Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Un Exercice Différent

Second lesson went much better than the first--I think Roosevelt was more organized. Also, this lesson was one hour, and the first one was two hours (which I hadn't realized going in). Two hours felt way too long, and one hour felt too short; so I don't know what to schedule in the future.

Roosevelt had me do an exercise that I thought seemed dumb, at first. It isn't anything I've ever done in other language study; I don't know whether it's a common teaching technique or not. He played recorded sentence and had me write down what I thought I heard, and then compare after I'd done ten.

I didn't think this would be useful because French spelling is definitely something I don't have a handle on, not to mention French words in general. If I hardly know any words, how will I know what to write down? Meaningless phonemes?

But as it turns out, this is actually going to be really good for my comprehension. One of my silent complaints is that I can't understand at all what he's saying in French; it just comes through like a string of sounds. This forced me to turn the sounds I was hearing into "pictures" of written French words. (I spent a summer working for Lindamood-Bell, a fancy tutoring agency for people--mostly children and teenagers--who are struggling to read, write, or comprehend. We spent a lot of time turning words into pictures--either pictures of objects and concepts, if comprehension was the problem, or letters and letter-combinations, if reading and writing were the problem. I was a good tutor because I followed the program, but I never really understood my students' issues, because all of that had always come easily and naturally to me. I get it now and may try using some Lindamood-Bell techniques on myself.)

I did better than I expected and got more than half the words exactly right. Often, I turned one long word into a string of sounds instead of a whole word; "enterprise" became "ent aire prixe". I especially noticed that I can't tell the difference between most plural words and their singular counterparts. I'm not sure if there's a difference in pronunciation or not; they sound the same to me.

Très encourageants, tout à fait! Je sens que je fais des avancement.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Très étrange

I was startled to discover that French has no single word for seventy (or eighty or ninety). WHY? Seriously, why? It seems really strange, and I'm also surprised that I've gotten through this many years of life without having picked up on that fact. Counting is usually an early lesson (as it was here), but I guess both my childhood French enrichment class and my middle school French class only taught me the numbers as far as... well, I think eleven. (I knew fourteen and fifteen for French-king / art history reasons, though not, oddly, sixteen.)

The part of my mind that eagerly seizes on anything easy to do or think about wants to go off on tangents, like hypotheses about how having no word for seventy/eighty/ninety might affect concepts of numbers in people who speak French as a first language...

I haven't been so surprised since I discovered (sitting in a lanchonette in Sao Paulo, reading the daily specials for the week) that Portuguese has no words for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. (They number those days--Monday is "second day" or "segunda-feira", and so on.) Why, when French and Spanish and Italian all have basically the same words for those days? Wouldn't you think the words would have migrated from Spain to Portugal, or vice versa?

How strange Portuguese-speakers must find it when they learn that English has words for those days that have no relationship to number placement.

(I remember being very, very young and deciding that "Tuesday" must be called that because it is the second day, twos-day; but logically, then, Thursday ought to come next, thirds-day, though Friday made a certain kind of sense, five-day.)

I wonder what other surprises French will have for me. During one summer in Italy I had an friend who was bilingual in English and French (American ex-pat family), with Spanish as a third language. He was irritated, and at first disbelieving, about the words "pomodoro", "cibo", and "birra" in Italian, which, he said, did not make any sense.

Je sais comment il se sentait.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ma Première Leçon

My first lesson was an exercise in frustration. I have to remind myself that in some ways it is ALWAYS this way.

When I started taking Italian, I was with a group of other American college students. All of us who didn't speak any Italian at all were put into an evaluation lesson, though they didn't tell us that was what it was at the time. We spent a couple of hours starting to learn Italian, and then the next day were separated into smaller groups. I was interested and excited to begin, but the teacher thought I was an idiot because when she told us that people usually used "babbo" for "dad" instead of "papa", she asked if anyone knew what "papa" meant. Well, I knew some Spanish. "Potato?" I asked.

My Italian teacher did not know Spanish. She looked at me witheringly and with astonishment that I could be so stupid. "Pope," she said. My classmates, who apparently also did not know Spanish, burst out laughing.

I was put into the "slow learners" class. My roommate, who was practically a linguistic genius and already spoke fluent German, didn't say a word during the intro class (preferring to wait until she knew something to speak, perhaps to avoid withering looks), was also put into the slow learners class. We quickly became the stars of our class, which didn't seem odd to us, but when we were informed by a classmate who had been placed into the "fast learners" class that ours was for "slow" people, we were furious. No one was going to call US slow learners, plus we didn't want to be held back in Italian. We went to our teacher and asked if it was true. "Nina, Wendy," he said calmly, very suave and Milanese, "are you happy with your test score?" We had both just scored 100% on the second weekly test. "Yes," we said, "but-" "The other class took the same test, and no one scored better than either of you."

Well, we loved our Italian teacher anyway, so we shut up after that. After a month when our Italian lessons changed to three days a week and half a day--the rest of the time we spent in art history classes--Nina fought to be moved into the intermediate class with the people who came to Florence already knowing some Italian, and did well there. I wasn't so ambitious (or so talented) and stayed contentedly in the beginner's class, where, to the scorn of the classmate who told us we were slow, all the beginners were mixed together again.

When I went to my first Spanish class in Guatemala (one-on-one, five hours daily), I felt like I would be all right; I'd studied Spanish for three years in high school, and even though the placement test I took in college still had me at the very basic level, that had to be good for something, right? What I found was what most people find when they begin a third language: whenever I tried to speak in Spanish, it came out in Italian. I hadn't even been to Italy for six years, but the words seemed lodged in my brain. I liked my teacher, but I was frustrated at her refusal to speak any English. I'd always heard about that as a language-teaching method, but never experienced it, and it seemed as silly as I'd always thought. "Why talk when you know I can't understand?" I wondered.

