7 March, 1985
Yup. That's the way it goes with long letters. You know they're going to take a while to write so you keep putting them off. 2 days after I wrote you the little postcard promising this letter I met a friend in London and the madness of the big city was upon us. We travelled to France again because he had several people to look up and so here I am in Paris.
For 2 days before I wrote that little postcard I compiled a long list of things I wanted to remember to include in this letter. They all have something to do with language - French, oral, written - Icelandic, Norwegian, linguistics, etc. I won't try to make any kind of order in them - I'll just write in a stream and you can sort it out. Since I wrote you the postcard in French I won't hurt your eyes any more and this will be in English. It would take me 10 times as long in French if I could say what I wanted at all.
I spent Christmas with Rolf and Joren Paulsen at the home of their friends, the Martinsens. I visited Thomas Martinsen (~=24 years old) in Oslo after the New Year and I was asking him about the countries in Europe. After seeing Denmark, Sweden, and Norway and not noting many dramatic differences I asked him if there were really any major differences between the other European countries. Surely there was a language difference and certain geographic differences but beyond these? He said - “Yes. There are many differences - People who don't have a common language can't mix very much and so the cultures evolve in different directions.” It's true. One of the obvious differences between France and Germany is that in France everyone speaks French and in Germany everyone speaks German. The countries are named after the language (or vice versa?). Birds of a feather flock together. If one would take a random group of people from all over the world and put them all together, it wouldn't take long for them to sort themselves out by language. To “speak the same language” is a phrase with more than linguistic meaning. Parents and children often don't “speak the same language”. To “be on the same wavelength” is a similar idea.
On a train ride somewhere I saw 2 French boys (~=11-13 years old) playing with a hand held video computer game. They were having fun. They were muttering all kinds of numbers and “comme ci, comme ca”. Blah blah. I had the thought that if they could be transported to your classroom for one day - how much they could teach! For your students to see and hear and know someone completely fluent in French, not knowing English at all, and to be much younger than them - I think they would learn more than you could ever teach in one day.
I went up the Eiffel tower - to the 2nd (2ieme) etage and watched the sun set. Directly I went up to the 3ieme etage and watched the sun rise. I said to the elevator operator - “Le soleil se leve encore”. He smiled. I was so proud to have made a joke in French.
Once I was in the Metro and was close to someone who looked very French. Stereotypical. I thought - this fellow thinks French, talks French, eats French, is French. French through and through, “in every cell”. There is a vague misunderstanding in my head that pops up now and then and which I still haven't quite plumbed yet. It says - “They're just like me - they know the English words for things yet they speak French just for fun or because they're here.” La Gare - when they see the place where the trains come in, they don't think “Train Station”, they think “La Gare”. Did I express that misunderstanding well enough?
I have often mispronounced “La Gare” as “le guerre” and just yesterday I heard an Australian do the same. Could lead to some misunderstanding!
It's now the next day 8 March. My first attempt at speaking French was in Trois Vierges, Luxembourg. around December 2 and I made some feeble conversation with the hotel keeper. I'm sure he spoke very simply and slowly for the “childlike” me but we did communicate. I remember afterwards having the feeling that I could learn to speak the language if I spent some time in the country. I had really doubted it.
In Chinon and Amboise, France about 2 weeks ago I rather enjoyed myself. I had some nice little chats with the keepers of the youth hostels where I stayed and another with a nice woman and her daughter who gave my friend and I a ride from the station. When I first got to Paris I asked the keeper of the hostel, “Do you speak English?” but haven't used those words since (or almost). Sometime the other person begins speaking English to make the communication easier. I rather enjoyed it though. I got a sense of the miracle of language - I know so few words, a very limited way of putting them together, yet I feel like I can express myself. Understanding what others say is another story. My verbs are very simplistic. There is the root, the roote', and the rootons. Je root, il root, j'ai roote', nous rootons. That's about it. Oh, also je vais roote'. [the ir, oir, ndre verbs occupy a confused part of my head.]
I told you that I would ramble and you could sort it out. Somewhere in this morass of words I hope you find something of interest!
At the hostel in Amboise a group of 50 young kids had just left. I said to the lady: “Cinquant! Beaucoup de nuit, n'est-ce pas?” She said “Oui - beaucoup de bruit!” Well, I was close.
