There is a dance party going on on the steps of the Maison de Mexique right now. This is because this weekend is Fête de la Cité, and admittedly, thanks to Fête de la Cité, I had a pretty delicious cheeseburger for lunch right in my own backyard. However, cheeseburger notwithstanding, I really really really have to practice and the salsa beat in the background is not happening–plus it’s not possible to be in my room with the windows closed for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. So I’m taking a break to tell you my thoughts about foreign language acquisition.
I’m taking Italian once a week at the Centre Culturel Italien and finding it very odd. First of all, I’m already functioning in a foreign language. So it feels like I’m layering a foreign language on top of a foreign language. My notes are a fascinating mish-mosh of languages. Sometimes it makes more sense to translate an Italian word into English, other times it’s so similar in French that it seems silly to go all the way back to English. For instance, we learned the verb “accomodarsi” last week, and instead of bothering with “to sit down,” I wrote down “s’asseoir.” It doesn’t look the same, of course, but they’re both reflexives, and the idea is the same.
I also occasionally find myself mentally scrolling through my languages before I find the word I’m looking for in Italian. It usually starts with German, I think because having started French so young, my brain almost doesn’t register it as a foreign language. Then I usually hit French, and occasionally Spanish will pop up (I took a single year of Spanish in high school, when they told me I had to replace Physics with an academic class…it was the easiest A I think I’ve ever gotten). And as for which language I’m translating from to get to Italian, I can’t even quite figure it out. In class it’s almost easier to stick to French, because when I speak to my classmates, we all speak French (I’m not the only non-French student, though–Carolina is Colombian and Sayuri is Japanese, and approximately the most stylish human being I’ve ever met). But this morning I had to write a composition (I say “this morning,” let me clarify: it was due this morning AND I wrote it this morning) introducing myself, and I was starting with what I wanted to say in English and translating to Italian. Except when my brain went “Ich lese gern die Bücher!” instead of “I like to read books” or even “J’aime lire les livres.” What the deuce?
Something I’ve also noticed is that my French classmates don’t seem to have an easier time of it than anybody else. I would have guessed that because French grammar is so similar to Italian grammar (French and Italian, our teacher pointed out, are cousins, while Spanish and Italian are brothers–or is it sisters when you’re talking about languages? Like ships and cities?) that it would be a no-brainer for a Francophone person to learn Italian. But then I heard Frédéric say “Una rossa farfalla” (a red bowtie) and I was like…you mean “una farfalla rossa”? Like “une cravate rouge”? It’s so obvious to me because I’ve already learned French from the beginning, but I think a lot of them have never thought about their language’s relationship to another language.
And I’m grateful, by the way, to be coming from English instead of French. Of course being a singer (or maybe just being me) I have an excellent ear for this stuff, but French has SUCH a particular sound and mouth-shape and cadence, whereas English, at least my brand of English, is quite neutral. It’s not musical the way French and Italian are, the stresses are everywhere, there are virtually no pronunciation rules–c’est une bordelle, as my French friends would say, but I think it’s that linguistic chaos that makes it easier for me to discard it to pick up a new language. A couple of my classmates pronounce every word in Italian with French emphases–“iO parlO italiaNO”–and several of them can’t roll their R’s because they are used to pronouncing them so far back in their throats.
I’m sorry if this is a bit muddled, blogosphere, but there is now not only a Mexican dance party going on but also what sounds like a heavy metal band playing somewhere on the campus of the Cité Universitaire. The noise is driving me mad. But I’ll leave you on an upbeat note. Today in class, Alban, who sits on my right, used the phrase “pile ou face” in the middle of a virtually incomprehensible conversation about the French Open. I really had no clue what they were talking about until the words “Venus Williams” came up, but I know “pile ou face.” Hit it, Émanuelle!
P.S. The title quote comes from the experience of writing my composizione this morning, because all I could think of was “Chi son? Chi son? Sono poeta.”