Saturday, January 23, 2016

Speaking, Sure. Understanding? Ummm.....

For the last two weeks, I've been working with a French teacher to improve my ability to understand spoken French, particularly rapidly spoken French.  I can understand, if the other person speaks at a moderate pace, but if they speed up, or use vocabulary with which I'm unfamiliar, my comprehension goes way down.

Several people have told me that they learned to speak English simply by listening to English-language songs, repetitively.  I've found that hard to believe, and impossible to replicate.  I think that they probably do learn the rhythm of their new language,  and possibly some words,  but they don't know what they're saying.

KIRK: Spock, could the humpback's answer to this call be simulated?
SPOCK: The sounds, but not the language. We would be responding in gibberish.

- Star Trek IV

For example, a friend, in an email, used the phrase notre quatre, and though I knew those words ('our four'), it was only because I'd heard a similar phrase on a CD, played while a French friend was with me,  that I learned that notre quatre is a way of referring to all of the people in the speaker's family - in this case, four. Or, if you happen to listen to a song that's in French, and hear the word trois,  you'd reasonably assume that it is spelled as twah, or perhaps trwah, but you wouldn't have a clue that it means three.  You have no reference!

As part of this language work, I've been listening to very short -- perhaps forty seconds to a minute -- Youtube news articles, selected by my instructor, who listens to them and writes a very detailed script of what's been said.  For example, if the speaker hesitates while saying We need to address this problem, saying in fact We need, uh, to speak ab -- to address this problem, that's what my instructor writes.  As a result, I have a fighting shot of understanding when a given sound is just a hesitation or mispronunciation, and when it's actually part of a word. 

(Which reminds me of the joke about the actress who was going to try out for a role on Broadway where she'd be required to speak with a Swedish accent.  Not being happy with her ability to emulate that accent, she hit upon the idea of routinely going to a local cafe where the cook was Swedish.  She'd linger over coffee, just listening to him speak. When the time came for the audition, she performed flawlessly.  At the end, the director said That was really great, you really nailed that accent.  But, tell me -- why'd you do it with a lisp?)

Sometimes my ability to understand French is like that. I kind of get it -- and then I don't.

But I'm working on it. 

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