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…

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