Le Français: My (Not Exactly) First Impressions

It’s not quite a secret, but French is actually my second language. My father had a desire to visit/work in French West Africa, and as a result bought himself some tapes for kids. My sister and I were quite young children then, and we picked it up, even going so far as to attend weekly French lessons at some point.
But then, because of disuse, both she and I forgot all of it…well, almost all. Thanks largely to the not-always civil exchange between France and Britain, not also to mention the Norman invasion, the French language is the biggest source for English import words, more than any other language on earth.
In honor of Bastille Day yesterday, I betrayed the expectation set in my own blogpost and I went ahead with the French Duolingo course anyway (I often do things like this in honor of certain calendar dates). I haven’t gotten very far, nor do I even consider myself even close to having my first conversation, but I thought that now would be a good time to write down what my “first impressions” are…even if they aren’t first impressions at all…
Thanks to having learned so many languages to varying degrees, I know that the first element to encounter is always frustration and hopelessness. I remember when I was going to Hebrew University for the first time, I was in Newark airport by myself, confused about what to do, wondering if my luggage would actually find its way to Tel-Aviv, and then, I was nagged by the following thought…
“You know, Jared, you could always just quit. You could just decide that you’re not going anymore and just stay here in the cozy U.S. of A…”
Well, good thing that I didn’t.
I know this feeling all too well. I remember seeing in a Lonely Planet advertisement that the hardest part of any journey is deciding that you’re going to go. This is true for many things and language learning is definitely one of them.
Did I go off topic? Yes, I think I did.
I found the pronunciation particularly difficult, but thanks largely to one of my previous linguistic adventures, I didn’t find myself as intimidated.
Throughout the lessons as well as trying to grapple with TV shows for children and seeing how many words I could make out, I had constant flashbacks to my first steps in learning Danish.
Mention Danish to a native speaker of Swedish or Norwegian and you may get treated to a certain homily about how written Danish is very familiar to him or her, but when it is spoken it sounds “as strange as Chinese”.
Both with Danish and with French, I had a lot more familiarity with the written language before I even started studying it to any degree. In Sweden, Swedish, Finnish and Danish are the most common languages (in that order) on product labels. Because I was exposed to it just by sight-reading, I had a “leg-up” with Danish and I expect my French journey to provide a similar advantage.
I learned Danish after having studied both Swedish and Norwegian to significant degrees, and similarly, I have had my Portuguese and Spanish adventures (not also to mention some vague knowledge of Italian) that have been vaguely helpful in understanding what little French I encountered yesterday. One way in which the situations are not comparable, however, is the fact that the Scandinavian trifecta’s members are a lot closer to each other than the biggest of the Romance Languages could ever hope to be.
Within my first few weeks of Elementary Polish back in June 2011, I remember being frustrated so much by saying certain words out loud that I almost threw my laptop across the room. I imagine that French may frustrate me in a similar manner somewhere along the journey (and all of my languages have, although some more than others…and the journey is continuing with all of them…my native language included), but I keep on having to tell myself that I’ve encountered far worse obstacles.
The fact that it is one of the world’s most commonly studied languages will make it easier for me in every regard. For one, every single one of the basic phrases had an air of familiarity about it, thanks largely to Anglophone popular culture. Finnish, on the other hand, provided only about five import words in the whole English language, the best known of which is “sauna”.
Part of me also feels a little bit guilty for starting it this late again. After adventures in stranger languages, I something tell myself, “Jared, what took you so long?”
I’m just on the first few steps. I’m developing a good sense of the phonemes (which are always the most important part and, in some cases, could always use improvement throughout the learning process, no matter how advanced you are).
The most important thing that I should tell myself is that I shouldn’t expect magical results instantly, especially when I’m not putting in as much effort as I could. But after Lord-knows-how-many-times of doing the same, I know that already.
I remember one time when I was learning Greenlandic in a cafeteria and putting together a sentence for someone, I was told, “it’s interesting…to you, Greenlandic is just another language…”
I have adopted the same mentality in this case. French is just another language.
As is Faroese, which I will write about…some other time!

Rhythm, Vocabulary, Music, and a Song in Estonian

Yesterday evening and this morning I was browsing through my musical collection in order to ease telltale signs of slight infirmity (thankfully I’m a lot better now…)
A certain gem of my collection was the following song (although possibly not everyone will call it a song):

The song, which is in Estonian—although I can’t possibly classify it as either sung, chanted, screamed, or spoken—almost represented Estonia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013, “Meiecundimees üks Korsakov läks eile Lätti”, translates to “One Man of Ours from Korsakov went to Latvia Yesterday”

The lyrics are probably about as deranged and eccentric as the costumes you may see, and deals with the man in question having his bones broken one after another. I was reminded by Daniil Kharms’ stories which I first savored as a sophomore in college.

My family members didn’t particularly like the song and I imagine that many of you won’t be enthused by it either. BUT this post isn’t about this song, it is about a revelation I had about vocabulary learning, which is partially indebted to this demented but possibly brilliant…yes, I will say it…masterpiece.

The rhythm of the lyrics managed to induce a certain catchiness, despite the fact that the lyrics weren’t particularly sung nor was the melody anything of particular note. Perhaps it was some variety of modernistic ritual chant…

It was very easy for me to memorize the long title of the song, largely as a result of the fact that it was repeated in the song very often but also as a result of the primal rhythm which somewhat resembles a very excited heartbeat.

Later on that day I found myself looking at my Greenlandic phrasebook before going to bed. Awfully long words, I thought, how am I going to memorize everything in this book…
…and then it came to me…

…what if I used that rhythm from “Meiecundimees”, or a similar-sounding one, in order to commit these words to memory?

“Naalagaaffeqatigiit”…the Greenlandic word for the “United States of America”, a very important word for me to remember…so how did I memorize it?

Upon chanting it several times, I’ve noticed that it stuck, very much like the longer song title did.

Afterwards, I tried it with a number of other words as well, but I didn’t want to “stuff” my memory too badly before the night was up.

With most Indo-European Languages, I could manage to make out cognates and remember them that way. This was even true when I found myself committing Northern Sami vocabulary to memory (I could just search for cognates between the Scandinavian Languages or Finnish).

The only way I could do that with Greenlandic is with the modern words that came from Danish. “Beta Versioni” doesn’t strike me as too hard to remember. But for most of the words with Inuit origins? No way…

…and that is how music became necessary.

I imagine that many of you would seek to study more commonly studied European languages, and in that case you may already have methods of memory that involve tying them to languages you already know.

Chinese and Japanese with their systems of characters call for another set of memory methods altogether, but the fact is that with Greenlandic I found myself alone, without too many colorful resources or speaking partners.

So when all else fails when you need to remember something, or are just seeking to learn new words…remember my lesson…

…and face the music…