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…

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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]

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]