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

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looking on the bright side

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I complain a lot about how tough it is to learn French later in life, but there are also benefits. The biggest one is that I don’t fall victim to bad habits I have in English, most notably: cursing and using filler words.

I had a phase where I tried to learn all the French gros mots and integrate them into my speech so that I could sound like a real French speaker. But then I realized it only made me sound like a real asshole (case in point) so I stopped, for the most part. I do find myself using the word “foutu” (fucked) too much – and usually incorrectly, because it rolls off my tongue more easily than the ubiquitous putain (which literally means “prostitute” but is used more like “shit” or “damn it”).

Another French tendency that I am really glad I have avoided thus far is the urge to fill even the most minute pause between words and phrases with a sound of some kind, so that a few sentences becomes more like one record-length German word. I find the worst offender of the fillers to be “euh,” wherein the h is extended until the speaker gathers and pronounces their next thought – even if that next thought takes forever to reveal itself. But there are a bunch of other words – like “bah,” “ben,” and “du coup”- whose meaning is so minimal as to be inconsequential. They are essentially the “um,” “uh,” and “so” of the French language.

Then there are words that do add some emphasis but are still pretty much throwaways, like “quoi,” which gets tacked on to the end of sentences as a sort of grasping “ya know.” I find it such a grating addition to an elegant French sentence, and yet such an unconscious pattern of native speech, that the one time it slipped out of my mouth I simultaneously horrified and impressed myself. 

It’s true that I have taken to leaning upon another oft-used filler, “bref,” which means “anyways” or “long story short,” but which could usually be cut from a sentence without losing anything. I can’t help myself when it comes to this one – it’s the perfect word for someone as long-winded as I am. If I tire myself out in the middle of a meandering story, I’ll stop short, say “bref” rather dramatically, and skip straight to the one-sentence conclusion.

In English I take forever to get to the point, but in French my desire to use the least amount of words to convey the most amount of information overwhelms my compulsion to make myself 100% understood. That economy of language is, I suppose, another reason why I haven’t succumbed to euh, bah, or hein yet… They do count as words even if they don’t actually say anything.

P.S. Non-native French-speaking bloggers Damon and Jo made me giggle with their imitation of the French predilection for filler words in the video below. (Also, possibly my favorite advice ever: “If you want to sound French you just gotta add all these noises.”) 😂

Have a carefree weekend

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About a year ago I saw a video from the 1979 World Disco Finals in my Facebook feed. During a period in which I was feeling increasingly disappointed in the human race, it cheered (and entertained) me immeasurably. So much so that I shared it on this blog

The 1980 follow up was just brought to my attention, and it has likewise instilled in me fresh hope in the midst of deep worry and despair. Watch it, forget your cares, and fall back in love with living, guaranteed:

They may not attain the same heights of grandeur as the World Disco Finals, but here are some nevertheless interesting links to go into your weekend with:

Here are some U.S. museums that offer magical-sounding sleepovers.

Cambridge Dictionary made its choice for 2017 word of the year, and it depresses me.

22 over-the-top dramatic dining experiences around the world.

Cheesemaking heroes.

The New York Times rounded up the best recently released travel books.

A map that shows how long it takes an English speaker to learn the most popular languages in Europe.

A compendium of cool travel tattoos.

The 10 best American national parks to visit this winter.

A cartoon that I can relate to, and a pick-me-up for language learners.

Scientists are developing technology for languages about which linguists know nothing.

Through crowdsourcing, this website maps every record shop in the world.

Can you guess the world’s most Instagrammed places?

This “apology generator” skewers the language of statements by celebrity sexual predators (the site calls them pervs; i call them criminals).

A linguistic mystery solved, i.e. why French and Americans count building levels differently.

Have a good one!

listening in

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One nice thing about learning a second language in adulthood is that you are never distracted by conversations happening around you. If you don’t really focus on comprehending the words being spoken, they remain easily ignored white noise. In both Senegal and France, I have discovered that I am able to zone out completely in public spaces, no matter how many people are speaking French around me.

It’s easy to tune out because it takes a conscious decision to tune in, whereas in English I process language subconsciously.

For example, on the metro in Paris, the buzz of speakers doesn’t annoy me the way it does on the subway in New York, because here it is just that – a buzz, without substance. It’s only when I pick up fragments of English that I’m snapped out of whatever reverie I’m in.

And yet. A few weeks ago I went to dinner and the table next to me started talking about cafards. Specifically, they started talking about the hugest cockroaches they had ever encountered and the gross ways in which they had encountered them. For the first time in my life, I could not help but understand everything they were saying, despite trying my hardest not to concentrate on them. It was like reverse psychology – the more I didn’t want to hear, the more I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

The irony was, I know French well enough to have picked up all too much of this group’s conversation, but not well enough to have been able to lean over and confidently yet politely state: “While you may be done dining, I have only just begun, and you are telling cockroach horror stories within earshot. I would appreciate if you would change the subject.” I hadn’t learned how to use bien vouloir yet, after all.

So I gave them dirty looks instead. But much like I remain deaf to French conversations in the metro, they took no notice of my American glares.

[Photo: Paul Sullivan]

Have a good weekend!

