A few weeks after I moved to Paris to study abroad, an American classmate of mine told me she had a date with a Parisian man that night.
“My roommate and I are using Tinder to meet French guys,” she whispered, as if embarrassed. “I mean, he seems nice enough, but I'm really just using Tinder to practice my French.”
Tinder, the land of grimy hook-ups and addictive, game-like speed-dating, and Paris, the city of love, seemed galaxies apart. But I was curious about talking to locals myself, so I decided to give it a try.
When Tinder had first launched in the fall of 2012, I didn't give it much thought. I knew a few people who used it regularly – sometimes just to kill time, and sometimes to hook up. (If you were friends with my friends during 2013, you might have overheard the following tidbit: “He lives one block away. Do you think I could go over, have sex with him, and come back in the next 45 minutes?”) Casual hook-ups felt foreign to me, so I never bothered downloading the app.
But boredom finally got the best of me one day last winter, so I decided to give Tinder a try.
“He looks like he's on a yacht,” I told my sister about one guy I had swiped right to. “He has more abs than I have fingers.”
While I pondered what to say to him, he sent me a message. “Wanna send me nudes?”
I didn't, so I closed the app and forgot about it until my classmate mentioned it in Paris.
My French was okay -– I had taken seven years of French classes in middle school and high school, but none at all in college, and so I was rusty. I thought it was a brilliant plan. If I ended up liking a guy I met on Tinder enough to meet him in person, fine, but that wasn't my M.O. Instead, I could chat with guys in French while waiting for the Metro or in line at the grocery store and finesse my language skills all at once. Parfait.
I updated my bio to “Une americaine à Paris,” and let the Tindering begin. Romain – swipe left. Thibaut – swipe right. Jean-Michel – swipe left. Théo – swipe right. I noticed that because I didn't actually plan on meeting any of these men, I didn't care about any of the shallow details: what they looked like, how tall they were, what they did for a living, whether they lived in a neighborhood on my Metro line. Instead, my criteria boiled down to two. Was he French? Did I feel like talking to him?
I sent out six over-eager messages using the variations on “Hi, what's up?” my French professor encouraged us to use.
“Salut! Quoi de neuf?”
“Bonjour! Ça roule?”
“Allo! Qu'est-ce qu'il passe?”
My French professor was in her forties, and in retrospect, I wonder if my so-so response rate was a result of using outdated expressions, or simply sending very boring messages. Or did my American enthusiasm come as a shock to a city full of men used to chicly aloof women? I switched my strategy and waited for guys to contact me first. As the messages trickled in and I struck up conversations, I learned a surprising amount.
I started to pick up the rhythm of language in a way I never did in my high school French classes. While “J'aime voyager beaucoup,” (“I like to travel a lot”) is technically correct, it sounds more authentically French to say, “J'aime bien voyager.” And although you could just say “J'ai bu trop hier soir,” (“I drank too much last night”), you could sound more French by throwing in a moi up front to emphasize that it was definitely you who indulged in too many glasses of cheap wine, not the other person.
And I soon discovered how much the French love to import words from America. Colloquial French might as well just be re-classified as a form of English, for all the times I heard, “c'est cool!” or “c'est super.” When you want to praise something as the best, I learned, you can say, “c'est top.” (No exclamation point. Think smug. Think Parisian.)
One of my friends met her boyfriend on Tinder, and I often hung out with his group of friends. They taught me to replace my American “like”s and “you know”s with French “ben”s and “genre”s so I could sound more authentically French. But on Tinder, I discovered that written French is a beast of its own, too. When I sent out a stiff, formal, “Qu'est-ce qu'il passe?” (“What's up?”), a guy fired back an immediate, “quesquil spasse lol.” (“wassup lol.”) The interjection “dac” mystified me at first until I realized it was an abbreviation for “d'accord,” or “okay.” If I hadn't stumbled across it on Tinder, how else would I have ever learned that?
I wasn't alone in my use of talkative Tinder men for the sole goal of advancing my French skills. A couple of my friends were bantering with French guys, and my friends who studied abroad in other countries did the same thing as well. One day, I received a triumphant text from an American friend in Paris with a screenshot of a conversation he had had with another guy on Tinder. They were negotiating in French who would buy the lube and where they would meet.
“He didn't even realize I'm American!” my friend said.
My friend had woven together several complicated verb tenses and used flawless grammar –- there was no reason for the Parisian to think my friend was anything but French. Even if our accents betrayed us as Americans when we spoke French aloud, we were beginning to pass as French, if only via text.
After four months abroad, it was time to go home. I had called a cab to take me to the airport at four in the morning, and although I was still half-asleep at that hour, my driver was wide awake.
“Let me tell you the secret to learning any language,” he told me. “Date a local. I learned many languages that way.”
It's smart advice. While the driver regaled me with over-the-top stories of sleeping with women from all over the world –- “A job perk! I drive beautiful ladies from many countries!” he said –- I couldn't help but think of my own language lessons via Tinder.
When I reached the airport, a wave of sadness hit me hard. I wasn't ready to leave Paris. After I collected my ticket and checked my luggage, I spotted a Ladurée macaron kiosk in the terminal and decided to order some breakfast.
“J'aimerais bien un macaron café, s'il-vous-plaît,” I told the woman behind the counter – I'd like a coffee macaron, please.
I used a sentence structure -– le conditionnel plus bien -– I had picked up after seeing so many French men use it on Tinder. It was almost six in the morning, and the sky was still dark. I sat on the floor of Charles de Gaulle and nibbled on the macaron and wanted to cry. I realized that that could very well be the last time I spoke French in Paris, and it was a bittersweet moment.
If I ever miss speaking French, I can always say hello to my Parisian friends on Tinder. Nothing has to change.