Say What?

I have to admit that I am not what you would call a “fast learner” when it comes to learning a new language. And since I spent the first 33 years of my life as an English speaking person in a bilingual province (English/French), this did not bode well. It was so bad that I actually had to repeat 10th grade French! Now, as a former educator it is probably bad form to blame the teacher for part of my struggles with learning another language, but hey it was a long time ago and as far as I’m concerned, he sucked. He also had it in for me, but that’s another story. The other problem was that the system to teach the language used back in the day, which was rote memorization, did not work for me. It wasn’t until I was out in the workforce dealing with customers, many of whom were French speaking, that I began to learn the language through conversation. While I don’t consider myself perfectly bilingual, I can certainly hold my own in a conversation, even if I slip in the odd English word here and there…but always with a French accent. Many of my high school friends, who passed French with flying colors, can’t speak a damn word of it today!

And then I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. While there was some opportunity to keep my French up, it certainly was not on a daily basis as it was when I was living and working in Montreal. I spent 23 years in Vancouver (before moving to Los Angeles, another mecca of French-less speakers), and for most of my time there I was either a university student (going back after a 17 year hiatus) or an instructor, sometimes both. When I began my undergrad degree (1984), I thought about taking a language course, but as soon as I did that my palms started to sweat as all the memories of high school French came flooding back, and I quickly (okay, very quickly) abandoned that plan. Then I had a brainstorm idea: Why not take an intro course in Linguistics, the scientific study of language and its structure, which includes the study of morphology (patterns of word formation), syntax (formation rules of language), phonetics (sounds used in speech), and semantics (meaning)? The idea was that if I sucked at learning languages, perhaps I would fare better at learning how languages were structured. Yeah, right!

So, there I was, entering the classroom for Linguistics 101, where I would spend four hours a week, for the next thirteen weeks creating another unpleasant memory centered around language. And yet again, I have to lay part of the blame at the teacher’s feet, but this time for very different reasons. After two weeks, I learned that the bulk of this class would be dedicated to the “phonetics” aspect of linguistics which, as I mentioned above, is all about the sounds used in speech. I actually loved learning all the technical terms for what our mouths, lips, tongue, teeth, palate, and throat do and sound like when we say certain letters or words. For example: “Bilabial,” which is a sound on produces using both lips – think of the letter “m” or “p;” “Fricative,” a speech sound that is made by pushing air out through a small space between your teeth and your tongue or lips, or between your tongue and palate – think “f,” “z,” and “th;” “Glottal Stop,” a sound made by stopping air as it passes through your throat. In some varieties of spoken English, a glottal stop is often used instead of a “t” sound in the middle or at the end of a word; and finally, “Labial,” a sound that you pronounce with your lips closed or close together or with your top teeth touching your bottom lip, for example “p,” “b,” “f,’ “v,” or “m.”

There are many others, but these are the ones that caused the greatest problem for me because of our teacher, Dwight. When I found out that the final exam for this class would be Dwight, verbalizing words in an array of foreign languages with the students trying to identify the correct technical term for the sound he was making, I knew I was doomed. Even though I liked Dwight, given that we were similar in age as I was a “mature” student, he had this enormous, bushy mustache (now you understand the photo!), which made identifying whether the sound coming out of his mouth was labial, bilabial, or a fricative next to impossible because you couldn’t even tell if he had lips! Merde, that’s French for shit! Needless to say, that was the first and last linguistics course I took!

Los Angeles 29023

7 thoughts on “Say What?

  1. Full credit for keeping at it, it’s certainly true if you don’t use you lose it . I had a little French as we all did at school in Canada and was barely passable when I had business in Montreal many moons ago. Cantimagine you get much opportunity in LA to speak the language.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! No, not much opportunity in LA, and when I do hear someone speaking it, or am introduced to someone who speaks it, I’m a bit reluctant to start because I’m afraid they will start rambling away and I’ll be lost!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lol you don’t give yourself enough credit. But my best buddy is bilingual and he would say the same thing, come into a group of Francophones and you can’t keep up for more than a few seconds.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Learning a foreign language is tough, and I’m in awe of people who are fluent in two or more languages. I took four years of Spanish, two in jr. high (generally known as middle school outside the U.S.) and two in high school, and hated every minute of it! Though my mother spoke fluent Spanish (her parents emigrated to California from Spain), she never spoke it at home, so I never learned to speak it. I later took one semester of German in college after having visited Germany the previous summer, and remember more German from one semester than from four years of Spanish!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is, unless you start from infancy! I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish, as there are some similarities to French. The few times I’ve been to Mexico, after a few days I can understand quite a bit, but not enough to speak it. It’s definitely on my bucket list!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Although I loved taking both Spanish and German in high school, I didn’t understand the structure of either language, the way the structure of our mother tongue is deeply embedded in us as babies. I don’t think I understood there WAS a structure. As you say, so much depends on the teacher. All we did was memorize.
    I struggled in college with German until an observant and kindly teacher realized I did not seem to know English grammar, much less German. I could speak and write beautifully and correctly, but didn’t know an adverb from an adjective, much less a direct from an indirect object, or what the subjunctive case meant. She taught me the fundamentals of English grammar in a few hours (somehow I’d missed formal training in several moves during my childhood). From then on, I excelled in German (some of which I actually still remember 100 years later). And in grad school when I had to learn French for a competency exam in translation only, I also did well. A teacher had taken the time to observe and evaluate what was blocking my learning, and then approached the problem head on. These 100 years later, I am still telling the story and still very grateful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Who knew structure was so important! Like you, I learned that part of language much later, but before I reached 100! I also had to prove my proficiency in a second language for my PhD, but they made it ridiculously easy and I remember asking my supervisor: “Why bother?” I think he told me it was because they all had to do it!


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