We switched Spanish teachers every week, and frustrations were ongoing; they wouldn't let me look at my notes, they spent time on things I didn't care about, they made me write paragraphs when I didn't care anything about being able to write in Spanish. But I had to admit that I was learning Spanish. I got used to their method.

Which brings me to French class yesterday. I can tell that Roosevelt, although he is well-educated and has several other French students, is not as accustomed to teaching a foreign language as the other teachers I've had. In all situations, including my public school experiences, we started out with certain things. Interrogatives. Basic classroom needs ("repeat, please"). Phonics. Roosevelt was a bit scattered, starting an irregular verb, then moving over to vocabulary, then members of the family, and so on. He taught me the forms to answer some questions (Do you have ____? Yes, I have ____.) and seemed surprised when I didn't have the vocabulary to answer the question, even when I had the format down. And I had to ask him how to say "I don't know what you're saying" and "Repeat, please" and "How do you say ___?". (Which was a little slapsticky. "How do I say 'I don't understand'?" I asked. "You don't understand?" he asked, and then he repeated the sentence he'd just said in French. "No, I want to know how to tell you I don't understand." He repeated the sentence again...)

I think things will get a lot better when I know more, but I'm going to go ahead and do some independent study on these phrases that I know I need. (I always say "I don't understand" a LOT.) For the first time I get why so many bloggers are anti-formal instruction. But I do think these lessons are the right choice for me. I can already read a certain amount of French, and primarily using computer resources would probably--because of my natural dislike for anything difficult--just let me keep reading French, and maybe understanding better, but not really speaking.

Je vais persévérer! (Tiens, j'ai appris "je vais" à ma première leçon.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mon Professeur de Français

I signed up for my French lessons today.

At first I wasn't sure about taking lessons at all. Regular, traditional language lessons, especially taught in your hometown instead of a native-speaking location, seem to be OUT in a big way. You can find numerous blogs that talk about other ways of learning languages; no one seems interested in talking about language lessons. So I was thinking to myself... shouldn't I be trying to learn French for free, with only the tools available to me on the Internet, plus meeting up with native speakers for conversation practice?

Then I remembered that I have nothing to prove, or to sell. There's nothing wrong with paying for language lessons--I'm happy to give my business to a local entrepreneur.

So I went around the corner and down a couple of blocks to a store that sells African clothing, home decor, jewelry, and cosmetics. There's a sign in the window that says "French lessons". I've often passed it, wishing that it said "Spanish lessons" (or, more recently, "Portuguese lessons") instead. But as happens so often in life, what I have here is actually what I need; I just didn't know it at first.

My teacher is Roosevelt, an immigrant from Liberia who teaches French, Swahili, and African drumming in addition to running the African store. During our conversation I commented that his accent is quite different from my Liberian friend who is a doctor at the hospital. He explained that he has lived many different places and his accent shows it. I understood that immediately: people are always commenting on my own "different" accent and asking where I'm from. Here in Illinois I'll tell them "Oregon" and they'll say "oh, that explains it"; rather than defensively argue that Oregonians do not HAVE an accent, which is true, I laugh and say they ask me the same thing back home. I don't actually know if it's because I've lived a lot of different places (and actually the comments about my accent started when I was a teenager, before I'd been much of anywhere), but that's how I explain it to people. (Because lots of times they won't let it go.)

Roosevelt is engaging and warned me he was going to expect intensity. He turned on the African broadcast of Radio France and told me to start listening online--one of the learning tools often recommended in language blogs. I was glad to hear that he incorporates stuff like that into his method; I know I won't be translating Dick and Jane sentences. Both from the broadcast and from listening to Roosevelt speak French, I think the African accents will be much easier for me to understand and produce than the Parisian accent. If someone told me she was going to learn Italian with a Sicilian accent because it was easier than the Florentine accent I would think she was crazy and possibly tell her she was making a mistake--but I figure if African French is what I need, there's no reason to insist on learning classical French. Not that I have any idea of what the differences might be. But I'm sure they're there.

Aussi, je vais faire la queue quelques films français sur Netflix. Amélie est en streaming et je ne l'ai jamais vu.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Apprendre le Francais

I've never been interested in learning French.

It's always seemed like kind of a fussy language, what ballerinas and people who drink Champagne speak. Definitely like what people who drink Champagne out of a ballerina's slipper drink.

But yesterday I participated in an online seminar for people who are interested in learning about working for the organization Doctors Without Borders, or MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres). I was already interested, but the seminar made me truly excited.

And it answered one of my questions: if I wanted to do MSF, would I be better off continuing to learn Spanish, which I already speak moderately well, or starting over with French?

Answer: Spanish is almost useless in MSF, it sounds like. I think they said around 477 Americans were placed with MSF last year, and only three or four went to Latin America.

So French it is.

French, I remind myself, isn't just the language of people with waxed mustaches and heads of state with fancy mistresses. It isn't even just the language of tough-skinned peasants chewing on crusty rolls and salty sea captains in striped shirts. It's one of the languages used in many of the African countries where MSF works.

And if I'm going to do this, I might as well do it to the best of my ability.

So I cast off the Spanish I learned studying in Guatemala and the Italian I learned studying in Italy, and the Portuguese I was just beginning to learn with the wistful goal of spending the rest of my life, or at least several years, living in the Amazon rainforest, and I take up French.

When I started learning Portuguese I learned about the world of language bloggers. This blog will, I hope, help keep me motivated as I learn.

Google Translate will, at least at the beginning, help me put at least a little of every post into French. Presumably it will be bad French. At least to start with.

C'est l'un des passe-temps plus utile que j'ai jamais trouver.