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Monday, March 10, 2014

The Trials of Learning and Maintaining a Second Language

"You've been here 20 years?  Wow, must be nice to be fluent."

A question and a statement.  The first is easy to answer because it's an objective fact.  The second is not so simple because "fluent" is almost entirely subjective.

The Holy Grail of language learners everywhere.  That magical moment when the ears hear, the brain engages with no effort, and perfect sentences spill forth from one's mouth.

This weekend I went to a church dinner and from the moment I stepped into the church for Mass and the late hour I left the presbytère, it was French and nothing but French.  If I hadn't been a francophone then I would have missed 99% of the fun.

But you know what?  At the end of the evening I was tired and with fatigue my language skills degraded.  My accent became more pronounced and to my horror I had to correct myself more than once.  I know enough to catch most of my own errors but I still make them when I start writing checks my body can't cash.

So does that mean I'm not fluent?  Not according to my dinner companions.  After making one really flagrant mistake, I apologized and the woman next to me said, "Don't worry about it, Victoria.  If I could speak English as well as you speak French..."  That was nice to hear and made me feel much better.

But I still thought about it as I walked home.  With nearly 20 years in this country, why can't I speak as well as a native speaker?  It occurred to me as I walked up the avenue de Paris that I needed to apply the serenity prayer to language learning.

The Things We Cannot Change

The Funny Accent:  I started learning French at the same time I was learning Latin - mid adolescence (early 1980's).  Latin was required at the Catholic school I attended in Olympia, Washington but we were allowed to choose another language in our second year.  I chose French over Spanish which turned out to be a serendipitous decision.  My French teacher was a native speaker - a war bride who came to the US not long after World War II.  Her English was correct but heavily accented and it wasn't easy to understand her.  She must have arrived in the U.S. when she was in her early 20's.  About the age, I note, that I came to France as a young bride.

There is evidence that there is a critical period for acquiring a native accent but it varies according to the source.  Some say it's in childhood and others say the cutoff is roughly mid-adolescence. But most linguists agree that there is one for accent (but not necessarily for other language skills).  Karen Lund has this nice but pessimistic article Age and Accent. 

No one should ever beat himself up because he or she has an accent in the second (or third or fourth) language.  And it should be noted that native speakers often find it very pleasant to hear their native tongue pronounced with a interesting accent.  I cannot count the number of times my French spouse has been told, "Don't lose that French accent!"

The Odd Syntax:  This is the way words are put together to make meaningful sentences.  It's not the same as grammar; it's entirely possible to put together a sentence in the second language that is grammatically correct but rings false in the ears of a native speaker.  The evidence for a critical period here is less conclusive but a lot of second-language learners struggle with this one because it's a bit more complicated then just learning the "rules".

Is this a big deal?  Not necessarily.  Sometimes it's like accent in that a sentence may sound a bit odd but native speakers find that kind of interesting or amusing.  As long as the listener can easily grasp the meaning the speaker is trying to convey, then no harm, no foul. Still, those of us who started learning a second language late will more than likely struggle with this all our lives.  Syntax can be improved, however, by talking with native speakers (throw out the grammar and focus on how things are really said in the real world) and by reading novels or articles that use everyday speech.

Opportunities Lost:  And that advice would be much easier if English speakers didn't have the blessing (or curse) of speaking what is for the moment an international language that other people want to learn.  Access to a native anglophone  in restaurants, shops, on the street, at work and even at home is seen as a wonderful opportunity.

However, for the novice French (or German or Chinese) speaker, being asked constantly to speak one's mother tongue can be very frustrating. A language student who proudly puts together a sentence in French (or any other language) is very disappointed when the effort is wasted because the co-worker or waiter or cashier replies in English.

The two parties in these conversation at odds with each other because fundamentally they have opposing interests.  Both are second-language learners but the non-native speaker wants to use the native language while the native speaker wants to use his second language.

The thing to remember at these times is that you (and I) cannot control what people do.  We can ask nicely and we can negotiate, but in the end they are in total control of what comes out of their mouths. And to get mad or frustrated about it is futile.  Better to be gracious and serenely accept the situation.

