En français

I’m heading back to the US on Sunday (weather and transit strikes permitting), after almost three months in Paris.  I’ve been interested to see what would happen to my French during my time here.  I think language is a fascinating phenomenon: there’s a long list of subjects I wish I knew more about almost, but not quite, enough to do anything about it, and linguistics is pretty much right at the top.

When I arrived, my weak point, by far, was spoken comprehension: I could read and write pretty well, and even my speaking wasn’t too bad, but it was really hard to understand people when they spoke.  My self-evaluation is that I’m now much less terrible at that than I used to be, but still pretty terrible.  It’s  striking how hard it is to improve in this area.  One piece of evidence that I’ve gotten better: The fraction of times that I can get through a commercial transaction without the other person getting exasperated and switching to English is pretty high these days.

I have noticed that I’m much less likely than before to consciously translate what I’m hearing word-by-word into English as I hear it.  This is good for two reasons.  First, of course, because it’s impossible to understand rapid speech in that way.  More importantly,  though, it means that my colleagues no longer sound like Hercule Poirot in my head.  (“You mock yourself at me, my friend!”)

It’s interesting to think about why oral comprehension is so hard.  Comprehending speech is a many-step process: you have to process a continuous stream of sound into phonemes, assemble those into words, and syntactically analyze the result.  You can imagine breakdowns at any stage, but for me the first step is the big problem.  When I’m not understanding someone’s speech, it’s generally because I can’t hear the phonemes: I hear a continuous, undifferentiated stream of sound, rather than discrete consonants and vowels. The problem gets much worse with even low levels of background noise, and if two people are talking at once, I have zero chance of picking up anything.

Grammar’s never a problem: I never fail to understand a sentence because the speaker used the pluperfect subjunctive or something.  Vocabulary’s not much of a problem either.  Sure, sometimes people use words I don’t know, but that rarely stops me from getting the gist of what they’re saying.  (In the context of a restaurant menu, there’s a virtually 100% chance that the unknown word is the name of a fish, which makes things easier.)

One stumbling block for me, ironically, is numbers.  I still have to stop and explicitly translate them into English in my head.  And when the number is a time of day in the afternoon, there’s the additional problem that the French commonly use 24-hour time.  So when someone asks me if I’m free for a meeting at 4:00, there’s a ridiculously long pause while I think, “Seize = 16.  16-12 = 4.”

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

4 thoughts on “En français”

  1. I know exactly what you mean. I was in the same situation about 10 years ago when I first arrived in Paris. What you learn in books, in school etc can’t prepare you fully for the language as spoken by native speakers. Between slang, variable pronunciation and regional accents it can get very difficult. After a few months, the mysterious syllables and consonants begin to differentiate into recognisable fragments and I think afer 6 months I was relativlely comfortable. Composite numbers, though, are tricky. Four-twenty-sixteen (quatre-vingt seize, or 96) is my favourite; even now, ten years later, if I’m tired, I’ll stop for a second to be sure it’s not four-twenty-six (quatre-vingt-six, 86).

  2. Understanding: I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s books on language.

    Numbers: It is quite common that the last thing people learn in another language are numbers. That is, they are learned early on, but even people who have lived in another country for years often think about numbers in a language at which they are better. Number proficiency is the last thing to come.

    On the way to work, I was reading MOJO (English music magazine; highly recommended). Gene Simmons speaks (at least) 5 languages; English is number 4. Nice to keep some things in perspective. 🙂

  3. The base-20 numbers do make things even harder. My friend Walter reminds me that in Swiss French they don’t use those: 70,80,90 are septante, octante, nonante. That would help some.

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