Adventures in Wolof

Wolof book.JPGWhen I lived in Senegal two years ago, my biggest goal was to become conversational in French. Though I wanted to be able to speak Wolof, the first language of most Dakarois, I knew I couldn’t handle learning two languages at once.

By the time I came back here for work, I had pretty much doubled my French speaking capacity, thanks to nine months in Paris, and I felt it was high time to learn basic Wolof. Continue reading

baby steps + giant leaps = post-coma-level skills

me RN.jpgI once read about a man who woke up from a coma speaking fluently in a language he had barely been able to speak before. This phenomena has been documented on multiple occasions, and apart from the brain damage I’ve always been really jealous of those people. Well… as of two weeks ago I may have joined their ranks. Continue reading

my French bookshelf

There are four areas of language learning: listening, speaking, writing and reading. Regarding that last one, I discovered a couple of years ago that the best way for me to actually enjoy reading in French is to skip the difficult classics and turn instead to a genre I usually don’t particularly care for: “chick lit.” The same qualities I find exasperating and/or boring in my native language – formulaic plots, outdated tropes, low reading levels, and a focus on stereotypically “girly” subjects like beauty, shopping and dating – I find refreshingly accessible in French. (I know there are many exceptions to my generalizations. I thought “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” for example, was hilarious, clever and original – not a throwaway in the least.)

I’ve never read Sophia Kinsella in her/my native English, but I breezed through the French version of “Cocktail Club,” about a trio of dubiously fabulous London besties whose friendship is nearly derailed by a crazy revenge-seeking childhood acquaintance of one of them. I’m guessing I could not have lasted more than four pages of it in English but in French I found it positively delightful,… entirely because I understood it all. Also, it was light and fluffy and easy enough to read before bed instead of the English-language books I usually depend on but now can’t because a. I feel it detracts from my French efforts, and b. I finished all my English-language books and haven’t found anything interesting-looking in Dakar bookstores’ tiny English-language sections. (Don’t talk to me about Kindle. Not going there.)

I’ve now established a routine of reading a chapter from one of my three current chick lit books every night, armed with a pen to underline all the words I don’t recognize, so that I can add them to my French vocab list later. (My books look like that scene in “Say Anything” when Lloyd Dobler flips through Diane Court’s dictionary and sees a sea of X’s that mark words she’s looked up.)

But during the day, I get to business. I’m slowly (very, very slowly) reading “Vol de Nuit,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of my favorite book, “The Little Prince”), with a slightly different process than my nighttime one. First, I read a chapter straight through. Then I re-read it while simultaneously looking up words I don’t know. Then I add those words to my vocab list, or rather, I add the ones that are not so obscure or esoteric (it’s a book about 1940s postal aviation) as to be more trouble than the brain space they are worth.

Once I get through that one I’ll move on to the Senegalese classics that have been recommended to me and that I bought months ago:

“So Long a Letter” by Mariama Bâ is part of the African feminist cannon. When her estranged husband dies, a woman practices the traditional mourning customs alongside his second, younger wife. (Polygamy is legal and common in Senegal, which is about 95% Muslim.)

“The Belly of the Atlantic,” meanwhile, is a contemporary novel about two siblings, one of whom has emigrated to France and one of whom remains in Senegal.

I’ve also been dipping in and out of a collection of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry. Senghor was Senegal’s first president following independence, and he was also an accomplished poet and one of the founders of the Négritude movement in Francophone writing. (Aside from Václav Havel, I don’t know of any other president-poets – do you? I think that electing a poet says beautiful things about your country, though I’m biased since I’m half-Czech.) What I’m realizing about poetry as I read it in a foreign language, is that the cadence of the words is as important as their meaning. I am totally and completely adrift when reading these poems – I am lucky if I even get the general gist – but they are nevertheless so lovely to read because of the sound and flow of the words. Which I guess is all to say: there’s poetry in poetry.

And God knows I need poetry these days.

¡progreso en español!

chatterbox.jpg

I left for Mexico City on the last day of my Spanish class, a perfect segue between theoretical practice and putting it all into actual practice. My hope was to get a full immersion experience, use English as seldom as possible, and come back speaking Spanish leaps and bounds beyond where I started.

Problem is, I don’t know that much Spanish to begin with. I’ve learned two forms of the past tense but not the one that seems most important, the simple past. Likewise, I know the easy form of the future tense (ir + infinitive), but not the more sophisticated one. I am clueless when it comes to using verbs with se at the end, because I keep projecting the French rules for reflexive verbs onto them, and they just do not follow those rules. And my vocabulary is severely limited.

