Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Duped by Saussure

Well...perhaps 20 would have been a better goal than 100? Now back in Berkeley for several days, I can feel the visceral sense of difference, the energy of being a displaced body, continuing to evaporate. Of course, it'd be just as possible to keep writing about little things I notice about life in the U.S., life in Berkeley, life on my street. Writing such a list might count as much for writing about life outside the U.S. as when I was in Lyon, since there is a period of time even after returning 'home' when familiar sights look strange, everyday behaviors look out of place. But this heightened awareness is lost all too quickly.

Why is it that even in Berkeley "diversity" seems to be more of a salad dressing than a salad bowl?

18. Langue - Parole - Langage...so what's "French"?
Saussure's distinction between three interrelated aspects of language was foundational in my language studies at Berkeley, as it is undoubtedly in programs across the country and around the world. Yet now, after having spent 6 months off and and on (more off than on unfortunately) studying French, I wonder how much of my fascination with this three-way distinction came at first from the fact that they are in another language, and that learning them--though off-putting at first, I thought, another example of the snooty barriers of academic discourse--was a tiny step in a new direction, an eye-opening language learning experience and, thus ... pretty darn cool.

"Langue", Bill Hanks reminds us in his Language and Communicative Practices (p.25 though I've extrapolated from his glosses here) is the formal system of grammar that forms the collective knowledge of a group of people at a particular instant in time; "parole" is the realization of langue in actual talk--what real individuals produce as they talk to each other with all their individual style, their stutters, stops and starts; meanwhile "langage" is the larger human phenomenon of language that encompasses both langue and parole (or, as many of our professors here say, "language with a capital 'L'").

It's not often that English speakers in the U.S. are told that the words we have to describe our own reality don't cut that reality up into as many pieces as they could--in a sense, that English isn't as fine-grained or precise as it could be, when you look at the world in a certain way. Sure, we (especially those of us living in low altitudes in the sunny state of California) are willing to cede the fact that we don't have as many words for snow as do the Inuit people are reputed to (a misunderstanding of what a word is?), an often-cited example when talking about linguistic relativity. But "language"? Wouldn't it just make sense in English to have a different word for the human faculty of language when English, Moldovan, and Nuahatl are languages too?

And why stop there? When one says in English, "The language of this document seems to indicate that...", isn't the speaker actually talking not about langage or even langue, but parole, a particular, unique instantiation of a larger system replete with idiosyncrasies, even errors?

That would seem to make sense. Or so I thought, smugly, as I left for France recently, armed with foundational theoretical insights that not only allowed me to slice up linguistic reality in my mind, but would also undoubtedly speed my acquisition of spoken French.

Wrong again. In four weeks of strained listening I don't think I heard the word "parole" once. (Maybe that's because people don't talk about it, they just do it?). When I tried using the word in conversation with a fellow grad student at the university, she looked at me a bit askance. Then I tried mentioning the name "Saussure" but it didn't help. Was I supposed to have said "de Saussure"? Was I mispronouncing everything horribly?

Determined, I dropped my efforts at "parole" and refocused on "langue" and "langage". After all, I was there to work with people who were experts in FLE, or Le français langue étrangère, teaching French as a foreign language. And there it was in the title--French as a foreign "langue", just like the theory said.

So why was it that I kept hearing the word "langage" when I thought everyone was talking about the French language or the English language in particular? I wish I had a tape recorder to show you, to prove to myself. Ha! Why did I keep feeling like I was having my utterances corrected, that every time I tried using "langue" it was upgraded to "langage"? Can French be a langage? What would that mean? French is universal? Or wait, did I only hear that word because it sounds more like the English word and all the 'langues' of conversation were getting lost in an incoherent stream of sound? What am I supposed to call the language I'm learning, the language I'm writing?

And why can't they just have one word for it? That'd be so much easier. :)


Sandra said...

Hello there,

As a spanish native speaker studying in France at the moment, I couldn't help laughing at your anecdotes about trying to introduce "parole" in the conversations. I am used to the "regards" of French when not pronouncing words in a perfect French way and I can imagine when someone tries to use a scientific term in normal conversations jejeje.
About your langue, langage and parole terms, I am familiar with these concepts or to be honest,I was when I was doing my bachelor, and reading them again in your post they seem a bit too complicated and away from the practice of teaching a foreign language.

Well, I enjoyed your blog. It was interesting reading your profile in French. I think I'll copy your idea...see you!

daveski said...

Thanks for the comment! Yeah it's pretty much a disaster trying to bring linguistic theory into everyday conversations. One of my past professors (in psycholinguistics) once said that the people who have the least control over the language they speak are linguists. :)

Sandra said...

To answer your question, jejeje, at least in Colombia means "hahaha" in English. There are variations as jijiji or jajaja, but they all mean the same.

I visited the other blog you suggested. That one is much heavier: really serious staff ;)
I don't usually write about education topics, but I enjoy reading them and getting some inspiration to do the same eventually. I prefer this blog because it is lighter and shows first-hand impressions of cultural things that I couldn't notice otherwise (althoug I am aware of the limitations). I like to get some comprehensible input in foreign languages and reading interesting blogs help me a lot.