Flowers for Algernon / me

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It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about this book in years and if you had asked me to describe it for you just two weeks ago, I would have drawn a blank. But it all came rushing back to me in the days following my quick trip to England last week, when I realized I felt a bit like the main character in the book.

From what I can remember – and I’m sure I’m a little bit off – he is a young man with severe learning disabilities. Then he undergoes an experimental surgery that little by little increases his IQ to the point of brilliance. While he’s on his upward trajectory, a woman who is somehow involved in the study of his progress falls for him, and he falls for her. But then it becomes clear he’s hit his peak intelligence and started a descent right back to where he began. The tragedy is that he is painfully aware of what is happening and that he will soon lose his love once he can no longer hold up his end of the intellectual relationship.

I went to England on the 14th of June sure that I would come back on the 20th speaking much better French because of my week away. This would be in keeping with my marination theory of language, which posits that taking time off after an intense period of learning a foreign language helps it to sink in. But I think I have to amend my theory to include a minimum time away, maybe a month or so. And I also have to adjust for the possibility that perhaps if you spend too little time away, your abilities suffer instead of expand. I came back from England feeling as though my French had slid backwards to its pre-Paris level, which is to say, miles away from the high point it was at on June 13. And now, irrational as I know it is, I’m terrified that my peak French is no longer re-attainable (let alone surpassable).

And much like the guy in Flowers for Algernon, I fear that my descent will have a deleterious effect on all the relationships that I conduct solely in French.

The human mind is such a mystery, though. The fact that I hadn’t thought about Flowers for Algernon since I read it in eighth grade and then the plot magically materialized in my brain when sparked by a connection to the present, is proof of that. Who knows, maybe my French will likewise spontaneously return to me from wherever it is currently hiding in the recesses of my brain. Come out, come out, wherever you are…

[Photo: Kissing Toast]

I am a wind-up toy

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By design, I didn’t speak French for the entire month I was in the United States, apart from a few days before I flew to Paris, when I had a refresher phone call with Philippe. I have found that stepping away from the language for a few weeks, months, or even years, has a marinating effect on my brain, and I always return to it having taken a strange and unexpected leap forward rather than having fallen behind. I mentioned this to my mom and she said that there is an actual theory that supports this model of language learning, but she couldn’t remember its name and I could not for the life of me find it via Google.

So, it was not entirely unexpected, but still delightful, to arrive in Paris and discover that a light bulb had gone off. I could now speak and understand at a distinctly higher level than I had in Dakar. (It had nothing to do with accents or speed of speech, as these have varied greatly.)

I’ve been making a huge effort to have a social life here, and as a result of that, I end up having at least one extended French conversation every day. Each one feels miraculous and wonderful. We discuss real topics, in the same depth as I would cover them in English. The only catch is that after two or three hours of sustained conversation at this level, I find a strange thing happening. On a dime, I go from crisp and lucid to foggy and drunken. My words start to slur and I begin to mispronounce everything I say, to a much more ridiculous degree than usual. And then a wave of exhaustion comes over me and I want to put my head on the table and doze off. I have basically wound down and died, and it’s not until after I get a full night’s sleep that I can start speaking French intelligibly again.

My behavior reminds me of the two furry wind-up toys we had as children – YipYip, a puppy, and ChipChip, a chipmunk. They made cute little noises while walking across the floor and moving their heads up and down. They were technically not wind-up toys since they operated on battery power – but please allow me to take this creative license. When their batteries started to die, their little “yip yip”s and “chip chip”s would become lower pitched and ominous, and their limbs would move ever more slowly until eventually they’d stop completely, suspended in mid-air. And they’d hang out like that – inanimate and inarticulate – until we found some more D batteries to put in them.

That’s me, in a nutshell. I am hoping, though, that unlike YipYip and ChipChip, my brain’s battery pack will somehow learn to hold a bigger and better charge every time I turn my French back on.

[Photo: Christopher Lance]

Have a good weekend!

It’s my last weekend in Senegal! I am feeling sort of bereft. Last night we were searching out a place that Google Maps had pinpointed exactly but that neither GPS nor the actual layout of the streets would allow us to find in real life. Par for the course. My friends called out to me from down the sandy, silent road – they thought they had figured out the way, while I was busy scoping out another direction – and as I was running to catch up to them, something caught in my throat and my inner voice shouted out at me, “STAY! YOU ARE LEAVING TOO SOON!” But alas, it will always feel too soon, and I’ve got compelling reasons to go exactly when I’m going.

