Monday, May 2, 2011

Wanting and Doing / Vouloir et Faire

Today I dropped by my French teacher's store to tell him I had to reschedule our lesson, which was meant to be tomorrow. He spoke to me in French. I didn't understand. At least, not well enough.

I was frustrated, and I think he was disappointed. I think given a few moments, I COULD have understood him; I got the gist of some of what he was saying, but then, I knew what I expected him to say. But there's a big difference between understanding the general gist and making actual plans that we both need to be on the same page with.

I'm expecting too much, maybe. I've only actually had two lessons, and the last one was almost two weeks ago; my teacher had to cancel two lessons, and I've been working a lot. I've been working on French at home some, of course. But there's another place where there's a big difference: the pleasure I feel at recognizing some words and even understanding some of a Radio France broadcast, and having a coherent conversation with someone.

I read several language blogs, and none of them seem to talk about this stage much. Maybe because it doesn't make good copy. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, sure. But there is a time when speech is paralyzed because there just isn't enough to say yet. It may be longer for some people than others, and it may be brief when we already speak a related language (though I still haven't decided if that's a help or a hindrance for me). But I think it's always there. It's difficult to read the blogs of people for whom it might as well not exist; yet this is, I think an important time to blog about. I'm sure most language-learning endeavors end here.

I miss the immersion environments where I learned Italian and Spanish and some of what little Portuguese I know. Where just going to the drugstore is an exercise in language-learning. Two weeks in Brazil, a small amount of study and correspondence at home, and a few more days in Brazil several months later, and I was able to ask questions in Portuguese in a Brazilian drugstore and get the things I needed.

Yet I can't even understand my French teacher when he tells me we can meet on Thursday at 1700.

I WANT to speak French with at least some fluidity. I am not speaking French with any fluidity at all. It's very difficult when what we want doesn't match what we do.

It's difficult to start over with each language, to remember that with each one--I remember specific times in Italy and Brazil, anyway--there's a time when I want to cry with frustration at not being able to understand or be understood.

Well, I've been trying to keep busy during these two weeks off from lessons, in the following ways: LiveMocha, children's books, youtube videos, Radio France. These things will all get their own posts, eventually.

Publié sous un nuage gris.


  1. Hey, Wendy!

    I was actually planning to cover a similar experience of mine on the blog some time, but might as well share something with you right here :)

    When I started to learn Spanish, I didn't know what to do, so I went into a Spanish center. All the professors there were native speakers, and we started to talk Spanish from day one.

    First month was insanely frustrating. The reason for this is that I tried to process and understand everything as my teacher explained things and just talked. Naturally, I couldn't. Most of the stuff just didn't make sense. Countless and fruitless attempts to decipher strings of pronouns and definite/indefinite articles were driving me crazy. I was very close to a mental breakdown.

    Around that time I've also started to read language blogs and the most important lesson I have learned is that you need to relax and not stress out about the things you do not understand. This is repeated a lot around the language learning blogosphere, but it's true. With more exposure and input, grammar makes sense and the speech becomes understandable.

    Try to read something in both French and English, so that you could follow along and get more idea about how the language works in context. I can't think of a better way to train your brain to recognize parts of a new language. Otherwise, how can you understand the speech when you don't know what to look for?

  2. Hang in there. One thing I was thinking about today actually was warming up. I had to go to a government office for some business. A bit out of my league. On the way I listened to Turkish recordings that I knew very well. These served to get my mind into Turkish mode as well as build my confidence. Anyway, so one suggestion is to not go into things cold turkey. It's unfair to you and your mind.

    And of course, some days are just going to suck. There will be no explanation either. You'll just start to speak or listen and it will appear that every thing you had learned up to that moment had gone on vacation and didn't bother to let you know. It still happens to me after three years in Istanbul anyway. Brush it off and start afresh.

  3. Thanks, Roman and Aaron. I think for a lot of people beginning a language, we're used to having many things come easily to us... but a second language (as a whole, complete thing) doesn't come easily to anyone, really. And that's frustrating.