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It is an especially happy Friday for me because my friend of almost 25 years is coming to visit on Sunday, AND she is bringing my winter coat from New York, AND we’re going to visit Sancerre together.

I also bought a ticket tonight for a day trip to Luxembourg in mid-November. At some point over the past year I realized that I was 37 years old and had been to 38 U.S. states and 37 countries, if you count Puerto Rico, England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland individually. I decided that I’d attempt to keep my country and state counts up to or ahead of my age for as long as possible. I turned 38 this week, and I haven’t been to a new country since I left Senegal in March… so no time like the present. I have heard there are lovely fall colors in Luxembourg and I’m hoping the leaves stay on the trees long enough for me to appreciate them.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to love Paris in the fall, and I’m filled with even more joy knowing that in two short days I’ll have a puffer coat to hide out in as soon as the temperature drops.

I leave you for the weekend with some interesting things I read this week:

Proof of what I have long known to be true about speaking foreign languages while tipsy.

Some useful French idioms. Avoir le cafard (to have the cockroach, i.e. to be sad) is my favorite, obviously.

Want to travel around the world for a full year, writing for the New York Times? So does like half the planet.

The official guardians of the French language have a problem with gender inclusive writing, not surprisingly (since they are textbook fuddy duddies).

Even on our own, we’re always in translation. (A beautiful letter of recommendation.)

An ‘accidental dictionary’ explores how errors created the English language.

Have a lovely weekend!

on the sound of the French language

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I was hoping that the more time I spent in France, the more I’d love it. That hasn’t been the case, unfortunately. I’m still pretty meh (or, I should say, bof) about a lot of this country and especially Paris. But the one thing that has really grown on me is the French language. I have gone from feeling rather neutral about it, to fairly drowning in its beauty and sexiness. In fact, today I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and a couple next to me was whispering together as they filled out their form. I knew that they had dropped their voices for the sake of privacy, but it still sounded like post-coital bedroom talk to me. That would never happen in English, obviously.

It reminded me of this video I recently watched of Marion Cotillard on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert:

The great personal irony is that no matter how proficient in French I become, I’ll never be able to reproduce its euphony. I will always sound terrible in a language that makes native speakers sound like angels. There is a consolation prize, however. The other day I mentioned the month of August (août), pronouncing it ah-oot. The guy I was talking to had no idea what I was saying, even in context. Eventually he realized I was talking about the month that is actually pronounced something like oot, and he blushed and giggled, “Oh, c’est trop mignon.” As in, “That’s so cute.” This has become something of a theme. The more I fail at French, the more I succeed with French men, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too unhappy about it.

P.S. I just got back from a half-work, half-pleasure trip to Spain, and a few weeks before that I finally checked out the south of France, which was just as beautiful as I anticipated it would be. I will get around to posting photos from those trips soon…

have a good weekend

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It’s often hard to appreciate the progress I’ve made in French. Instead of contemplating in wonder how far I’ve come, I usually focus on how much further I have to go. Perhaps this is because once you understand something, it’s really hard to imagine yourself ever not having understood it – or maybe it’s just because I’m really bad at positive thinking. But today I was having an in-depth conversation with someone and, as I tend to do (albeit less and less these days), I stepped back for a moment so that my mind could boggle at the fact that I was understanding everything being said to me and that I was in turn speaking coherently, smoothly, at a normal speed, and without struggling to express myself. After the conversation was over, I made a conscious effort to reframe my disbelief as awe and to muster up the appropriate pride.

I’m proud that I stuck with the study and practice of something that is incredibly humbling, endlessly frustrating, and often not even that rewarding or useful.  I’m proud that as a result I can have deeper connections with French-speaking people and culture. And I’m proud to say that I finally legitimately speak two languages. My lifelong desire to be bilingual was quite possibly misguided by ego, but actually being bilingual is nevertheless useful and, I believe, beautiful.

That said, I may be heading to Madrid for a work meeting in a few weeks, and I’m already berating myself for having forgotten all the Spanish I learned two years ago. Ah well, “there I go being me again.” That’s what my former psychologist friend told me she says to herself whenever she realizes she’s repeated one of her unproductive patterns. It’s a handy phrase for someone like me…

I leave you with some interesting things I read over the past couple of weeks:

Spanish thrives in the U.S. despite an English-only drive.

Macron isn’t effortlessly handsome after all. He is the latest of many French presidents to spend a ton on hair and makeup.

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision-making.

Exercise could help you learn a new language.

And this has nothing to do with the themes of my blog, but it is shiver-inducingly beautiful. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” without the (non-vocal) instruments.

Enjoy your weekends!

hyper bien

Tonight I had drinks with a woman who told me I speak “hyper bien français.” When taken with a grain of salt – as all compliments about language skills should be – this means that I actually speak “bien français.” And that’s good enough for me.

Not three months ago, I wrote about how I would consistently peter out after two or three hours of French conversation, but these days I feel like I don’t really have a time limit. Comprehension is still not at 100%, but it’s getting continuously better. And I now have enough evidence of attaining new language heights to convince myself not to get too frustrated or feel too stuck at any one point. I am reminded of this Mari Andrew drawing I saw on Instagram recently. Like life in general, language learning requires resilience:

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And I have built up this resilience. I can swim across this ocean of a language gap. (Other oceans,  less clear.)

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]