One of those reasons – a small but not insignificant one for someone in my line of work – is that I am in the midst of a full-blown movie drought. Considering that I am in the land of Ousmane Sembène, the most famous African filmmaker, it is really strange that there are no honest-to-goodness movie theaters in Dakar. Apparently the last one closed in the 90’s or early 2000’s. Instead, there are small screening rooms, like the one I went to at the French Institute (pictured above) to see a documentary about the way that rumba on either side of the Atlantic has cross-pollinated with the other side. (Perfect subject, mediocre film.) There is also a full-sized movie screen in a supposedly temporary inflatable structure near the shopping center on the waterfront.

I tried going to the movies there the few times they looked good enough to bother. The first couple of times were fails of my own doing. The third time, there were “technical difficulties” and they told me to come back the next week. The fourth time was the charm, and I saw “Fences” there the night before the Oscars. But it was hard to hear the dialogue because the structure kept making weird sucking noises and expanding and contracting like it was breathing. A pretty subpar theatre; I hadn’t been missing much by staying away.

Meanwhile, the films they play on TV are either terrible and/or overdubbed in French, which I find impossible to watch. (My theory is that since I rely a lot upon lip-reading to understand French, my brain gets hopelessly confused when watching people whose mouths don’t match the words coming out of them.) And I can’t stream movies on my laptop in my room because of my horrible Internet situation (which, by the way, I’ve realized is a product not only of the slow wi-fi in my neighborhood, but also of the very thick walls in my building. I may just have the worst Internet connection in town.) Thus I’ve seen a grand total of exactly four full movies in Senegal. By contrast, I probably saw 100 the previous year.

So, I am leaving Senegal too soon, but I also can’t get back to movies soon enough. I am so excited to catch up on all that I’ve missed and to watch some new releases in one of my favorite New York cinemas.

Now… switching abruptly to your weekend reads, and flailing for a transition. How about, you are excused from reading these if you go to the movies instead?

Enjoy your weekends!

There is an earphone coming out that will translate foreign language speech into your own language.

Apparently in France I may be heading towards exactly what I was running away from in New York: the creeping big-boxification of urban spaces.

“Everybody, let’s tighten the anus,” is apparently a Korean folksong, and you can watch a video of its performance, with delightful subtitles. (There is also a link to a research paper about its social and cultural meaning!)

Have you ever heard of Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth official language? (I had not.)

Too old to learn a language? Don’t believe it.

US citizens traveling to Europe may soon need a visa.

Beautiful photos of Portugese fishing in the 1950s.

Well, this is a relief for someone like me, who takes forever to spit out her thoughts: fast talkers and slow talkers end up conveying the same amount of information in the same amount of time.

What gets easier when you study more languages?

Have a good weekend!

Just got back from enjoying live Congolese music at a place in my neighborhood that has only just been introduced to me, two weeks before my departure. Ah well, such is life.

It’s now one in the morning. I should go to bed…. But I’ve been accumulating interesting links for a month or so, and if I don’t share them now they will become hopelessly stale. So here they are:

Non-English words for emotions the English language doesn’t have exact words for.

Sounds that babies hear in the womb affect their language learning.

In China, there was a 19th century script that only women could write.

In Liberia last year, I came to appreciate how much of my way of life is made possible by electricity, and what it’s like to go without. Here’s an interesting article on the country’s struggle to get back on the grid.

The Mystery and Occasional Poetry of, Uh, Filled Pauses.

Donald Trump’s is using the language of victimhood to position himself as America’s savior.

5 tips for conquering the “intermediate plateau” of language learning.

Calling Yourself ‘Humbled’ Doesn’t Sound as Humble as It Used To.

With thanks to Randy for passing along this animated interview with Chimamanda Adichie: What Americans get wrong about Africa.

The US is no longer a full democracy, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Perhaps this has something to do with why.

¿What’s the story with ¿ and ¡ ?

This mosque looks crazy beautiful.

I Traveled to a Magical Island — Alone.

Have a good night and enjoy your weekends!

