Monday, January 14, 2008


Writing this on the plane on the way back from Seoul, to San Francisco, 4 days before departing for Tel Aviv. And what language have I been studying? Not Korean, though it’s impossible to turn off the ‘studying ears’ in public places, in discussion with family members, when watching other words, when living. And I haven’t been touching a word of Hebrew. Though we’ll only be there for 5 days, it’s such a shame at this point not to even know how to say hello. I better pick up some kind of resource when I’m stopping over in Berkeley.

So what have I been studying? I’ve been carrying around the single textbook, Entre Amis, which makes many efforts to be culturally relevant, to introduce cultural, pragmatic, discursive practices of interest to students learning the grammatical forms and conversational patterns that appear in the book (how to shrug off compliments when they’re given, how to stall for time in a conversation while thinking, etc.), the geographical layout of the French speaking world, gestures that go along with different expressions (counting with the thumb first etc.). But this French is silent, and it is written and read. The audio that goes along with the book is fine but very sparse—maybe 5 minutes of audio per chapter of 20 pages, equivalent to a few weeks’ study in a class that meets every day for an hour. The understanding here is, of course, that students are in fact in a class with other students and with a teacher who is listening, asking them to repeat, correcting...namely, that there is sound.

The sounds of French echo in my mind, get filtered through my imagination, bounce off of English words and Spanish memories and Korean phonemes and Japanese word-final consonant rules, brush past ghosts of Chinese as well. They wander, float, stream, morph; they are anything but fixed. And they may belong to a parallel or alternate universe altogether. There are no voices attached to them...the imaginary man (I wanted to say “아저씨” at the patisserie who I see in the morning, the sound of the teacher’s voice reverberating slightly off the hard walls and floor of the French 1 classroom at Berkeley, the sounds of friends I have yet to meet...or who may become nothing more than figments of my imagination.

Yes, I admit it—the first person I imagined in France was the owner of the patisserie. Bread, pastries, cakes are a significant part of my vision at this point, for better or for worse. :)

So where am I? I am about to begin biking up and down Shattuck Avenue once again, from chez nous (or chez moi? “우리집”이라는 말이 떠오르네, 한국어가 다시 제 모습을 보인다) to campus and one of the precious few connections between this textbook and the world I have inhabited, the world I can imagine, is Liaison restaurant (bistro), on the corner of Shattuck and Hearst. Here’s a picture shamelessly borrowed from their website:

Liaison. This word of all others (for the last few days at least) is taking on a life of its own. Liaison, with its black sign and coffee stand outside in the morning, with its delicious salade niçoise, where I bought Mom and Dad’s anniversary gift certificate, where the Berkeley Language Center fellows went for our celebratory dinner after finishing our semester’s work in 2005, with its obligatory rooster, with its suggestions to my American imagination of slightly risky, definitely exciting, meetings, rendezvous (what’s the plural of rendezvous?), dates, of coming together…

…and now it’s this « coming together » that is getting redefined from a most unexpected quarter : redefined not in terms of meetings between people, but meetings of phonemes. « Liaison » is one of the most frequent words to appear in Entre Amis so far : the phenomenon by which sentence-final consonants that are silent when pronounced by themselves or when directly preceding other consonants are vocalized before vowel sounds, as in :

vous (« s » silent)
vous être (« s » becomes [z] before the verb être)

And the rules for liaison are numerous, frightening, more than I think my pee brain can get a handle on.

« Liason occurs if the word following mon, ton, mes, tes, nos, or vos begins with a vowel sound » (p.72). Thus, « mo(n) petit ami » but « mon [n]ami ».

P. 67 is a real feast of liaison to be sure :
« When numbers from 1 to 10 stand alone, the final consonants of un, deux, and trois are silent, but all others are pronounced. The –x at the end of six and dix is pronounced [s] … the final consonant of six, huit, and dix is not pronounced before a consonant … When teh following noun begins with a vowel sound, the final consonant is always pronounced and linked to the noun. Note that with quatre, both final consonants are linked and the final –e is not pronounced … the –f in neuf is pronounced as [v] only before the words ans (years) and heures (hours) … »

Need we go on ? Was English like this ? (Is it ?) Have I got off easy with the fairly regular orthographical – phonological mappings of languages like Koean and Japanese ? Or have I just forgotten all the ‘rules’ that have disappeared from the pages of textbooks from me, become irrelevant because they have been instantiated so many times by real people, real voices, and become a part of my subconscious linguistic being ?

This is a liaison of an interesting sort after all…the idea that we meet and become familiar in the most intimate way with phonological, morphological, lexical forms embedded in our relationships with those whose voices we hear, speak with, get to know, become intimate with…

Meanwhile, what was the rule for « et » ? How about the sentence, « Il est grand et assez beau. » I’m pretty darn sure that the « est » doesn’t get much more than an « e » when it’s being said in this context but how about the « et » ? Does the « t » carry over to the beginning of « assez » ?

And why has MS Word suddenly decided to transform this into a ‘French document’ ? I’ve lost my quotation marks…

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

À quel moment de la journée?

Such reads the title in the little inset box near the beginning of Chapitre 2 in my text, introducing Vocabulaire such as: "le jour - day, daytime," "le matin - morning, in the afternoon," etc.

