how it is now: Instead of a daily basis, we are probably now speaking of a hourly basis (and I am generous here!). This little ugly thing is quite resourceful, is it not? Fortunately, our brain has the capacity to sort out that information for us and retain only what is useful and interesting… Otherwise we all would turn insanely insane! And… Thank God, this is probably why most of us suck at trivia games! Who can possibly remember every little insignificant thing that is thrown at us?

Monday I introduced the demonstrative adjectives to Seema : ce, cet, cette and ces. It certainly was not one of the most difficult concepts she encountered (compared to personal pronouns objects, demonstratives are a piece of cake!)… I often accuse my students of being too analytical, especially scientists like James, Dave and Seema… I try and do my best to provide them with clear and easy explanations because I do believe it is useless to complicate something that is already complex enough to start with. I consider that they do not need to shell and dig deeper into rules which, most of the time, make no sense… yes, there is usually a reason for their being yet it is “the way it is”! I used to think both Dave and James were my toughest students: always analyzing stuff… just unable to live with my basic explanations! When pushed too far, this type of thinking process, unfortunately, can only lead to confusion when applied to language acquisition. Sometimes, you just have to let it go! Well… I had not met Seema! I really do not have a clue of how her brain is actually functioning… Many times I tried to follow her reasoning, but I miserably failed to understand it!

It would be impossible for me to list examples here because I would not know how to do it logically. Do not get me wrong here! Seema is veeeeeeery intelligent!… Yet sometimes I believe it is a deterrent to her learning. Although I admit she makes me laugh all the time! Thanks to her good sense of humor!…

Back to Monday… she was working on filling in the blanks with the correct demonstrative adjective (according to the gender and the number of each noun)… Of course, Seema always reflects out loud! There was this sentence: Ils ont pris ____ avion. I heard her saying “Avion… plane… okay! plane is masculine singular.” For a minute there, I probably looked like a total idiot… then she said “Cet avion! Plane est masculin, non?” Yes Seema! avion is masculine, plane is not! Because “plane” is neither masculine nor feminine… “plane” is neutral just like any other nouns in English! “Really?… well it’s big! enough to be masculine!” she said. “Okay Seema… rewind the tape and éclaire ma lanterne s’il-te-plaît because I really don’t have a clue what you’re talking about!”

Then she explained how her brain had processed the info I had given her regarding genders (at that very moment, I wished I had been a cell which would have enabled me to enter her brain and follow the thread of her personal logic!)… Some time ago, I had told her about one of my former students who had reacted strongly (a macho reaction, nothing more!) to the fact that voiture was feminine… according to him, a car had to be masculine because traditionally cars were part of male culture (???)… Since I had seen a potential endless argument coming, I had told him the French had thought of him by giving him un camion instead of une voiture!

Personally I would have forgotten about such an insignificant anecdote, but Seema had not! She had stored this information somewhere in her brain so she could retrieve it one day! Fine! But Monday I was still unable to link the truck to the plane… she told me a truck was big and a plane was even bigger, therefore it had to be masculine! I was about to tell her it was not relevant at all… gender was not based upon sizes!… Then I quickly reviewed nouns like autobus, autocar, métro, bateau, navire, voilier, paquebot, train, sous-marin… they all are masculine!!! And… they all are BIG! As illogical her explanation may have appeared to me, as true it was… I am pretty sure one day I will find an exception to Seema’s rule, but French is made of exceptions and, let’s be honest here, absurdities… one more will not add to the difficulty level!

I realized each of my students has a different way of processing the information I give them each time I see them… what makes sense for Seema would probably make no sense at all for either James or Dave… They all have their own schemes, their own grids, their own cross references, their own tips… and who am I to tell them they are wrong? As long as it works for them and they learn, I do not really care which path they take… Of course I would prefer them to take the simple, straight path… but, for some, it is necessary to go down a winding path only because they have a tortuous reasoning… I guess this is why they are scientists and I am not!

Whatever they do to accelerate their learning process… whatever their reasoning is, they all end up reading, writing, understanding and speaking French by reflex (which is the ultimate goal)… Today, during class, I had a 20 minute casual conversation with Susan in French… a couple of times, she plugged a y without even thinking of it and what I saw in this young woman’s eyes was pride and pure bliss!!! At the end of the day, it is all I need to convince myself I did my job! and not any job… a great job!

“L’obstacle est le chemin.”

Proverbe zen



  1. foreignlanguageteacher said,

    August 27, 2008 at 3:42 am

    Interesting post. Gender is one of those things I had just soaked up like a sponge when I was young instead of trying to “analyze” it. Truly makes no sense to us English speakers!

  2. August 27, 2008 at 7:04 pm


    Indeed trying to “analyze” genders won’t lead far! Because it is arbitrary (except for the words deriving directly from Latin, the choice is based upon the “sound”: does it flow or not?)… I think English speakers have trouble with genders because they tend to associate them with “male” and “female”! 😉

    And… many French speakers have to rely on the dictionary to check some words’ gender… especially the ones starting with a vowel.

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