The Things We Can Change

Other Opportunities:  The antidote to those missed opportunities is to seek out people and places where using the second language is not optional, it's a necessity.  In my case it was working for a very strict French-only company where I had no choice but to use French if I wanted to keep my job.  Looking around me today, I see many other possibilities:  clubs, churches, volunteer work.  This actually serves two purposes:  language acquisition and integration.  Become a part of the community you live in. Getting out of your usual haunts not only enriches your vocabulary and speaking/understanding skills, but by living a variety of contexts, you learn more and more about your adopted country and just how diverse it really is.  The young IT people I used to work with in Paris and the people I know today at my church are all French, but they are very different people who use very different lexicons.

Make a Virtue out of a Weakness:  Let's say you are just starting to learn a language or you're like me and second language skills tend to degrade under stress or fatigue and you feel like you've been gagged because you can't keep up with the conversation.  Here's an idea:  Instead of fuming and beating yourself up, think of it as being liberated to concentrate on understanding the other person and not missing a single word, idea, expression, or emotion.  One of the best gifts you can give anyone anywhere is your full attention.

Let Go of Pride and Perfectionism:  Learning anything usually starts with swallowing your pride and taking on a "Beginner's Mind".  It's a real blow to the ego when you can't do something as simple as ask for bread in a bakery in a foreign land.  Hell, a five year old native speaker could do better than you (and me back in 1989).  Today my Frenchlings speak much better French than I ever will and that's just the way it is.  Comparisons are deadly and all too often unfair. Give it up (I'm trying).  This is not a race and nobody gets to be perfect - not even native speakers.   Personally, I think Vince Lombardi was full of it and the constant striving for perfection does not make for excellence, it makes for neurotic, fearful, unhappy human beings.

Rightsizing.  The average human being is pretty egocentric.  We bring that self-centeredness to language learning.  It's all about me - two sides of the same coin where we think we are the center of the universe.  It's my ability to speak well (pride) and my errors (shame).  And as you saw from my description of the church dinner, I managed to feel both in the space of a few short minutes.

I forgot that the purpose of language is to communicate with other people - it's not a showcase for innate (we think) intelligence or a whip with which we can flagellate ourselves .  To the extent that communication and connection are indeed happening and that we all understand each other, then there really is no problem at all, is there?

That's the first piece of wisdom I have to offer but there is yet another I found that did even more to put things in perspective.

There are over 300 million native speakers of English and about the same number of francophones in the world right now according to the estimates I found.

English or French, first or second language, not one person on this planet speaks those languages in exactly the same way as any other person. I don't use French the way my Italian neighbor does and my friends in Tokyo don't speak English the way my friends in Paris do.  Even native speakers vary as anyone who went from Quebec to France and back again knows.  Different accents, levels, experiences and contexts.  Close enough so we can understand each other but with plenty of room for improvisation, personality, and "errors" that may one day become standard usage.   And that, my friends, makes each speaker of any language wonderfully, deliciously unique.

So let's turn my earlier question on its head.

Instead of:  "Why can't we speak the local language just like the natives?"

How about:  "Why in heaven's name would we want to?"


Anonymous said...

I was lucky, my parents were fluent French speakers, my teachers at Catholic schools through primary and secondary native speakers from Quebec, also 2 years high school. learned rudimentary during my conversion. accent and inflection
are continually malleable, although most notable when you return to places that were once home.

Unknown said...

Interesting analogy with the Serenity Prayer and I agree with your very interesting post. I arrived in France in 2006 at age 62 and without knowing one word of French. I lived in a small village with a person who spoke four languages and was very French. Here are a few things I have learned and a few strategies I have employed in my quest to be "almost French."
1. Each person has different ways to learn (French included) a subject. I personally like to understand the "rules of the road" then a few words then a few sentences. I build from there.
2. I have purchased every book, video, and training manual under the sun (CLE, Capretz, McGraw-Hill, Hugo, Barrons, Standard Deviants, French Verbs 101, etc., etc.) each time thinking this is the greatest book/video/audio ever. Not a good strategy, americain.
3. The French Government sent me to school for a year (merci beaucoup) to learn French.
4. One strategy was to meet as many French citizens who spoke English as I could. Not a good strategy, americain.
5. Like you described, Victoria, after about 5-10 minutes, I thought my head would explode trying to speak and understand the French speaker. One not so good strategy is to translate back and forth between French and English.
6. I concluded that I was totally stupid. One day my French instructor actually told me I would never speak French as a native: I bought it.
7. I have been totally immersed in the country and the language to little avail.
8. Finally, I used to care if people understood my French until I learned to say "I don't care" in French. Take me or leave me: I'm trying and have calculated I will speak perfect french when I am 200 years old!
9. Oh, one more thing. If you know of a foolproof method to learn a language, send me a copy of your book or video or CD or eight track.
10. au revoir

Allou said...

