Editor’s Note: Rose Potter teaches future K-12 foreign language teachers as a faculty member at the University of Texas, Austin. Fluent in Spanish, she previously taught high school Advanced Placement Spanish classes and ran a company that organized study-abroad experiences. Rose loves travel, opera and theater and also makes a mean meatloaf and cheesecake.
By Rose Potter, I Start Wondering Contributor
Recently a new friend who hails from France graciously communicated with me in French during a three-hour visit. It turns out she speaks Spanish so we joyfully somersaulted linguistically over a variety of topics. I mentioned that I had not studied French but had learned to speak “on the street,” thus my struggle with the language’s object pronouns, tenses and moods and, of course, pronunciation. She cocked her head in confusion, locked eyes with me and asked, “What’s your goal?” Silence. Did I look confused? She clarified. “Why do you want to learn French? Do you want to live in France?”
Such an odd question? My goal? I hesitated and then responded, “Communication.”
Communicating with Strangers in Another Country
I had told a minor fib. I did take one semester of French in 1971. Perhaps a few words stuck but most of my communication skills have grown during travels to France. Alone.
People open-up to the solitary traveler. The stranger seated next to me on a plane patiently helped me understand magazine ads. On the TGV (France’s high-speed train), a young mother shared her sack lunch with me, then taught me and her infant child how to count. In an experimental garden, a campus gardener explained why I should plant the tomato seedling in my cupped hands at a 45-degree angle. The list of brief encounters and unexpected benefits include many free flutes of champagne presented by smiling waiters, meals paid for by appreciative dining companions in small bistros, and extensive descriptions of the wide varieties of oysters, olives or butter in open-air markets – with samples included, of course.
Immersion in Another Language
Last summer, I decided to get serious about French. My job had presented the opportunity to spend two weeks in France in a private home. To that adventure, I added another two weeks to focus on French, living with an unknown woman in Biarritz and taking coursework. Hopefully, a month of immersion would firm up all the random bits of language I had acquired. I pondered my first immersion in Spain in 1973. At the age of 22, I soaked up new vocabulary like a sponge. Would it be much more difficult at 65?
Yes. I felt more challenged. But did the difference lie in the language itself or in the impact of a mind filled with an additional 44 years of memories?
One of my biggest challenges is and will always be pronunciation. The vowels of my second language, Spanish, offer reassuring consistency. A-E-I-O-U never change. With minimal practice, anyone can learn to read Spanish aloud with an acceptable pronunciation. French? Quelle horreur! Consider this: “The letters u and û are pronounced [y], roughly similar to the vowel sound of pew but shorter and without the diphthong; pronounced [œ] when the syllable ends in a consonant (a closed syllable).” Challenged? That’s one of the easy ones.
Years ago, before my travels in France, I had heard that the French were “impatient” with foreigners who “mispronounced” their language. American friends would complain that the French “acted like they didn’t understand!” or “They refuse to understand! They are such snobs about French.” Once I tried my hand at pronunciation with native speakers of French, I realized how completely mispronounced vowels obstruct comprehension. In restaurants? I frequently have to repeat my request for l’eau (water). Once, the subtle difference between the pronunciation of l’amor (love) and la mort (death) caused me some serious embarrassment. Even when words sound very different, like cou (neck) and cul (look it up) they are close enough that it’s easy to slip-up when attempting to string words together.
Learning to Enjoy the Journey
Perhaps it was the pronunciation that limited my progress. Maybe I just have so much more in my brain that new learning finds it hard to take root. (Doubtful, but the thought bolsters my spirit.) Most likely of all, I’m my own severest critic. I don’t have 20 years to build my skills in French as I did in Spanish. I’m impatient… annoyed by the brevity of life.
What’s my goal?
To enjoy the process. I read three wonderful novels in French last summer and listened to all types of people speaking about myriad topics. My interpretative communication skills grew dramatically. My speaking skills will get better and better with practice. Will I ever be as fluent in French as I am in Spanish?
That’s not the goal, but… it could happen.