Sunday, July 7, 2013

Learning French

It's now been one year since I moved to France. Which makes one year that I've been speaking (or trying to speak) French in my everyday life.

I started learning the language through Rosetta Stone, which is a great program for beginners of any language. The main advantage of learning a language on the computer is the repetition. Most humans are simply not willing to repeat everything to you a thousand times until you get it. Except, of course, your parents when you were first learning to talk. That's kind of the theory behind the program: you need to learn your new language the way you learned your first one, through repetition and through association. You learn the entire language through immersion--no translation. This happens through a combination of pictures and sounds and text to guide you through. Not only is this time-saving--if you don't need to translate, you don't waste time repeating two words instead of one--but it also helps you to constantly hear the language the way it ought to be pronounced. I hate to make this sound like a commercial, but there really is no better way to start a new language than this program.

On the other hand, it doesn't get you very far. There are five levels in an entire Rosetta Stone language program, and I burned through all five levels in French in three or four months. Granted, I spent a lot of time on it when I first started, but still. Relatively basic phrases were simply not covered--I had honestly never heard the verb "falloir" before arriving in France. But with the ability that I had acquired to speak basic phrases at a reasonable speed, I was on the right track from the moment I stepped off the plane in Paris.

After Rosetta Stone had exhausted itself, I tried some google searches to see what other resources I found. The most impressive one was a web site called "Français Authentique," a site run entirely by one guy who had an ambitious idea. I listened to his introductory podcasts where he explained his philosophy, plus a few more podcasts where he explained some common French expressions. I didn't end up sticking with the program, but I so admired his basic philosophy that I simply adopted it in my own way.

The philosophy: listen.

I remember there were six other elements to the philosophy after that, but this was number one and clearly the most important. I think it's true: listening is by far the most important part of learning a language. Another key point was to listen to only those things which one can understand, at least 90%. That's because listening to anything in a new language is at first very draining. As anyone who has lived abroad learning a new language can tell you, you tend to sleep a lot more when listening to speakers of a foreign language. Just like working out to get in shape, at first it's going to be exhausting. The only way to get better is to keep doing it.

So I listened incessantly to whatever I could find on the Internet (for free, of course). Since getting to work took a significant amount of time (waiting for the train, climbing the enormous staircase at Lozère, walking through the forest) I could always use the time to listen to something rather substantial. Being a told nerd in any language, I gravitated to things which were pretty heady, such as FranceCulture. I figured, while I'm learning to understand the language, I might as well learn some real vocabulary as well as the current intellectual trends in France. It turns out there's another advantage to this approach: more heady, intellectual stuff tends to be spoken a bit more slowly than stuff on TV.

Searching TV shows on the Internet had limited use for me. Some of it is that, sorry to say, there aren't a whole lot of good French series (although I did find one show somewhat amusing) but most of the problem is simply the speed. It gets tiring and boring to repeat the same line over and over until you figure out what it says, and sometimes that doesn't even work (you might have to ask a native speaker, who knows what is said because, well, he just knows). One thing that helped a bit was watching an American series I knew quite well (Scrubs, in my case) in French. That was mostly to help me work on understanding fast speech. In terms of vocabulary, a TV series is pretty limited, especially one that's translated. The sole advantage is that it's entertaining, whether or not you learn very much.

All of that started to work for me, and by about six months into my stay I was speaking French with a bit more confidence. I still got stuck a lot, occasionally having to resort back to English when I knew someone could bail me out with a quick translation. Honestly, I found myself often not talking as much as I used to. I'm not exactly a chatterbox by nature, but there really is something psychologically difficult about feeling the desire to talk restricted by one's confidence in speaking the language. That was a fairly difficult time in my life. Any move is difficult and can sometimes be isolating. To feel isolated by a language is still worse.

Indeed, there's no more fundamental aspect of social life than language. Aided by personal experience, I've reflected on this a lot since moving to France. It is, of course, possible to incorporate a foreigner into one's society using extra-linguistic communication (as when I was first invited to have dinner at the home of a very lovely French family--I didn't get most of what I said, but I happily ate what was set before me!). But it hardly follows that one can actually have a society without language, and to be fully incoporated into that society seems to imply speaking the language of the people. Loneliness was thus very natural for me during my first few months in France. I felt that even with people who could speak English (with varying ability) it would be hard to feel at home in France unless I finally got the hang of speaking French.