On April 18 I am flying to Mexico City and will then travel to Cuernavaca to enroll in an intensive school for learning Spanish. One important thing I've learned on my trip is that most Americans (British, Australians, New Zealanders also) are very lazy simpleton one language people. I hope to return home towards the end of June having gotten a good start with Spanish. Then I would bring back something real from my trip - a real skill - useful, interesting. I would return with something more substantial than simply souvenirs and memories of pleasant times and good friends and scenes. When I'm in Cuernavaca I aim to be like my cousin's daughter Hanne. When I visited them in Saskatchewan she was in that stage of talk, talk, talk, blab, blab, blab, practice, practice, practice. I will go to class and learn, for example, “Muchas Gracias”. The rest of the afternoon and day I will continually say “muchas gracias” over and over in every which way until I am sure I've got it solid and my nerves and muscles and head have got good deep patterns and grooves. Yo quiero hablar español muy bien. When I return to California I can maintain and continue by making Spanish speaking friends and reading Spanish magazines, listening to Spanish radio, etc.
At what point does an object or experience merit a separate word? I played ping-pong with a group of young French kids (a good way to learn the numbers!) and we all laughed or made some remark at the same point in the action. Some things are clear and all cultures will have specific words for them. But many things are not clear and words will vary. Show someone a clear pastel orange and ask what color - ORANGE. A clear brown - BROWN. A mixture of the two and they won't know what to say - there is no word for it. (Unless one has been to Sienna, Italy and knows the color burnt sienna.) How did brown get to be brown? and orange orange? I am also curious how words began eons ago and how certain sounds got associated with certain meanings. Yes, ja, Ja', si, oui, ... this means positive affirmative. No, nein, nay, non, nei, ... this means negative. How did the 'n' sound start to mean “no”? Some words begin because they sound like the action they represent - splash, drip, ... but these are very few. How did the first cave men and women begin using certain sounds for certain things?
On many advertisments [advertisements] for movies in Paris I saw the words: “Sortie 28 Feb.” I thought - “that's strange - telling when a movie will be leaving.” Later I was told that it means that's when it's coming . Sortir is not used in exactly the same sense as “to leave”. “Venir” is not the same as “to come”. I imagine this diagram:
World of Meaning / \ Francais-Francais / \ English-English Dictionnaire / \ dictionary / \ French English French-English dictionaryIf one looks up the word “jamb” in a French-English (francais-anglais) dictionary and sees the word “leg”, one shouldn't think that “jamb” means “leg”. Rather one should think that jamb means the same (or close to the same) thing that leg means. [Is this too abstract? Is this boring? I've been thinking about these things for a while and you're the linguist of the family so I direct these babblings toward you.] I think it's important to not think that “jamb” means “leg”. That is assuming that English is somehow closer to the world of meaning than French.
World of Meaning / \ / English / / / / / / FrenchFor a native speaker of English who is trying to learn French this may very well be the image they have but one should not fall into the trap of thinking that English is innately closer to the world of meaning. In your class on the day that I visited, you demonstrated the meaning of the phrase “au bord de” by walking up and down. You didn't simply give the English “equivalent”. French-English dictionaries are troublesome in one sense because they keep taking you out of the world of French. After a few years of study at the university were you told to use a francais-francais dictionnaire?
My first time in Paris I met a young (~=25) fellow named Ernesto at the hostel who is a teacher of French in Brazil - he was on vacation. We had many long conversations and he helped me a great deal. He spoke little English (at least he said so) and occasionally I had the fun of being or of trying to be a translator between him and a Canadian who spoke little French! Ernesto teaches at a language school where studying French is the only class his students have. He said that from the “very beginning” he speaks only French in class. He uses pictures and drawings and demonstrations to help illustrate meaning. He said the best way to learn a language is to “forget your mother tongue”. Is this possible in Jamestown, North Dakota where your students are in French class only an hour a day? In the interest of progress what compromise do you make?
As an illustration of how crucial language is: I was in Bergen, Norway wandering around a maze of concrete stairs and buildings and parking lots looking for a friend's apartment. He told me it was G-616 but there were no signs or anything anywhere - just concrete and asphalt and trees and buildings and cars and telephone and electrical lines. I must have wandered lost for 15 minutes searching. I turned a corner and saw above a door a large letter 'H'. Hallelujah. Hooray. That one little letter told so much. And eased my confusion. It was a Norwegian 'H' but I still understood.
