Friday, October 16, 2009

Secondary Language Acquisition

Here is my excuse for having neglected the blog one month: as my French slowly improves, my ability to speak English is falling apart.

For example. Due to a number of weird complications at Wesleyan, I am taking a literature class taught in English (my fifth class, in addition to the other four, all of which are taught in French). A major facet of French education is the exposé orale, a rigidly structured and tightly argued commentary on one or two pages of text, to be presented orally in class. In this literature class (a first-year graduate level Brit Lit seminar, entitled The Postmodern Novel), one student is assigned to present each week on some tiny piece of text, and because I thought the professor might take pity on me and my grade if I went first, I volunteered to expose the first two pages of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ feminist re-writing of Jane Eyre.

And while I am pretty sure that I sucked every drop of analyzable content out of five short paragraphs of text, I found myself stumbling through my presentation, constructing my sentences unnaturally, half in attempt to use simplified vocabulary (my classmates are all French, although actually most of them speak impeccable English, certainly better than I will speak it by the end of this year), actively thinking about the words I selected and inserting little meaningless academic phrases here and there, almost to stall for time to think.

I remind you that this presentation was in English. Maybe my non-eloquence, which was at once bumbling and robotic, can be attributed to my poor public speaking skills, but I actually wasn’t that nervous. Yes, I can only conclude that I’m forgetting how to speak English, little by little, the better and better I get at French. So excuse me if the quality of my writing in the blog similarly declines over the course of the year, in a kind of tragic Flowers for Algernon fashion.

But all is well that ends well, for after stumbling through twenty minutes of “Infamous Mother: The Tri-Fold Dispossession of Identity in Annette Cosway” (side note: I don’t really think they “do” academic titles here the they do in the States. An English teacher in high school once told me that every title to every paper must have three parts: the sexy part, a colon, and then the boring stuff. I’ve taken that to heart ever since, and no French standards are gonna stop me), two students approached me and invited me to go out with them that night.

These kids happened to be the two I had been secretly admiring from day one of class: Marilyn, eloquent and outspoken feminist, she with wrestling boots and four dazzling tiny piercings shooting out like a comet’s tail along her right brow, and Florian, the first true anglophile I have ever met, perfectly fluent, and with such a flawless accent that I had been surprised and a little relieved when he spoke on the first day of class, thinking that there was another American among the ranks.

Fortunately he’s not, because I have already many wonderful American friends in my life. Both Florian and Marilyn are native Grenoblois. I was blown away by how friendly they were to me, inarticulate American undergrad baby that I am. On the train ride home I stared, astonished and grateful, at the first French person’s phonebook entry in my cell phone. Because that’s what you dream of happening your whole life, from the first day of middle school onwards. You hope the cool kids will come say hi because you’re too shy to do it. Wow. Obviously I still can’t really believe my luck.

It turned out that Flo and his two roommates live blocks away from the Tree House, so I was at their apartment last night minutes after receiving a phone call from Flo. He said he had finished his chicken curry and was now on to a bottle of red wine from a vineyard of the same name as his own family. Being the perennial recipient of “Bliss”-related items (chocolate candies, limited edition Special K bars, Joseph Campbell paraphernalia, designer drugs, so on), I had a good feeling about this kid from the start.

[In fact, just in the past five minutes, Florian and Marilyn have invited me over for a movie (“in French”, he notes) and apple muffins contained “in a cute basket”. I will take muffins as confirmation that we all got along terrifically last night. A night worthy of muffins. Yes.]

I discovered that Florian had spent several years abroad in first Indiana and then in Ottowa, and his roommates had been abroad as well: Béné in Birmingham, England and Antoine in Galway, Ireland. It was too cute: the three native Grenoblois chattering away in English, one like an American, another like a Brit and the other like the Irish, but of all of them with French accents of various weights.

I’m sure I thoroughly embarrassed myself by how I beamed and smiled the whole night long, overjoyed and still astonished to be in their company. These kids are only a couple of years older than I, were bilingual at the least, and doing their masters in either English literature or linguistics. They are perfect, I thought, perfect subjects for my weird little linguistic theories and experiments. Ha, no, kidding. Perfect friends! After more than six weeks in France, there is at last the potential for befriending the natives. Praise The Postmodern Novel. Praise orale exposés. The five of us became thoroughly inebriated at a place where everybody knew their names, and all exchanged numbers and the names of their favorite British modernist authors.

Miracle upon miracle was yesterday night.

And difficult it has been (until now) to wrangle the French into being interested in me, a bumbling wide-eyed American girl, it’s been just as easy to lose contact with the outside world: my friends from home, from Wesleyan, from Idyllwild. Despite the existence of Facebook and Skype and Gmail, I have managed to have not spoken to my best friend, who is in Dublin for the year, beyond a couple of emails.

