I am taking a French class here since my French is so terrible. I can write French fine, thanks to google translate, and also read French fine… thanks also to google translate. (Reading or writing without an internet connection is another matter!)

For speaking French, when I know the word for what I want to say, fine also, but I don’t know the words for what I want to say about 50% of the time. This is probably worse than for most people, since I always like to express things using big words and convoluted grammar. And so I end up most of the time playing the game of expressing my stupid comments with the words I do know. But in the 50% of cases where I know how to say what I mean, people seem to understand me fine.

As for listening to other people speaking French, this is still unbelievably bad. I felt like I improved in the first week here; I can pretty well pick out the sentence structure. And maybe I can understand like 2/3 of the words in any given sentence. Just not the important ones. For any sentence of any reasonable length I’m totally lost by the end of it. Some people seem to be able to get by on this level of understanding, but this requires some intuition about humans. Not so for mathematicians.

It’s a bit different to what I thought, living with a foreign language. It’s not like incomprehension all the time, it’s not totally a matter of aimless staring of incomprehension — though I do, actually, stare aimlessly without comprehending, all the time. (It’s so terrible disappointing people, because I look like i should speak the language, I am white, male, grown-up, in an office, at a university, etc.) It’s more like, you have a vague gist of what people are talking about, you know the general concepts they are talking about, but you cannot be sure of anything at all that anybody said.

French is full of too many false cognates, too many slight variations, too many words which sound the same, too many 1- or 2-syllable words, too many non-pronounced letters. It’s a slippery, slimy, thing… maybe I understood, maybe I didn’t, what exactly did you mean by that, and I know that there is no way for you to express it more precisely without switching to english. For a mathematician especially this is extremely frustrating.

Oh well, this will improve.

The slipperiness of language
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One thought on “The slipperiness of language

  • 2010-08-17 at 4:42 am

    You know, I find it comforting that someone else was struggling with this too. Although you probably are completely fluent by this point!


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