Sunday, October 02, 2005

Language, Part 1 - My Background

I have been putting off this series of posts for some time now. Mainly because I wanted to collect my thoughts and make sure of what I have observed since it is probably the biggest aspect of life here. I will start with my journey with the French language so you know where I am coming from and where I'm at.

Fifteen years ago, I took part in a study abroad program in Versailles, France. The program was the equivalent of tranporting our classroom into a foreign country. We had all our own professors, our classes were in English, and the classes were the same as those the other half of our class took back home. So to prepare us for our stay, we were required to take a basic French class. I was in the lowest level class and we learned very basic French. Just a step above what you would read in a tourist guide. My best memory was when a friend learned how to say his name : 'Je m'appel Chuck'. Over the summer before the trip, I also bought a set of language cassettes and tried listen and repeating them in the car to work.

My very first experience was on the plane to France. I remember the flight attendant saying 'Bonjour' and I kinda chuckled and thought 'OK, Bonn Jewr'. But then I started to realize 'Hello!! You better get used to this'. It is funny how you find other languages kinda funny when you have limited knowledge of it. An example is Arnold's 'Hasta la vista.... baby'. After arriving in France, the school had set aside the first couple weeks for intense study of the language. I was still in the bottom class and we struggled through it. I even took a supplementary course. For that nine months, I had enough to get by (where is this and that?, my name is..., train schedules), but a conversation was out of the question.

A couple years later, I met my future wife (a Quebecoise) who came on the opposite exchange from France. She had a better handle on English and served as tranlator for the other French. That year I started spending a week or two every year coming to visit the in-laws. Only three or four were fluent and a couple others could hold conversations. Over the years, the trips served as yearly refresher courses slowly learning a little every year.

After my graduation, I returned to France for three reasons. To spend time with my girlfriend, help her with her thesis, and learn more about the French culture and language without the shelter of the school. I basically spent the nine months sitting quietly listening to those around me hold conversations. So my ear for the language progressed, my speaking skill advanced a bit mimicing what I had heard, but my writing skills did not advance. I ran into a few of the stereotypical French who refused to understand me. I would ask for a bagette and get a blank stare. 'Hello!! This is a bakery and your most popular product is bagettes!' Not to mention I would go in there everyday and get the same thing. Long red hair dressed all in black sticks out in bourgois Versailles.

So then the move here two years ago. Let me say for the first time (I will say it again later) that the people here are extremely understanding for someone learning the langauge. Almost night and day compared to France. In this nurturing environment, I have progressed to the current state of being able to understand most conversations with some concentration on my part. I can get my point across, but I still search for words. I can get the gist of what is written as long as there are no complex words. I can write with the help of a dictionary, but I have not mastered the best way to turn phrases. I still have times when I am completely lost. Sometimes because of peoples accent, the subject matter, or if people speak in cliches or expressions.

In the next post later this week, I will cover the state of language here in Montreal from what I have seen these last two years.


John Hill said...

There was the interesting idea about language I read or heard once, though I don't remember by whom.

Basically, the idea was that one truly understands another language (one that's not their original) when they're able to "hear the pauses." Until one can do that, the words congeal together, with the occassional familar word popping out here and there. That's the way I am with French and Italian. Part of the problem with both, and other Romantic languages, is that natives speak very fast so hearing the pauses is very difficult, becuase they're aren't really pauses so much as miniscule gaps that aren't heard so much as learned.

Try thinking about film: a huge percent of film is blank, the space between the frames. But even though we don't experience them directly, they are just as important as what we do see.

Anonymous said...

But those momentary lapses are elided--that's the miracle of film, a series of shots flickering before us. Yet anyone immediately grasps what is unfodling before him.

Unknown said...

I'll agree that they are miniscule gaps instead of pauses. From my experience and the way I learn things, it is more the repetition and being familiar with what is being said. Once you get to a stage where there are less and less words or phrases you are unfamiliar with, thats when it becomes functional. Is that self-evident?

The film reference reminds me of Jurasic Park. With the computer, they were able to make very crisp images, but it was unbelievable. They actually had to smudge the dinos during movements to match what we percieve through our eyes.