P.S. The photo above is from the Ile de Ngor this past summer. It’s fairly chilly, relatively speaking, in Dakar in February… and NYC might have actually been warmer today!

the weekend is here

Yesterday was an unexpected day off but today was a quite intentional one. I finally made it back to IFAN to check out the permanent exhibit, which consists mostly of amazing masks from initiation ceremonies across West Africa.

After that I came back to my neighborhood for a late afternoon aquabike session. It was a very nice culture-sport 1-2 punch.

And now after two days of faux weekend it’s the real weekend. There’s an afropop dance night uptown in Almadies tonight, and I think I may search out brunch for the first time ever in Dakar tomorrow… We shall see.

Have a lovely weekend and if the spirit moves you, check out the reads that I have enjoyed this week:

A fellow later-in-life language learner reflects on our cultural preoccupation with a fluency finish line.

Continuing the Yiddish theme from last week, this week I read, “My Mother’s Yiddish,” a one year old but timeless essay.

Get up to speed on greetings around the world, including Tibet’s very unusual custom.

Bucket list places that are going to disappear to climate change. 😦

Californians may expand the bilingual education they once curbed.

I found the reader responses to “Advice for Solo Female Travelers” much more true and useful than the original article.

Only three people know how to make the rarest pasta on earth…

And I think I forgot to include this one in an older post, but better late than never:

The most inaccessible places in the world that people desperately want to visit.

masse critique, or something like that

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Last night I went out for drinks with three native French speakers, including one Parisian. (This is significant because Parisians speak three times as quickly and enunciate half as much as Senegalese.) We spent three hours gabbing away, during which my fairly infrequent mis-comprehensions were quickly smoothed over and my more frequent mispronunciations never stopped the conversation short. As is my wont when my French is going well, I had a moment of exiting my body and looking down at myself from above with a nearly overwhelming sense of pride and astonishment. I felt like I had crossed over some great divide and earned my stripes as an official French speaker, though I couldn’t tell you where or when the transition happened.

The ironic thing is that the precise moment I wandered off into the clouds to pat myself on the back was the same one in which the person I was talking to abruptly switched gears to ask whether I could understand him. He probably noticed my eyes looking through him into the middle distance of fantasyland. I assured him that yes, I had understood everything, but in fact, you can’t understand what you haven’t actually listened to.

In English, when I find my way back to a conversation after becoming distracted, I can do a sort of rewind to the last thing I missed, because my ear processed the words even if my mind didn’t. I operate sort of like my sound recorder, which is capable of capturing audio starting 2 seconds before I hit the record button. (I have NO IDEA how this works.) But in French, if I miss something, I can’t get it back, because it was never there to begin with. The sounds flittered through my subconsciousness, yes, but my brain never bothered turning them into words.

So, in that respect, I’m still stunted in my French. But who cares, because when I actually pay attention to what people are saying, I can understand the words coming out of their mouths. I can understand words which were once meaningless gobbledygook.

It’s pure and utter magic. (Magic that took a lot of work.)

[Photo: Kurt Bauschardt]

Have a love and disco-filled weekend!

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This week I visited Ile de Ngor, one of three islands just off the coast of Dakar. We took a five-minute ride across the water on a motorized pirogue and landed on a picturesque beach with lovely views of the city.

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We ate lunch, walked around the island, and lay on beach mats that you can rent for less than $2. (Not the “royal” we, btw – I was with a friend that I made through this very blog!) I attempted to read French fashion magazines, with limited success. It was a peaceful and relaxing getaway.

This weekend promises to be similarly low-key, aside from a still-tentatively-planned Senegalese wrestling match on Sunday. If I go, I’ll report back…

In the meantime, here are some interesting recent reads/views to start your weekend:

French chefs and refugees team up for an unusual food festival in Paris.

The most commonly misused English words. Apparently I’ve been using “bemused” incorrectly.

Traditional wedding dresses around the world. The bridal headwear in some of these puts American veils to shame.

Walking while black.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a link about the Olympics refugee team. Meet the team members.

Eater’s list of the best Paris restaurants. #33 speaks to me. 

Atlas Obscura’s guide to an entomologist’s dream vacation

Linguists dissect and analyze Hillary and Donald’s speech patterns.

Jokes from young people around the world. I like the Norwegian one.

