Three years ago, if you asked me what I would be minoring in, I probably would have said History or Black Studies or even Film Studies. I most likely wouldn’t have said… French?

I’ve been studying French for two years now. My first semester at Swarthmore I did not take a French class and sort of just trained myself using all sorts of online resources. I was able to skip the first level of Intensive First-year French from learning the language in a way which to me can only be described as inorganic. Computerized voices uttered words which to me sounded more like garbled tv noise than human language. Questions, likely generated randomly, tested how well I could put together the jagged, undefined pieces of the puzzle which was my comprehension of French grammar and syntax. Rote memorization of words which were ciphers for English.

Yet, I would not say I was at a distinct disadvantage in the Intensive First-year French II class that I took my freshman spring. There were several people in the class who had started French the semester before, had already built a relationship with the professors. They all seemed to know each other and get along, and this discouraged me and made me feel like an outsider, although I didn’t do anything to better ingratiate myself with them, either. Yet, one thing I noticed right away was that the people in the class had a hard time pronouncing words in French. They also had a hard time remembering less commonly used words. Whereas I could not elegantly string together a French sentence to respond to my professor when she asked me a question, my peers were having a hard time reading the words of a book aloud without fumbling over morphemes they did not know how to pronounce.

I was far, far from a prodigy, but I did notice that we had learned French at different paces, despite perhaps being at the same point in our language-learning journey. We all had our difficulties, but they were not at the same places – a realization which ultimately made me realize that the means by which a language is learned is dictated by the resources and culture behind that language. What I had used – websites like Duolingo, Memrise, LiveMocha, Lang-8 and Google Translate – provided services to augment language acquisition across distances in a way which was markedly different from taking a language class in which student have contact with their professors. One was inorganic, insofar that it was not the product of the native abilities of the human body. The other was organic because the human body did them naturally as an evolutionary feat.

Inorganic language learning is the utilization of media to learn a language. Books, websites, movies, music and games are all methods for learning languages which incorporate a form of media into the process. In doing so, language learning is made easier because it removes the necessity of the auditor and the speaker. The reciprocity of the organic language process is muddled most often by text, which forces another step in understanding what something is.

In translation studies, there is a general consensus that texts should be translated concept-by-concept instead of word-by-word, for word-by-word translations are often subject to linguistic pitfalls involving grammar, syntax and idiom. Machine translation is more often than not word-for-word although the technology behind it is improving. Concept-for-concept translation tends to be more resistant to these pitfalls, although it is not immune. Nonetheless, the creation of the mental image of an object is still paramount to the language learning process. When a person sees the word arbre in French, the novice says “Arbre means tree” while the adept imagines an oak tree. You may think “It doesn’t really matter,” but it does, for when a person reads a text and translates each word, the act of reading becomes laborious and difficult, especially in languages which have varying syntax. By translating word-for-word, we create strong images in the foreground of a canvas without necessarily drawing their relation to one another. They appear as fixed objects which are inflexible. Yet, with conceptual language learning, the mind creates a foreground and a background by putting ideas in relation to one another. Conceptual reading is hard to do for beginners, who often think in their native language when dealing with a foreign language, translating their thoughts.

Reading is a form of inorganic language. It is interpersonal – like all forms of language – insofar that it allows me, the writer, to communicate with you, the reader, but it requires the second step of literacy – which is a taught behavior, not a natural one*. Reading is also a way of making language visible. The organic means of language acquisition (listening and speech) do not involve the eyes (although eyesight does help in both cases) where as the inorganic (reading and writing) do. Reading and listening are both receptive pathways, used to gain information. Writing and speech are used to send information. Your mind is more easily trained from evolution to understand the word arbre to be synonymous with the concept of a tree in your mind. Your mind does not add the second step of creating the word tree in WordArt on your mental space because this is not necessary – and not natural. This is the way the vast majority of the world communicated since the dawn of language itself. I’m not going to sit here and tell you to stop reading (this blog post or in general) but I do want to make it clear to people that reading, like computers, Tumblr and sunglasses, was an invention and is not necessarily the way our minds have grown to process the world around us.

This is especially pertinent when you decide to step outside of the constraints of your language in order to put on those of another. It becomes cripplingly evident that you can only use your language skills in certain ways, that you are only able to say certain things, or that you know how to write things but cannot say them. Your understanding of the language is spotty and your mental images are stretched like Dali’s clocks. For most language-learners, this was not a crisis. It was expected, a reality which they had anticipated all along. But I was choked by it. It gripped me and continues to grip me.

Why is it that I can draft an email to my professor in French, making maybe one typo (It’s always de/du/des) or two, employing all the pleasantries and stylistics typical to French manners, yet struggle, even now, to formulate basic thoughts aloud? I can read French books well, understanding perhaps 80% of the words I come across, yet I cannot manage to understand what people are saying when they speak French? The words appear almost like a mash from which I can pick out words or phrase but the basic structure nonetheless is shapeless and formless, completely useless to me.

And it frightens me because I am impatient and because I am so unbalanced.

It is disturbing to me that I will not be taking a French language class this semester, realizing that my skills in one section will continue to go up while my organic language skills will fall into disrepair. I wonder if I will be able to recover what skills I’ve lost to rust when I go to Senegal in February. I would hate to go there and to struggle through daily interactions while managing to read for my classes without a sweat. Yet, I am not going to Senegal because I anticipated it to be an easy time. That’s exactly why I chose to go there, as opposed to Paris, where I am told English is spoken as often as French. Maybe spending time immersed in a Francophone environment will help me to better understand what is being said to me and how to consequentially respond without awaiting the dial-up connection of the translation process. Maybe I will begin to imagine pictures instead of text.

And the process of this much-needed push in my language journey makes me very optimistic, even though it also terrifies to me to be in a foreign country. We shall see how well these methods blend, or whether or not my understanding of this is in need of revision.


* Upon revision, I hesitate to use the word natural here, only because I personally question whether or not spoken language is something inherently human. It is a means of separating us from apes, who we believe do not possess complex language, but at the same time, all language is natural. The task of writing and reading is but a transliteration of speaking and listening. However, most, if not all, human beings learn to speak and listen as a part of growing up, hence the word natural, even though a better word is likely more appropriate.

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