It can be a little scary how far away I feel from most of the people I know in my life; even if they happen to be on this continent, it is quite wholly consuming to be in a foreign land, to be virtually starting your life over in another language. I’ve got about 20 hours of class per week (at Wesleyan I think my max was 15), I am dancing two nights a week, plenty to read and do for school, a brand-new family and brand-new family rules and expectations to live with, French bureaucracy to assuage. I wouldn’t want it any other way, but it is quite enough to take your mind away from the Folks Back Home. The more intently I live my life here, the further the US floats off into the distance.

I hoped the world would feel a little bit smaller when I went to Yom Kippur services at the synagogue in Grenoble. In Hebrew School they always told us to visit the synagogue in whatever foreign countries we were sure to find ourselves later in life, because, they said, it is among Jews that you can always count on feeling at home in the world. But I didn’t really; Alex and I were thoroughly searched by security before we could enter, and I felt further marginalized as a female, all the way in the back of the segregated seating.

I guess the world does not feel small when you expect it to. It feels small whenever its potential for chance encounters exceeds all your expectations.

I saw Kyle Lafferty this past weekend in Paris, and that made the world feel small. Kyle, who I have known since elementary school, the kid who threw tantrums on the handball court and placed tacks beneath our classmate’s unsuspecting little bums. The kid who teased the underlings (me) on the bus… in high school. Now we’re both at East Coast schools, and he is spending the fall in Paris. And our gigantic worlds collided, by chance, at a bar in the Oberkampf. And everything felt suddenly a lot smaller. A ripple of melancholy passed through me sitting across from Kyle at the table, watching him chatter away in English about his sexual irresistibility to French women. Even in a city of two million faces unknown to me, I guess life really never stops being high school.

Kyle and I had actually taken French together, which started me thinking about Ms. Roy. Ms. Roy, my ninth grade (and first) French teacher, whose actual job it was to teach algebra, and probably other forms of mathematics I never bothered to discover.

Ms. Roy was the vision of an embattled pro-gardener, tragically misplaced above-ground in the only two-story building on campus. She wore plastic clogs with cleats on the bottom to class, usually kept her wizardly grey hair in a mass on top of her head, and was unusually ripped for a female high school teacher well into her forties. And Ms. Roy was bitter.

There was only one true French teacher on the Cleveland High School campus during my time. That was Madame Burri, who is likely still there, and to whose antics I was fortuitously subjugated for another two years. But I suppose there were just too many of us poor fools clamoring to take French I when I got to high school, so the powers-that-were selected/blackmailed Ms. Roy to teach the overflow from Burri’s class.

It is difficult to imagine that Ms. Roy was the second-best speaker of French among the Cleveland faculty. She was my teacher for my first year of language, but even to my virgin ears, I could tell then that Ms. Roy’s French accent was no more convincing than, say, Nicholas Cage’s in any film he’s ever been in, or Hillary Clinton’s in Alabama. But unlike them, Ms. Roy wasn’t even trying to speak (or really teach) a language that she ostensibly knew.

It is unfortunately true that a disproportionate amount of public high school teachers are disgruntled and apathetic (for a lot of reasons, including underfunding, political climate, etc etc), but Ms. Roy was a special case. Now that I am here in this country, thinking about my own trajectory with language and those of the other students I’ve met (some of whom talk about teaching later in life),and Kyle Lafferty, I wonder now how she ended up as the math teacher who teaches French, and so resentful of her lot that she would distribute copies of Madame Burri’s French I lesson plans as our test preparation.

I imagine Ms. Roy fresh out of college, propelled by two things inside her: a vague terror of the future, and the most urgent need for momentum, or the most momentous feeling of urgency, or something. She had to move, she had to see. I think that all of these feelings are endemic to people in their twenties. So maybe Ms. Roy ran off to Paris that summer to teach English and improve her French, and it was at the English language summer school that she met Astrid, broad-nosed dark-haired Astrid from Toulouse, who one day came in to the teacher’s lounge at the English language school with a handful of brochures advertising an expatriate support group because though she was French, it was her job to hand out these brochures, and Ms. Roy loved her immediately and said then and there that she was never coming back to the states.

And maybe for awhile she didn’t come back, but instead persuaded the English-language school to let her stay on as a receptionist and to pay her under the table, instead babysat the eight-year-old boy and his baby sister who lived on the floor below her and Astrid’s apartment in the Oberkamf, and was happy for a year and four months before some other crisis of urgency and momentum befell young Ms. Roy. Possessed by some new and alarming feeling of reality impinging upon her dream world of love and bread and tax evasion, she hopped a plane home-bound for Richmond and hastily picked up a teaching license, all too quickly to think about any and all of it. She’d majored in Math at UVA, but now she pretty much knew French, and also how to teach a language, so why not go for the double license?

After all, she thought to herself, math and language aren’t so different after all.

Yes indeed. Not so different at all. That’s why it is so difficult to learn a second language after age 12 or 14 or at whatever age it is when your brain suddenly transforms from an eager and smiley pile of clay into a self-destructive separatist drunk. You are sixteen, and vital brain cells are already suffocating in droves. This Head’s for English Only!, reads the sign stuck on the wilting front lawn of my twenty-year-old prefrontal cortex. Nothing New Comes This Way! Ever!

