Friday, July 27, 2012

Geneve Journal: Tongue untied

Mireille and Robert talkin' french.

In conceiving the plan to revisit Geneva, obvious to me was the need to polish up on my French speaking abilities that have remained largely unused since I left Geneva the first time. Looking to regain some capacity of speaking French reminded me of how the base of my French skills was formed. Aware that I should have some grounding in the language prior to departing for CH, I took a semester of intro to French. The curriculum of the class was based on the "Capretz Method", a concept of total immersion in the language - no English was spoken in the class - based on a schedule of classes that revolved around a series of videos which followed a narrative featuring a young American, named Robert studying in Paris and a French girl named Mireille and her family. In searching online for the Capretz Method, which originated at Yale and created by Pierre Capretz, I learned that the program was involved in a sexual discrimination lawsuit brought by two Yale students,, in 1990, charging an objectionable sexualized depiction of Mireille.

That in the videos, Mireille appeared largely sans bra was a detail not lost on the male students of the class, nor, perhaps, anyone else. I have a dim recollection of commentary on this detail (universally favorable, I think) from fellow male students. Far from being objectionable to us, this detail, served to focus our minds on the objective at hand.....and in my case, served as a reminder of the original imperative to learn the language in the first place.

I ended up in France/Switzerland, with barely a grounding in the language; an insecure grasp on the present verb tense and simple future and past constructions, some basic grammar - and nothing else. Anxiety of actually implementing my new found tool was great in the beginning. I preferred combing the aisles of the Migros market for my lunches to minimize the language based interactions needed to attain what I wanted.  My fear of spoken interactions prevented me, for the first week or so, from entering a bakery and actually ordering a sandwich terrified by the perplexing - and thereby embarrassing - exchange that surely would follow. Eventually I got over that and after a month, my conversational abilities were such that I could get by comfortably. I'm not a stickler for perfection - in any realm - and I gather that, the form of pigeon french I was able to produce, though not pretty, conveyed what I needed it to convey.

The ethos of immersive language instruction feels natural to me - and it mimics what can be said to be my broader philosophy of learning - study the basic specifics of what is needed to know, then jump into a sink-or-swim situation of application that I believe will more firmly embed practial lessons in my mind/memory more profoundly.  I think I'm more of an experiential learner - or I'm lazy...but I want that experience to be real and "functionable" not theoretical excercise.  

I studied Spanish for 6 years - from junior high to college.  Any practical grasp on the language was tenuous at best.  That knowledge was/is in this head somewhere, but it took living in Miami - living and working among a population who spoke it predominantly, if not exclusively, to make that knowledge funtional. Even then, those 6 years amounted to but a skeletal amrature upon which I would reapply all that I needed to relearn in an on-the-street scenario.  Those six years were necessary for laying down a grounding understanding, but it needed a real world situation to activate it.

I must amend the statement that my French has been largely unused for two decades. That's largely true, but even unused, some remnant of it has remained just below the surface - I was told once in Miami that I spoke Spanish with a French lilt (cant' imagine how unfortunate that must sound; and American speaking Spanish with a French inflection) and this subterranean french struggled  to let itself loose whenever I tried to speak Spanish.
My french and Spanish, together, came to be very useful in 2002 on a stay in Umbria with a friend, interacting with folks in a conversive situation that was largely non English.,  My frustration of being locked out of the conversation led me to feverishly forage in my toolbag.  I ended up throwing up as much French and Spanish possible to see how much might stick and how much pose as a "false friend."  This strategy allowed me to cobble together, in short crash course form, a limp, but generally usable Italian, for which I'm very grateful.

One of the great thrills for me was returning to the US after those months spent in Geneva  to realize that, at a low level, I had come to think and speak in French as a default.  The language had climbed to the surface, and predominated my more incidental thoughts, tasks and small conversation around the house - for a short time at least.   Short, indeed, was this altered state and within a week I was very much just another speaker of American, but that short period of living inbetween two tongues - a sort of natural form of disequalibrity was pleasingly un-mooring.  There's a freedom in that that is akin to walking that divide of the recognized and the unrecognizable.  It make everything more discernable, but abstract, in a way, too. 

So today my attempts at sensitizing myself to French have been focused on listening to podcasts.  Namely, Coffee Break French has been my main refresher tool.  I also started listening to a Francophone radio program by SBS coming out of Australia, although my habit here has dwindled.  What has replaced the Austrailian program is one from RFI - Journal en francais facile, which is a daily ten minute news cast.  It's hard to keep up with the daily frequency of this podcast, but it's a good short shot of French and by the nature of news, each there's a good amount of evolving repetition reinforcing what I hear.

By chance, since the spring, Angelika has been watching French films at home and I've boosted the number of such films that I've placed in our Netflix queue.  Being in a Geneve state of mind - and being sensitive to moments of synchronicity, I've started capturing images of the mention of the city and region in these films (granted, there've only been two.  But that's on the way to being a group.  
La Belle Noiseuse, 1991

A bout de souffle (Breathless), 1960
A page from Vladimir Nabokov's memoir, Speak, Memory (although this mention referred to his location in Montreaux, it is on the lake, so close enough, I say.)

BTW: My Geneve Journal Kickstarter campaign is in full effect until August 26.

No comments: