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David Linzee

Notes From France: Lost In A Linguistic Twilight Zone

September 26, 2012
This is not the column I started out to write.

I'm in Besançon, a town in eastern France. Located in a tight bend of a river, it's called "The Loop." To make a visitor from University City feel even more at home, they're building a tram. Proponents say it will be good for business; opponents that it's too expensive. It sounded like the debate over our trolley, and I thought I would write a column about it.

I eventually figured out that their tram is nothing like our trolley. It's more like MetroLink – but not really. In fact, a column about it would be completely irrelevant to St. Louis, and I dropped the idea.

That's the way it goes for me. Three weeks into a full-immersion French course at the university here, I'm operating in a linguistic Twilight Zone. I understand about half of what French people say to me, provided I'm not too tired and they don't talk too fast and there's no background noise. But it's easy to go wrong. For instance, chanteur means singer, chantier means building site and chantage means blackmail, so mishearing one syllable can give me the wrong idea of what a conversation is about. Needless to say, others have problems figuring out what I'm trying to tell them.

It's a life of uncertainty and constant revision. The father of the wonderful, kindly, patient French family I'm staying with says we're dining in. I sit down on the couch. Everyone else is putting on their coats. Oh. He must have said we were going out. I hope I got the dinner part right.

Short of fluency, there is a way to make sure you fully understand a foreign language statement: translate it into English. But that's where I started out. In junior high school, way back when middle school was called that, I started studying French the old-fashioned way. I memorized vocabulary and conjugations, read passages of French and wrote them out in English.

This kind of education has drawbacks, but it's sturdy. As a middle-aged man, making my first trip to France in years, I visited a history museum where the explanatory signs were all in French; I was surprised to find that I could translate them. But when it came to asking the simplest question and understanding the answer, the ability to translate wasn't much help. You have to be able to understand without translating.

So I decided that one day I would do a full immersion course. Naturally, I hoped the day would be far off. To cut oneself off from friends, family and mother tongue is pretty daunting. In fact, during the busy years of middle age, I secretly suspected that this was one of those resolutions whose time would never come.

Unforeseen events undermined my determination to procrastinate. In order to qualify for a job, I earned a master's in foreign language acquisition. Of course, I'd never acquired a language myself, and I felt like a bit of a phony. Then I wrote a column about how people use "I'm busy" as a respectable excuse for not attempting what they're afraid to try. Afterward I realized I was the sort of person I was complaining about.

When I retired, there was no way to escape going to France. I told myself there would be a bright side to my ordeal — I mean, in addition to the food, wine, culture and scenery. When the moment came that I broke free from the drudgery of translation to the swift ease of fluency, it would be exhilarating, like taking flight.

The moment hasn't come yet, and perhaps it never will. I've had moments of fluency, but the funny thing is that I don't realize until afterward that I managed to speak a sentence or understand one without translating. While it was happening, it was automatic.

My French acculturation is proceeding, but I'm not sure how far it will go. I kiss women on both cheeks and eat snails. I don't kiss men on both cheeks or eat raw steak. I'm considering a suggestion to go into the woods and look for morrells. But what if I harvest the wrong mushrooms — poisonous ones? No problem, said my French informant. You take them to any drugstore and the pharmacist will tell you if they're edible.

I'm sorry that tram column didn't work out. But it's just as well. Suppose I'd interviewed a city official. He might have said, "We're going to have new trams, not like the ones they have in England." I might have reported, "The French are planning to invade New England."

Anyway, I've enjoyed writing this column. It was the longest period I've spent using English in three weeks, and it was great to feel competent for a change. Now back to the Twilight Zone.

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