Another abrupt change: In some ways the French numbers are better, in some ways worse than English numbers. 50 versus 15. Fifty - Fifteen. ty - teen. not much difference. Cinquant, quinze. Plenty different yet I still confused them and told Ernesto that “j'ai etudie francais depuis cinquant ans”. He was amazed. 100. One hundred - cent. in English 3 syllables. in French only a simple and easy one. 97 = quatre vingt dix sept. 4x20 + 10 + 7 weird!
I was speaking with Michael, a Canadian I met in the hostel in Paris, about all the different languages and about English becoming an international language. He said, “I've travelled through about 7 or 8 different languages in the past 2 months and taking a distant perspective on it all, I have to say ”What a screwed up way of organizing things!“ ”. And it's true. This world would be much more peaceful if we all understood each other. Why don't we all just learn English and forget all the rest! Very simplistic, eh? To change culture takes a very long time. And language is so intertwined with culture. And it's not easy to learn another language. It takes time and study and desire. And also the right environment . In Amsterdam everyone (it seemed) spoke English - and well. In the far north of Norway in Tromso I was approached by a fellow who was drunk about 45 years old. I said I spoke only English and he immediately switched to English and asked me for 2 kroner for a phone call. I refused and we launched into a deep conversation about what parents can do for their children. In Iceland a boy ~=10 years old asked me something. I said I spoke only English and he said with a little hesitation, “Know time it is?”. Sometimes I feel badly that so many have expended so much effort to learn English to overcome the language barrier and I have done nothing. I told a Brazilian I met in Vienna that if one only knew one language that English is the best one to know. He said, “No. It's the worst because it makes you lazy about learning other languages.”
George Bernard Shaw wrote something about a universal language and said that efforts like Esperanto probably won't succeed - that “pigeon English” will probably emerge as the most common of languages.
He also wrote about improving the English written language so that spelling would be phonetic. One virtue of German I was told is that the relation between spelling and pronunciation is very precise, mathematical. If a new written language were designed today for French or English how would it be different?
I'm sitting in a library in the George Pompidou Center writing this. A young girl (~=18) across from me has been studying anglais for about 3 hours. I just handed her a note saying:
(mon francais est terrible!)
To what degree is language just a series of isolated conventions connecting the world of speech sounds to the world of experience? It is to some degree. Vocabulary is mostly conventional I guess. Many phrases are - Ca va? Ca va! Ca va. But language has structure. There is some sense to it. This is grammar. It amazes me that we can learn our mother tongue without knowing much about grammar. We absorb it. We don't “know” it. Learning a second language is a very different story.
It is now Samedi 9 Mars. Je vous - no not vous. Je t'ecrit chaque jour!
Something you would have enjoyed: I was on the 3ieme etage of the Tour Eiffel looking way down on the ground at a brightly lit green field where a soccer game was being played. A family with a young girl child was next to me and I heard the little girl say, “les petits bons hommes”.
I remember you giving me some toilet paper for my birthday in preparation for my trip because you found the French toilet paper to be terrible. I haven't found it to be terrible at all. Travelling for a long time through many different places accustoms one to expect anything and everything when it comes to bathrooms/toilet/WC's. It's always an adventure and there's always something new.
In Paris I've seen many blacks (capitalized?) and Orientals living here and fluent in French. They seem out of their element, displaced, alien. In America (San Francisco, for example) I haven't felt that as much. The U.S. is much more a “melting pot” i.e. ethnically diverse than France although large cities everywhere have a wide range of races, ethnic backgrounds. I guess a Black or Oriental would seem like an alien in Jamestown, North Dakota.
Someone told me that one can't learn by just listening to a foreign language (funny adjective - “foreign” - wouldn't simply “another” be better?) - you must participate . Simply immersing yourself in half understood conversation is fruitless. True?
In Reykjavik, Iceland one day as I wandered in the jabberwocky jungle of linguistic mysteries I saw a sign taped to a store door that said, “Nymalad”. I decided to try to plumb this enigma and pulled out my teensy Icelandic-English second hand dictionary. “Nymalad” was not there but “ny” was, meaning “new, fresh”. “Malad” was not there but “mala” was, meaning “paint”. New paint, just painted. I carefully touched the door, felt the slight stickiness, and voila!