Karen Lund is right about the accent - it has something to do with which part of the brain processes new sounds. But-so what! Basically being absolutely fluent in your new language means, well you don't think! At first simple statements become automised, then more complex thought and speaking patterns. And then, well, you just use the language. You gain new experiences in your new language and realise that you know a lot of words about some subject in your new(er) language, but don't have the same vocabulary in your original language! Your personality changes too- after all you are having new life experiences in a different language. Depending on your efforts and abilities it is possible to become completely fluent in writing and have a complete understanding of nuances. Nuances are very dependent what social situations you put yourself in. I was lucky in that I moved to a small place where no one except my husband spoke any English, so I was forced to learn fast - it also helped to be young and attractive so people wanted to converse with me. I am not being cheeky here, just honest. And the answer to those questions such as "Where do you come from.." was/is "I am from XX where I have lived for XX years, it's a lovely place. And what about you, how long have you lived at/in YY? Do you like it? Etc.(of course all of this is in the newer language-or as Karen Lund would say the "target language") This is a really fun, especially when the person then says, "No, I mean where do you really come from.." And my reply is "well that is a long story, maybe I will tell you one day..." on to next topic! One of the most fun compliments I ever received was from a stranger in the US who said to me "you speak really excellent English, where did you learn it"! Well....Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Oh God, what a revealing topic.

Ya gotta throw out your teacher's criticism and your own reservations, and start talking like a baby. Forget all that school crap and just throw out whatever you know.

The locals most likely don't care. The reactions you will get are from your own compatriates. They are the ones that are most critical, mostly because listening to you is like listening to a recording of themselves, and it is painful to them. That is where the negative reactions come.

Its the same as Saturday night--you gotta play the game with what ya got.

As an outsider, it will always be difficult to be inside the group of all the locals. You can't be hard on yourself, it's only because you aren't one of the locals.

from Scandinoovia

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Mike, Loved your comment. NO you, I, they are NOT stupid. I've felt that way particularly in the beginning and boy that doesn't help one bit. I really liked what anonymous said. I would add that when I was in Tokyo my Japanese teacher had, I think, a really good method. No grammar, just phrases and she tried to make it fun and practical. My first phrase was Marlboro lighto onegaishimasu. THAT was pretty successful - not great for my health but I got what I wanted. Go with what you got? Absolutely! :-)

@Anonymous (first comment) yeah I noticed with the Frenchlings that they went from 100% French to speaking English with a perfect West Coast accent. So I didn't waste my time speaking English to them when they were little.

@Allou, I know what you mean. Almost all my IT vocabulary is in French because that was the working language I used. And after I started going to Mass regularly in French, my ability to follow the English one has degraded. I tend to give the responses these days in French even when I'm in an English-speaking country.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Oh and I forgot to mention a helpful source I know:

French Word a Day: This is Kristin (very nice lady) and she sends out a post 3 times a week. She writes about her life here (long-term resident in France) and she cunningly slips a language lesson in there. It's very well done. Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

All too true and good practical advice. There is some evidence that executives that have to work in a second language tend to make better decisions and communicate more precisely as it slows down automatic thinking.

Ian said...

This is a wonderful article, Victoria. I've reread it several times. The language issue is high on my list of Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Moved To France.

When planning my move here, I remember thinking that it would probably take me about three months to learn French and, with total immersion, I was sure I'd be completely fluent in, oh, around six months. American Optimism, I guess. (Or American Ignorance, which passes for such most of the time...)

