The process of language acquision…continued

July 10, 2009 at 11:08 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Sorry I haven’t written in awhile; I’ve had so much going on!  Another week of getting home at 11:30 every night.

This week has been an intense–and important–step in my French learning process.  I’ve been making a big effort to immerse myself in French-only–or French-dominated–environments, because surprisingly, it’s not hard to go hours without having French language experience beyond the “bonjours” in the hallway at work and the “Je prends un baguette tradition, s’il vous plait,” at the bakery.  But if I seek out such situations, or they find me, it’s also not hard to go hours without hearing a word of English.

I’ve really been missing my French class–well, not the actual class I took, but the process of formal classroom language learning.  I feel like my level of grammar has stagnated since the class ended, although my vocabulary has expanded and I continue to understand more and more.  So I decided to push myself and attend a French-English language exchange, Tempo Tea Time, at an adorable tea house in the Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement, steps away from the commercial center at Place D’Italie but a world away in its charm and neighborhood feel.

The way a language exchange works–at least this language exchange–is that, ideally, there is an even mix of Anglophone (English-speaking) and Francophone (French-speaking) participants.  The tea house closes at 7pm, after which it is only people participating in the exchange remain, and it’s totally free unless you want to buy food or drink from the teahouse.  The first hour on this particular week was in English, and everyone mingles and chats in English for 45 minutes or so.  Then a game starts–this week it was called “I have a secret,” and everyone had to write a secret, in either English or French, on a card and hand it to the moderator.  Then she passed them out and we played a modified version of Assassins–you have to walk around and try and find the person whose secret it is, and once you find them, they are out and give you their card.  Then, at 8pm, the moderator rang a bell and announced that we were now switching to French–midway through the game.  The whole evening was really fun and I met lots of interesting people, and a few of us went out afterwards.

Then, on Thursday (yesterday) was the big meeting for the project that brought me to France.  It was an all-day reunion with researchers from Harvard, University of Dusseldorf, and of course INSERM, where I work.  It was a huge challenge, to say the least! The meeting was from 10am to 3pm, entirely in French, on a technical subject that will become my dissertation.  This was followed (and preceded, actually) by a few smaller meetings to talk about next steps and project/paper ideas…also in French.  By the end, my head was exploding.  I am trying really hard not to translate in my head as I listen, but let the meaning sort of float over me.  Picking out individual words is tempting, but a very inefficient way of listening and not a good way to develop good oral comprehension.  So it’s this delicate balance of relaxing my brain into listening for the whole rather than the individual parts, and simultaneously concentrating hard enough that I can grasp the meaning of what is being said.  By the end of the day, I was exhausted…but I could tell how much I had improved over the course of the day.  By the last meeting, which was to discuss my work with my French and American advisors, I was asking questions in French without having to stop and formulate the right words in my head before I spoke…and I could, more or less, understand the answers that people gave (though, as I often learn, I missed some crucial piece that was contained in the 20-30% that I didn’t understand).

I can see how, in this kind of intense immersion, language ability develops very quickly.  While I don’t have the mental stamina (or opportunity) to sit in French meetings all day, every day, it’s a valuable lesson in the direct relationship between time spent listening/absorbing, and oral comprehension.

And this morning, I was listening to France Inter, a news radio station that I like, and I could understand much, much more of it than I could yesterday.  Language acquisition, for me at least, seems to be like a step function: one day I understand much more than I did the day before, then I plateau for a few days, then I wake up and have moved up another step.  My grammar is still atrocious, but at least I am feeling more like I can understand what’s going on around me, rather than it all being like white noise.

And Blythe just arrived for an extended long weekend…it is so great to see her!



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  1. You continue to amaze and impress! Give hugs the Blythe!

  2. Wow!!!! We are here at grandma’s house reading your blog. It sounds like you are having an amazing time over there and an incredible experience. It must be amazing to eat those foods, study the language and absorb the culture like a sponge – we can’t wait to hear more! Miss you tons – and grandma says, “just relax and take it easy!”


  3. Photos and everything. what a gift to be able to explain the painful but exhilarating
    process of acquiring a new language. It
    could be titled ” the agony and the ecstasy”.
    Bon quatorze juillet

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