In Copenhagen, Denmark I saw a sign saying “Nymalet” and that door was sticky too. And in Narvik, Norway as sign saying “Nymalt” near a room being painted. I had quite a comparative linguistic adventure!
Heard a child somewhere babbling, unselfconsciously “boo boo, bla bla, tally olly ...” practicing, learning, reinforcing. Good for adults too! In the “Suivez La Piste” book there's plenty of repetitious exercise towards the same end. By the way I still have that book, it has been very helpful, and you will get it back!
In Chinon, France I was walking by a school playground and heard a whole squeal of voices in unleashed raw French. I learned a lot in that moment. It seems important when learning another language to hear it in many different contexts and pitches and speeds - more than just the carefully paced and articulately pronounced speech (at first necessary) of the classroom.
You said one's ear changes in adulthood and one becomes unable to hear differences in sounds and will always have an accent. I can hear that my speech is not the same as natives but can't seem to change it to mimic what I hear.
Holy Mackerel! This is a long letter. It's going to cost me about 100F to mail this! This is like an essay on my linguistic adventures, not really a letter. I hope you find something of interest somewhere here. Even though this isn't really a letter to you I am directing it to you and speaking to you and have been thinking of you and I thank you for being home for me to send this to you. Merci.
Bought some sweets in La Gare and the cashier asked me what the prices were: 4,30 and 4,80. I was proud to not hesitate too long and to say the numbers clearly enough for him to understand. How little it takes to please me!
There is more diversity within the U.S. than possibly any other country and yet we are really very isolated linguistically, culturally, politically and in a sense we are lonely (or maybe I am?). We have no neighbors we can call equal.
On the train I saw many people passing the time with mots croises and mots cachets. Good for your class?
Written French is harder than spoken French (however it is easier to read than listen - the words are separate and stationary). True of any language I guess. The written language is more stable and history is preserved better there. For example, the word “night”. How did the 'g' and 'h' get in there anyway? Some etymologist (?) could trace the history of “night” and tell an interesting story. On the ferry from Calais to Dover I had a most engaging conversation with a young French woman named Mireille who spoke perfect English (the only thing I noticed was her saying 3 month (3 mois) instead of 3 months (3 mois). She told me the story of why English has two different words for the animal “cow” and the meat “beef”. In French there is only one - “boeuf”. It goes way back to 1066 when Norman the Conquerer invaded Normandy. (? Is Normandy in France or England?? Is Normandy named after Norman? Bien sur. Anyway, when Norman the C. went across the channel to what is now England). He and his people became the aristocrats and the Saxons (the ones he conquered became the peasants. The Saxons cared for the cows and other animals and used their word (they spoke Saxon?) for the animal. They were “not allowed” to eat the meat. It was reserved for the aristocrats who spoke their own language (Latin?). The aristocrats used their word for the meat. They hardly knew the animals at all. Apparently English evolved from this point on and we now have the two words beef and cow. Beef ~= boeuf. French has Latin roots too. My history is weak but I found the story most fascinating.
I still have many things on my list. This letter will stretch over a few more pages. Would you please? send a copy of this letter to my parents so I can see it again when I return home. I could do it here but it would be much less of a hassle for you. Thanks. No hurry. I return near the end of June.
At the hotel in Calais, the dog of the concierge barked at me ferociously. My first thought was, “Il ne m'aime pas.”
Many French and English words are the same simply pronounced differently. Like advertisment, relation, ..., all abrev. for grammatical terms in my dictionary. Nice for us. And nice for the French too!
Remember your telling me about the word “feu” used as “traffic signal” and your confusion? Thank you. I have twice gotten directions including the word “feu”. Thanks to you I understood and didn't go looking for the fire station or a store named “feu” or “feurre” or four or whatever.
What kind of language requirements do U.S. universities and high schools have? I'd be interested in hearing the debate.