Of course, the reality is that even after eleven years of total immersion, my French is STILL not perfect. Okay, it isn't bad. In fact, it's probably even pretty good. But whenever I get the chance to speak English with other Americans, it's like unused parts of my brain open up. I remember what it is like to REALLY speak - fluently, effortlessly, persuasively...

I agree with you that the purpose of language is to communicate, not to showcase our supposed intelligence. But I do miss accessing the parts of my intelligence and personality that I can only do in my native language. My friends here only know the French version of me, the linguistically hobbled version. They love me anyway and I'm sure they think I'm charming, with my goofy Anglotrash accent. But they will never know the real me. I'll never be able to completely unfurl my true personality with them the way I can in English with other Americans. As good as my French gets, it will always be inferior to my English.

The loss of the English-language version of myself is something that I didn't expect when deciding to move to France. It makes me sad sometimes when I think about it. But this post reminds me not to stress myself out about it too much. It is what it is. And who knows - maybe there are parts of me that can only blossom in French....

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Andrew, Interesting. Yes, sometimes slowing down is a good thing. I always liked conversation with Japanese for that reason. It's OK in Japan to pause and reflect before responding. Quite a difference and a relief. If one could get the same effect by switching languages, that's a useful thing.

@Ian, Thank you. I had similar hopes. I thought I'd be fluent in no time at all especially since I went the total immersion route like you.

And I really like what you said about what I see as grief. There is English-speaking me and the French-speaking me. Today there are so many people in my life who only know the latter. It's kind of up for grabs though which one is more real than the other. I picked up the phone twice yesterday and both times the French just flowed. I didn't have to think about what I was saying and I was completely at ease. But those folks are people I can't know in English because they don't speak it at all (and don't want to :-)

So what is the "me" they know. What is she like really? How different is she from the one that writes this blog? When I think about it I feel like I'm chasing my tail. Surely, we are not the only ones. I'm going to see what I can find and write another post.

Ian said...

Yes, please do post about this! This is a fascinating subject, but one that doesn't seem to get discussed much.

What is this difference between who we are in French and who we are in English?

Is there really a difference? Is it just in our heads or do other people perceive it, too?

Is it just a matter of fluency? Will it eventually go away as language skills equalize? Or is it more intrinsic to each language? After all, when I speak French, I'm not just saying French words, I also find myself imitating French mannerisms, acting like the French, perhaps even starting to think like the French.

Is there something structural in our languages that promotes a certain mindset?

Perhaps modern spoken French, with the idioms, forms of politeness, and inflections we use, naturally leads to a more "French mindset"? Perhaps our personalities in French are naturally more laid-back, detached, even pessimistic because this is what is easiest to express?

Perhaps modern American English, with all it's buzzwords, over-use of superlatives, and powerful swear words, promotes a more "American" mindset? Perhaps in English we see things in more extreme terms, define things to ourselves using pop-psychology ("disfunctional," "co-dependent," etc.), and that all of this affects our personality in that language?

And most importantly, can the two identities ever fuse into one? Or do immigrants always have split personalities? Does the French identity gradually subsume the old American identity after many years here?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Ian, I love your questions. I have very similar ones. Once I get back to Versailles I'll do some research and see what I can come up with. And if you don't see something in a couple of weeks, feel free to give me a "nudge"

josephine said...

Hello Victoria,
i came across your blog when I was searing for my basic rights as an american mother who has a french daughter living in Taiwan. I was born and raised here in taiwan. Moved to the US when I was 15. lived in the US for 20 years, now I am on the go again. Moved back to Asia for for the past 2 years. Recently we decided to move back to France from Asia. My french is very limited even with a french husband. We communicate in English. I am all of sudden terrified of being on survival mode again with my close to non existing French ability after finally feeling like I "got it" with English.

After reading your posts, I felt a sense of excitement to have the opp. to learn one of the most beautiful languages again. A great adventure is about to begin. Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts on living abroad and what it means to be an american.

Thank you.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Jojo, Thank YOU so much for stopping by the Flophouse.

I do understand your trepidation but I'm glad that reading here helped revive your sense of adventure. We may (and I stress that there is no certainty here) be off soon to another country. At least there is the chance and since I heard that I've had a lot of mixed feelings about it. Lots of pros and cons and is is really scary to think of going back to square one yet again. On the other hand.... :-)