Syrian refugees in Greece put their tent on Airbnb, promising scorpions, dehydration and ‘broken promises’

How a Portuguese-to-English phrasebook – written by a man who spoke terrible English – became a cult comedy sensation.

Silencing the auto-correct in your head.

And finally, my friend shared this video from the 1979 World Disco Finals on Facebook during the Republican National Convention, and it restored my faith in humanity.

This weekend, remember: we were born to be alive. Don’t let the hate get you down, and do some good living!

[Photos: Isabella Ssozi]

my mystery malady

This past Wednesday, I woke up feeling exhausted but otherwise fine. About an hour after eating breakfast, a dull sense of weakness and malaise began creeping over me and I had to lie back down. By the end of the next hour, I was unable to sit up, paralyzed by bodily fatigue. I had stitches of pain and muscle aches in my legs and sides and neck. I couldn’t find a comfortable position and every time I moved I moaned. I was chilly and sweaty at the same time.

I didn’t want to jump to malarial conclusions and I also didn’t want to go to the doctor without a very good reason, so I tried to wait it out, but by 7pm it was clear it was getting worse instead of better. I had gotten nauseous and head-achey, my aches had turned into pronounced pains, and I could barely crawl out of bed let alone stand up straight.

I hobbled with Mamie to the pharmacy next door where they pronounced their prognosis soon after my arrival: “un petit palu,” a mild case of malaria. I told them I take doxycycline every day as a prophylactic and they mimed the pill going in one ear and out the other. They gave me a fizzy paracetamol tablet to reduce my fever and told me to get to the doctor stat.

So we headed to the emergency room (salle d’urgence) of the hospital downtown, whereupon I began an epic journey / vocabulary lesson. Continue reading

sibling rivalry

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Every once in a while, I come home to discover a new person or two at the dinner table and find out that they’ll be staying for a few weeks. So far they have been a Cape Verdean public health Ph.D. candidate doing research in Dakar, a pair of American students at the language center where I took French classes, and a set of Senegalese doctors who were in town for some sort of very short residency.

The Cape Verdean came first. The night he arrived, we all made sparkling conversation around the table, and I was surprisingly chatty in French. I had one of those nights in which I didn’t have to search for the words; they just came to me. I was conjugating (mostly) correctly, my subjects were agreeing with my verbs, I was cracking jokes, and I understood or could infer the meaning of everything that was said.

I was feeling great… until my “host mom” looked at the Cape Verdean guy and complimented him effusively, “You speak French very well.” (Cape Verde’s official language is Portugese.) Her gaze was ever so slightly askew, so that I might have convinced myself she was talking to me instead of to him, had my host sister not noticed the “what about me?” look on my face and piped up, “Ruth speaks French well, too.” My host mom glanced at me and without realizing the blow she was dealing, she conceded, “Ruth’s French is improving.” BURN.

And that’s how it came to pass that I became insanely jealous of a random Cape Verdean dude, and wouldn’t stop ruminating on how annoying it is that he pronounces his qu’s like kweh instead of keh.

With the American students, rising college seniors, I got even more ridiculous. One didn’t speak any French and so I loved her. But the other claimed to be “almost fluent,” and every time she opened her mouth I found myself hoping she’d trip up. Meanwhile, I would pipe up needlessly in dinner table conversation just to prove that I could speak French, too. I had fifteen years on this women and yet despite her being nothing but kind to me, I was threatened and competitive. My four year-old niece behaves more maturely with her one year-old brother.

The saddest part is, if I could only get out of my own way, I could learn a thing or two from this woman – not about French but about life. After a week in the house with her, I realized that her French is “almost fluent,” the way mine is – that is to say, not at all. And yet, her confidence made it easier not only for her to speak but also to not suffer over it the way I do.

I need to chill out with a. the thought that I’m on some sort of French fluency time table and running way behind schedule, and b. the belief that every time I open my mouth to speak French, my value as a human being is on the line. It’s really not that big a deal. No one cares. I speak how I speak, and it’s fine.

The US military often sends service members to the language center for French and cultural training, and in a couple of days, two of their guys are coming for a few weeks’ stay. I am hoping that I will successfully dial down my competitive streak during their time here. (Well, really I’m hoping that they’ll suck at French so that I won’t feel any competition to begin with.)

[Photo: Mr. T HK]