I think a useful service would be a course in school (not just at Berlitz) to prepare one for a trip to Europe. Many students tour Europe after college both for pleasure but also as a supplement to their education - to complete it. Many I'm sure come unprepared linguistically like moi. The course could include greetings, formalities, the numbers, money, food, push, pull, signs, reading train schedules, etc. All these in many languages with lots of practice. Maybe a little grammar. The Berlitz phrase books I found almost worthless. I think better would be a small dictionary and a concise grammar - to enable one to speak “pigeon” German or Italian or Norwegian. So many Europeans speaking English or enough English makes it less crucial for us. Single language extended courses in depth are good and necessary for appreciation and understanding of culture, literature, ... but a practical course for just “getting by” would be useful too.
In Norway, Germany and Italy it took me about a week - week and a half to get used to the numbers. Would have been less if I had had a good teacher and had studied on it.
Today is the 13th. The experience of the past few days have shown me how little French I really know. Humbling. It is one thing to hold a private conversation with a patient and interpreting listener. It is quite another to ask a question to a hurrying stranger and listen to their quick reply. I have been stumbling around and stuttering and completely fracturing the language. My listeners haven't understood and I've had to repeat what I had tried to say. Frustrating. It raises fears and doubts and confusions that make further communication even more difficult. Do you have students in your classes that get in this unfortunate cycle? How to help?
I sent the above postcard to cousin Anne, the French teacher. On the back I wrote:
She said that they loved it!
And here is a cartoon I found:
When you bring your students to France, where do you go? Where do you stay at night? Are you all always together? Do your students ever go places alone? - (Often when one is alone, opportunities for meeting and conversation with others is greatly multiplied. More fearful perhaps, especially for high school age kids.) Do you stay with French families? In youth hostels? I think it would be instructive for you to take your students to Germany (not Spain or Italy) where they wouldn't be able to understand any of the language. Perhaps just a day or two as a side trip. To be in a place where you can't read signs (Is drucken or ziehen push or pull?), can't understand the briefest of overheard conversation, and can't make the simplest request without first asking “Do you speak English?” - all this can really teach one the importance of language.
When speaking English to one for which it is not their native tongue one must speak slowly, articulately, and simply - like you in your beginning classes. It is a real skill to keep it simple and clear. It is hard to not lapse into slang or use uncommon words or speak a burst of words. A Brazilian I met in Vienna spoke some French with me and he said he liked speaking simply and clearly - that it helped him stay simple and clear and helped him avoid getting bogged down in complicated mind games. Still, it is a skill that most Americans don't have much practice at.
Looking at my list of things to tell you I see that not much remains. A final personal note: When I was talking with Mireille on the ferry I told her about you, and about you and Louis, and about the unlikelihood of your moving to France to be an English teacher or of his moving to the U.S.A. to be a French teacher. She suggested that you both move to Quebec.
Avec amour, Sa cousin, (son cousin?)
P.S. I will send you my address in Mexico when I know it.
10 June, 1985
A list of places I went in France:
I helped her make a very quick (7 Fr) phone call to her mother in Tokyo. In the space of about 10 seconds she had a lightning conversation with her mom.
Remember the “UNIPIX” book of pictures I showed you? - beautifully drawn pictures of many travel situations - you just point to a picture instead of fumbling with phrase books and mispronouncing the phrases. I had never really used it and made it a gift to her. In about a week she was going to meet her mother in Paris and she told me her mother knows about the same degree of French and English. I'm sure they found it helpful. With English one can travel and survive. Without English you are asking a great deal of your listener - too much I think. I hasten to add that knowing the language of the country in which you are travelling enables you to enjoy and understand and penetrate much deeper.
I travelled with this young Japanese girl to Amboise and while walking down the street she said to me, “He's Japanese!” and pointed to a young fellow. She seemed afraid, shy. I normally am too but it's different when I act for others. I approached this fellow and said, “Bon jour!”. I forget which language I asked if he spoke but very quickly we 3 were walking together and they were having a great conversation in Japanese. We all saw the chateau together and the DaVinci museum and together shared a picnic supper in the youth hostel. The next day they went off together to Charbond (?) to rent bikes and I went to Paris on my way to Calais. The boy spoke almost no French and his English was just a little better than hers. But they were together . I was glad to have helped her until better help came along. Did I help them meet? Yes, a little. But the natural linguistic forces, mostly linguistic, attracting them swamped my little social effort. Before I left them I asked Mikiko for the UNIPIX book to show her the picture of rental bicycles. She had already found it and had it ready to use.