Goddamn French In Particular.

Uh, yes. What I mean to say is that I have found that forcing grammatical constructions and conjugational tables into your mind is like hearing the times-tables or any basic principle of arithmetic one million times and never, ever understanding. In fifth grade, Ms. Denon pulled me aside just as everyone left for recess and sat me down and said, “You don’t really understand long division, do you?” No, duh, I didn’t. Second languages are just like that: Without implicit meaning, and also replete with the potential for humiliation.

Without meaning. For example: I have been in France for almost six weeks (!!) and I have had six years of French. I don’t think that I am actively translating into English every word spoken in French that passes through my brain. It feels like I understand and register and respond to the French itself, in real time. But when I think back to a conversation, I without fail remember it as having happened in English. The simplest exchanges, too. When I think upon the memory of Claudie telling me to tell Sam he can eat dinner with the family on Thursday, the video playing in my brain seems to be dubbed in English. That is, I remember Claudie as having said those words in English, although of course she communicates to me in French.

So what does all of this mean? Well, I understand (a decent amount of) French words, but I don’t “know” them yet. I haven’t absorbed French to the extent that it has any isolated meaning; that is, isolated from English translation. Without any sort of permission from the management, my brain is storing these memories in the English section of the video store. I wish it would stop.

Is that what fluency is? When my subconscious stops with the translating? When I dream in French, as Alex has suggested? The two seem like they could be related. When I completely stop being able to produce a sentence in English?

Wherever it is, I am far away from the place called Fluency. If nothing else, that’s what my dubbed memories mean. Language is like math, and learning language is akin to sitting through the same algebra class for years and years and never really quite getting it. Both are infinite lists of formulas that the majority of the world is not inclined to understand beyond the stuff they were raised on. Just like I learned English by osmosis (and like how English words themselves seem to hold meaning without translation), I understand on an unconscious level that one orange and four apples make five pieces of fruit. But long division, not to mention quadratic polynomials, is more complicated. So is the concept of the future anterior.

Sam, my Canadian brother (from Toronto, passionate econ major at UW Madison, studying in Grenoble like me, and moved in with the Beautiful Family about a week after I did), gets excited about the prospect of perfect math. Little by little, he says, with every mathematical equation they discover, mathematicians and economists are uncovering the glittering truth of the world. And humanity. “Not many people get excited about this, I know,” he said the other night, as we stood waiting for the C train. “But when we discover the last equation, the final variable in the solution, the world will be a perfect machine. That’s my dream – in my lifetime, I want to see the perfect machine. Humans will be understood and humans will understand. I can’t imagine anything more beautiful.”

Maybe this explains people like Ms. Roy, those hybrid mathematician/language-lovers. Those people who see the connection between the two disciplines. Perhaps Ms. Roy was once a mathematic idealist like Sam, but when the veil never slipped and the letters from Astrid stopped coming she became disillusioned with numbers and words alike. Soon she resented teaching both, and the naïve idealism of her students. She took to gardening, because there is something true and real: you plant a seed and work the ground and you’ve made something to admire and hold in your hand and smell and even eat.

As I have said before, my decision to come here for a year was the result of a birthday panic, something like a quarter-life-crisis. So I know a little about the coldsweated crises endemic to people in their twenties, like the one I imagine Ms. Roy as having had. I have no idea if she really had one, or if there was an Astrid (Ms. Roy is mostly a fictionalization, names have been changed, so on and so forth. Blogging is weird). But now that I am here in this country, here as a product of the one million strange and mysterious and very fortunate circumstances that have yielded my life at this second, it seems to me that something will come, must come, of my here-ness later in life. The trajectory of Ms. Roy (who is no longer at Cleveland, actually, according to the school’s website) could be one direction out of this year. But there are infinite other routes, and that’s what makes it so exciting to be here, to have made this leap. To be invited for muffins across the street on a Wednesday night... in French.

Imaginary readers, please excuse my mental wanderings. It’s late and I’m having the time of my life. More and also sensible updates are on the way.


cesare and celestine go hand to footpup in the ochre. roussillon, provence
the man at the carillons. annecy
la basilique de la visitation, annecy

andrew on the lake, aix-les-bains

lavender fields in the morning. mas pantai provence
gaul wall. gordes, provence
young babe in the ochre, roussillon, provence


just, you know, a waterfall in the alps. on a hike with sam, the second half of which included me lost in the mountains, weeping in the rain, barely choking out desperate BONJOURRRRs for human aid. eventually i encountered a group of preschoolers and made it home with their help. thanks guys!!!
mhm. even though there are signs i managed to be lost for many the nude, in the glass. la sainte chappelle, paris
spencer and friend on the metro, paris. notice grotesque ad for english lessons
building dimensions circa 1148. abbaye de sénanque, provence!
sam takes a stretch at the ferme
mr. cheval on his mountain farm
so much beauty in this land
alex in the vineyard... provence