Of course, it's important to put these things in their full context. I don't do just any kind of work in France. I'm a researcher, and that means language is a rather awkward issue for me in Europe. You see, English is my native language (although the Brits my disagree). But in academia, English is the lingua franca (ironically enough!) as it is these days in pretty much all commerce. That means all of my work is in English--almost every known academic journal publishes mainly in English. When I go to conferences, English is the language of all presentations. It has already happened to me many times that I am the only native English speaker among a group of mathematicians whose only common language is English.

This is awkward for two reasons. One is that I'm in France trying to learn the language, but the mere fact that I am American can often be an obstacle. Don't get me wrong: the French would rather speak their own language if possible. But the French, like most western Europeans, are instinctually wired to believe that Americans only speak English, and that the presence of an American means something in between a chance to practice English and a burdensome moment where one has to speak English (you know, for my sake). This point is all the more awkward in France, where the French themselves have a complex about foreign languages. Everyone in Europe knows the French don't speak foreign languages well--but at least they're not as bad as the Americans. More on this a little later.

The second reason is, I confess, that it is slightly embrassing to hear my own language butchered. True as it is that hearing English mangled does not require leaving the U.S., I find certain linguistic errors repeated so often by fellow scholars in Europe I start to wonder whether they are now accepted as correct English among non-native speakers. The problem is that I am a mathematician, and it always seemed to me like correct English is a fairly trivial part of my work. Thus I don't feel I have any right to intervene, even when I see or hear rather painful errors. But I digress.

When I arrive in Paris, I expected to find the French very proud of their language and simply unwilling to learn foreign languages. I quickly found this stereotype is not very accurate, although I can speculate about where it comes from. Most French people I've met do not find their own language especially exciting, much to the likely chagrin of French intellectuals, who take great pride in their literature and the spoken word. Indeed, this is a place where you can find a "Festival of the Word" and where many programs on RadioFrance are devoted to language and literature. But there is a difference between having a strong intellectual tradition and having a general populace who appreciates such things. When I've asked French people about their language, I've found that many have never even thought about the sound or structure of their own language.

One time I even heard someone say that she (or he, I don't remember) thought the French accent was ugly, which sounded simply unthinkable to me. The French language always had to me a sort of elegance about it, its sounds very exquisite and difficult to reproduce. On the other hand, it's true that while living in France, one quickly discovers how ugly it can sound (as any language can) in the mouth of someone who wants to sound obnoxious or doesn't care about how he speaks. I still maintain that French is one of the most beautiful languages in the world (rivaled in my opinion by Italian), but I admit that this is more in its idealized rather than its real form.

I haven't had much opportunity to write in French, and I have no idea if I have sufficient command of the language to write an article of any length or substance. But I find that normal conversation is no longer a problem, and though I still frequently ask what certain words or idiomatic expressions mean, these are typically not essential. It feels good to get complimented on my French, but truth be told, I'm just happy to not feel so isolated by my linguistic inability.

I've tried to learn two other languages so far: Spanish and Italian. I used Rosetta Stone for Italian, as well, which is why I knew it was a good program. I remember getting pretty far with it, but the fact that I never lived there made me lose pretty much all of what I had, and as I mentioned above, what you get from Rosetta Stone is hardly sufficient to gain fluency. Spanish, on the other hand, was the language I learned in school for years. Putting together what little I did in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and one semester at the university, I studied Spanish for around seven or eight years total. But none of it stuck, except for a few phrases.

The lesson in all of that is that language requires repetition, consistency, and, most of all, usefulness. This may make certain intellectual types cringe, but I honestly do not feel that anyone should feel he is missing something if he only speaks one language fluently. I speak French because I'm in France. I don't feel the slightest amount of embarrassment at having never been able to speak any other language fluently, because there are plenty of other ways to spend one's intellectual energies than to learn new languages for the fun of it. When it comes to Spanish, I do happen to feel some level of regret just because it is fairly useful, not only abroad but increasingly in the United States. But if you ask me, as a matter of principle, whether it is important to speak a foreign language fluently as a matter of personal well-roundedness, I will simply say flat out, "No."

On the other hand, living in a foreign country can be exciting. Especially when it's France. There is quite a lot of culture to which this language is forever attached, and it's a good feeling to have access to that. I'm not a strong believer in the theory that something is always lost in translation, but it's fairly obvious that being able to comprehend the original versions of great works is advantageous. But the most important thing for me is to be able to communicate effectively with the people around me. I sometimes joke that my initial problem with the French was figuring out what they were saying, but now I have to figure out why they are saying it. And that's the best part of language: once you have the medium of communication, you stop thinking about the medium and go straight to the person at the other end to discover beliefs and values and desires and dreams that you never knew before.

That's not all there is to my story, but I think that's a good summary of this first year of speaking French.


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