Hello Anne. Comment ca va? By now you must realize that this is a continuation of my previous letter. I have lots more to add to this collection of linguistic anecdotes and wonderings, musings and I again thank you for being the family linguist and receiving them. I may not have written them all down if you weren't at home to write to. Thanks! Clever of me, wasn't it?, to start this letter with page 13!
Often when one is beginning to study and learn about a new subject - music, biology, yoga, ... a certain unnameable uncomfortableness is felt that I think is simply [actually not too simply] a kind of language barrier [[ music - Italian, biology - Latin, yoga - Sanskrit ]]. Perhaps if one has had training in another “general purpose” language (French, German, ...) and thereby understands the nature of language deeper, one can progress more easily in the new subject.
After having been in France for a week and a half and enjoying using my little French and getting my ear accustomed to hearing French, I listened to the Japanese speak and every once in a while thought I heard a French word in what was pure Japanese. On the ferry to England there were some people with thick Wales or Cockney accents and for a while I thought they, too, were speaking French! The ear is strange!
The previous page was written a long time ago in some country. I'm now in Mexico and have been here for 7 weeks studying Spanish. One more week and then I finally return home. Saying nothing further, I'll just continue with my disorganized list of stuff.
After struggling with French for a few weeks I was in Lyon, France in the American Express Office. Two young men from Italy came in and asked the young woman from California (that I was speaking with)(who was working in the office) if she spoke Italian. [What a sentence! My English is crumbling.] She said, “No, seulement francais et anglais.” So these two fellows tried to speak some French. Very interesting from my point of view. I identified completely with their situation but this time I was on the other side. Mary Ellen and I helped them as much as we could and showed infinite patience. Just like I would hope others would treat me when I collide with the language barrier. (Something's wrong with that sentence?!)
Spoke with a group of Japanese girls on a train in Switzerland. They spoke very little English but their leader encouraged them to try to ask me some questions. They were a little embarrassed and shy, but we enjoyed trying. Somehow the conversation turned to food and I told them I ate a vegetarian diet. One girl asked a question I simply could not understand. Then she drew something on the fogged up window:
Fish?! She had said Wis or Fis or something. They taught me the numbers from 1 to 10 in Japanese. We parted happily bowing.
Just had the shit scared out of me by a cockroach in my peanuts!
Speaking of cucarachas, one of the most instructive Spanish lessons I've had so far was given to me by a 2 year old named Guillermo in the family with whom I stayed for 3 weeks. I was sitting in the kitchen trying to chat with Pilar, an older daughter. All of a sudden, Guillermo said, “Ahhh. Cucaracha!” and stamped a death blow with fire in his eyes. I told him that I admired his enthusiasm and asked him if he'd like a platino (a banana). He said, “No es platino, es plátano.” I repeated like a thankful student, “plátano”. He said, “plátano”, me - “plátano”, ... Six times in all. I said, “Gracias, Guillermo, tu eres un buen maestro.” I will never forget “plátano”.
Another kid about 3 named Manuel one day asked me, “¿Donde fuiste Juan?” I was speechless for a while, marvelling at how a child so young could use the second person familiar preterite tense of the infinitive “ir”, a verb so completely irregular that my mind boggles, with such naturalness and ease. Eventually I found my tongue and stuttered, “Uh. Yo fue. No. Uh. Yo. Uh. Fui a la escuela.”
I remember you advising me to write in my journal every night before retiring. That no matter how tired I was I should write a little bit. That it would be great fun to read later. Well. That sounds just like the kind of advice a teacher would give to a student. I had trouble keeping a journal regularly. I would get in and out of the habit. I kept asking myself, “Why keep a journal when travelling if you don't keep one at home?” (Travels are far more eventful.) I have some practical, easy to take advice for your students - Get a nice (even pretty) hard bound journal of blank (or lined) pages [not one of those overstructured “Travel Diaries”] and a pen that you really like. Make a rule that you will write no more than one (or two) page(s) a night. Also, get a little cheap notebook and pen that you can carry with you all the time and in which you can jot down things that you might forget. They can be expanded on later in the journal. I used a little notebook to jot down notes to myself about things about language that I wanted to include in this letter to you. As you can see it is full of useless and uninteresting stuff!!
I'll send these two pages now,
P.S. I have copies of these pages.
PrevNextTop85-03-07* Linguistic Missive to Anne