Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Transparent Language

I'm trying to (re-)learn French because when we go to England in August to visit family for once I intend to cut out and go somewhere foreign. And France is the closest truly foreign place.

So for $30 I got this language learning software, essentially flash cards that talk--and have you talk back. There are charts showing waves, fricatives, vowels and other things so that you can compare yourself to the native speaker and a gage that shows how close you get. I try to pronounce the words and phrases and can't come close--the harder I try the worse it gets.

I have lots of French-learning equipment--review books and all the books I inherited from my mother who minored in French. I can read French if it's fairly simple, and can dope out the rest with patience and a dictionary. Amazingly, I remember all the "little words" and can catch onto the idioms. But the phonemic component defeats me. How did English get transfused with a completely new vocabulary and still end up sounding Germanic--at least low Germanic?

I just cannot produce these fricatives, whatever they are--while the Native Speaker's chart has bumps and spikes in vivid color, mine is a flatliner.

When we were first married we took a cheapo charter flight that went through Brussels and ended up stuck there for a day, jet-lagged and lost, trying to get back to the Central Railway Station. When Roger asked a cop for directions in English he shrugged, sneered and turned his back on us. We wandered through this nightmare place, expensive shops and arcades, very foreign. I spotted a black couple and felt a little better thinking they must be American. But they gave us the same French look that the cop gave us and turned their backs on us too. Eventually we put our heads together came up with, "Ou est le guerre central?" We tried this out on someone: after a few seconds of alarm, then puzzlement, he laughed at us and started giving directions--which we couldn't follow. I hope this time is better...

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