It’s not easy to immerse with such a small tool set. So, my level of success was varying. Sometimes, due to accents above all, I could not understand a single word a person was saying, and they could not understand me either. Many times, I thought I was cleverly and rather poetically working my way around the words I didn’t know, when in actuality my creative expression was only further confusing things. Often, I swapped similar-sounding words and wreaked havoc on my intended meaning, as when I told a man that my job was to make girlfriends – novias – instead of the news – noticias. (Akin to when I kept referring to hair – cheveux – as horses – chevaux – in France.)

I had better luck once I accepted the fact that I had to think my words through more carefully before spitting them out, even though I was already talking at a snail’s pace. After a slooooow conversation with two local men towards the end of my trip, one commented to another, “Ella habla muy despacio pero cada palabra es perfecto.” I was thrilled at the backhanded-compliment – despite their obvious belief that I was too slow to understand what they were saying about me.

And eleven days of semi-immersion is all it takes, apparently. By the end of my trip, when I was in a taxi returning to the hotel in Mexico City after my Elsewhere adventure, I became a veritable charlatan. (Not a pretender, as in the English definition, but rather a chatterbox, as in the Spanish. Intriguing, no, that there is an etymological connection between lying and over-talking?) I was making crazy confident conversation. The words were flowing. I understood the cabbie, he understood me. It was like I had hit my Spanish flow.

The same thing happened in France, though on a much higher level. In Mexico, I was ecstatic to find I could form complete sentences with the correct tense and conjugation. In France, I was astounded when I could carry on the same conversations I would have had in English. But in both cases, I kept hitting a wall, hitting a wall, hitting a wall, and then went to bed one night and woke up the next day speaking the language.

In short: immersion makes miracles happen.

[Photo: Wendy]

it wasn’t so easy this time

Blythe Sleepy Eyes

Sleep-deprived two Speakeasies in a row. I guess my beginner’s luck had run out because this time the words did not magically flow from my uncooperative brain.

As I was expending copious amounts of energy trying to say anything like something an actual French person would say, I was simultaneously having an out of body experience in which I was hovering above myself taking great pride in every single word that came out of my mouth, because here I was speaking another language, which is just nuts considering I don’t speak another language.

At the same time, I realized with a jolt that the person across from me was opening his mouth and effortlessly releasing words that flowed intuitively one from the other. There was absolutely no struggle on his part because he had been speaking this language from infancy the same way that I had been speaking English. For him, French is neither fun, nor frustrating, nor anything other than utilitarian.

It struck me as utterly bizarre that his native language was my foreign language and vice versa – that what I experience in a French conversation is 100% different than what he does. It’s not as though I have never thought about this before, but at that moment it felt like when you repeat your own name over and over until it sounds completely unfamiliar.

I should really get more sleep before I go back to one of these things…

[Photo: Valeri Passon]

speak dating!

Virginie at Speak Easy

On Tuesday night I went to a free session of Speak Easy during FIAF’s open house. Speak Easy is essentially speed dating, but instead of swapping potential romantic partners every ten minutes, you swap language partners and spend five minutes speaking French and five minutes speaking English with each one. Speak Easy started in Paris, I think, and came Stateside just recently. I have tried to sign up a few times but never jumped on it fast enough – tickets for native English speakers sell out in like five minutes (though that’s never the case for native French speakers. They practically have to give those tickets away, because English speakers are to French speakers in speak dating as women are to men in speed dating).

Well, I got lucky and heard about this special Speak Easy event early enough to nab a spot. And I got lucky again when two of the four people I was paired up with offered to have our conversation 100% in French because they speak English all day and don’t need to practice.

It was really fun. An MC gave us conversation prompts each time we switched languages, and sometimes we followed them and sometimes we didn’t. I met a photo editor, a French teacher, a techie and a woman who works in a bank (Virginie, above). All very nice people and all sparkling conversationalists.

The next Speak Easy in New York is on September 28th, and as per usual it’s already sold out for native English speakers (unless you’re under 30; I guess they are trying to skew younger). It’s co-hosted by French Morning and Fluent City so get on their lists and act fast if you want to try it out!

Scrabble en français

playing Scrabble in French

Not as fun as it sounds (to a nerd).

That may be why, months after we started this game and paused mid-way with the promise of picking it back up again soon… we have not.

Part of the problem is that we played with an English rather than a French set of letters. The number of tiles of each letter corresponds with how often that letter is used within the language, and the points for each letter are higher the rarer the letter is within the language. The English set caters to the English language; the French set would have been totally different. Which meant that even the fluent French speaker in our group was stumped when it came to forming remotely high-scoring words.

For fellow board game nerds:

English scrabble tile distribution

French scrabble tile distribution