What’s less than fascinating to me about this, but probably most important in terms of getting where I need to be to just get by in French, is the vocabulary building through association that can be leveraged with this list. “Jour” is most familiar through colloquial use in English: I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “soup du jour” at a restaurant (actually it strikes me that most of the French I’m already familiar with may come from experiences in restaurants). “Matin” is totally new to me, I think, though the longer I stare at it and say it, the more it seems like maybe I’ve heard or seen it somewhere (aren’t most words like that? Nested in different memories, hanging out by themselves somewhere in the far recesses of our minds, or more out there in front, networked with more common words...). “L’après-midi” is new. Here I put a little bookmark to come back to later: what is “après”? What is “midi”? What other words do they get combined with and how are they used?

“Le soir” and “la nuit” are relatively new, but familiar in different ways—the first because I’ve already learned “Bonsoir” (is that how to spell it?) so it’s an “intra-French” association, and the second because, well, it sounds and looks enough like the English “night”. I’m sure that a lot of learning French vocabulary is going to be about remembering what’s different and how it’s different from what I’ve learned in English for 30+ years, and to a lesser degree what I can remember from high school Spanish. Kind of like finding the critical differences in pronunciation, and on the keyboard like I was writing about in my last entry

So what’s more fascinating? Well, simply that “moment” in French gets rendered as “time” (point in time), and “journée” as “day”. These are the restructurings or refigurings of meaning across the two languages that pull on so many pre-existing associations, habitual uses, and infuse forms that * look * so familiar with new meaning. It’s a feeling of both difficulty and inspiration. Like trying to brush your teeth with your other hand, or saying the alphabet backwards. Especially since the word “journée” looks so much like “journey”. Are our days really journeys? Do journeys imply ‘days’ or name them outright? Look at it: JOURney. A little light goes off in my mind as I take a step back from the English word I’ve been carrying around in my head for my whole life, never having seen the day...

Lakoff and Johnson rocked a few people’s boats in 1980 with the beginnings of cognitive metaphor theory—we all use metaphors all the time when we speak, without ever giving a second thought to it. Isn’t one of the joys and benefits of second language learning the ability to make the familiar foreign, to feel the carpet pulled out from under you and find what it takes to regain your balance? And I feel this kind of visceral pleasure a lot with metaphors. Until they get routinized, until they start to fade into the background of ‘the way things are usually said’ in that language, there’s a life between the target and source domains in at least two languages—learning new expressions makes you want to compare the source domains in the two languages, compare the target domains, and all the cross-linkages. Of course a lot of this is imagination, since I’ll be the first to say I don’t ‘speak’ or ‘know’ French right now. But this is a space to be explored, to play with in testing out the metaphor and trying out all kinds of permutations, to see if we can take ‘side paths’ through durations of time in French in this case...

Just as there’s a joy in discovering these connections (which may just as well be bunk) there’s a little sadness in thinking about losing the ‘freshness’ of being thrilled at little things like this as my French improves.

Well, no need to worry about that in the meantime. How do you say “journey” in French? :)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Où est tu?

Here's my accomplishment for the day, sent in an email to a few friends:

"Où est tu? Je suis à Seoul, Corée. Il fait froid et beau. Il ne neige pas (??). --David"

This after a few hours spent with the Entre Amis textbook. I'm basically at the end of chapter 1, having looked at conjugations for the verb être, expressions for the weather (temps), explanations about using the negative "ne + conjugated verb + pas", etc., and being able to actually write just about nothing. I suppose it'll get easier? There are so many cognates that look familiar way out there in the distance, where the grass looks green, but it's "the basics" that I need to get.

And those basics as they're written, and as they're pronounced, are what stand like an immense wall in front of me, a wall that is immersed in fog and only reveals itself when I actually start working at this, only when I actually start busting my butt a little and studying. Writing and sound together since this learning project is about learning another language using the Roman alphabet, where letters look familiar but those visual similarities are only enough to really trip me up, it feels.

Like the layout of the keys on the keyboard: one of my big discoveries today was the mac keyboard viewer function, where I can see the different keys light up when I'm typing in English, and gain a little bit of guidance when I'm trying to peck a few letters out in French. Why are there letters up there in the numbers, where letters 'shouldn't' be? Why are periods hidden behind the shift function? There are just enough similarities to make it look like the U.S. and the French keyboards are basically laid out the same with just a few critical differences, just enough to make fool me into thinking that I can actually type. Was it easier to learn to type Korean? Certainly not, but there's something intuitively satisfying to learning an entirely different distribution of sounds on the keyboard to 'completely' rerouting the eye-hand neural connection. This feels like a game of trying to remember what's different and what's the same. How is it possible, and is it good in the first place, to learn it 'from the start', to learn the "t" and the "y" and the "u" as if for the first time, even though they're in the same place as they are with the U.S. keyboard?

And like this with sounds as well. I feel as if I'm walking on ice when I pronounce words, faltering between vowel sounds, sliding back and forth, never sure when I'm getting it close to right, especially with the diacritical marks that I don't even know the names of yet...

There are a few beacons of hope, little bright spots in the words that I've actually heard several times and then see in print, so I have my memory of sound to fall back on when looking at the word as it's written. This makes me realize just how text-mediated my whole learning process is going to be, how necessary it'll be for me to learn the verbal language together with the written...I know several people who, and think it's common to just read French but can't really speak it. That's what's required in many grad programs, and that's where so many people seem content to stop.

How far will I go? I don't want to stop there, and maybe things will be different when I get back into the fray in Berkeley, but as I learned how to write today,

je suis a Seoul, Corèe...