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Monday, November 28, 2011

The joys of bilingualism, part II

As I was watching this beautiful French movie from the forties, Les enfants du paradis, I was once again confronted to the challenges of translation. The version I watched was French with English subtitles; hence I could hear the original version while reading the translation. What quickly became apparent is that the translator had not succeeded at capturing the beauty of Prévert's original lines (in some parts; some are not that bad). A lot of the marvellousness was lost somewhere between French and English, to my great dismay.

That being said, I am sure the movie's still worth a viewing by English monolinguals.

Reading and watching masterpieces is ideally done in the original language, of course... but learning a language is not a piece of cake! For having painfully gone through it myself, and from observing my students and acquaintances in their own struggle, I have come up with three conditions (not tested scientifically, but observed empirically!) where it is made possible. If one of those conditions is present long enough, the language will be acquired. If none of these conditions is there, well, it will take an awful amount of work... and I can't promise the results.

What are those conditions?

1) Exposing a very young brain (that's still highly malleable) to a new language. I am always amazed at how quickly young children can become functional bilinguals, without any sign of effort. This is a period parents should take advantage of: acquiring a language later in life is so much more work! In the bilingual environment we are lucky enough to live in, my children and many of my friends' children were (or will be) perfectly bilingual by the age of 6 (if not earlier).

2) Coercing someone to use a foreign language by putting them in a situation where they have no choice. One summer when I was a teenager, my parents sent me on a student exchange. The small town I landed in contained no French speaker. Not one. I was stuck there, and I had to survive. When the father of the girl I was paired with made it clear that if I wanted ice cream, I would have to order it myself, let me tell you that I managed to get some English out of me! Motivation is a powerful thing. Then of course I already had some notions of English. It was a little bit different when I visited China, last year. Yes, I did manage to eat... but I have no idea what.

3)  Which brings me to the next condition: falling in love with something/someone that we associate to the language. I've had students who wanted to visit Québec or France, and who were determined to learn the language first, in order to fully enjoy their trip. I know people who learned a language strictly by dating someone who spoke it. It works wonders. I personally decided to learn Italian because I desperately wanted to understand what Verdi's characters were getting so excited about (and what Puccini's ones were lamenting about). My love for Italian opera was the starting point of a fascinating journey with la bella lingua. Later on, when I visited Italy, it was wonderful to be able to communicate (albeit slowly) with the locals. It boosted my confidence so much that I went on to try and read Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) in Italian... but that turned out to be presumptuous on my part.

(Next step: learning German to understand Mozart's Die Zauberflöte!)

Ah! but learning a language is never truly over, and we keep eliciting startled looks and giggles.

My daughters keep telling me I don't pronounce things right. As much as I try, I haven't been able to say, for example, the name of that store: Mark's Work Wearhouse. I get jaw cramps.

A few years ago, in a first aid class, the trainer reminded us that we had to inform our "victim" of whatever we were about to do. That's when I unflinchingly informed my partner that I was about to engage in sexual fondling with her. From the look on her face, I immediately knew my wording was not quite right.

(As my kids would say... "Awkward!")

It also appears that my friend A (a woman) would have said, during a squash game: "I'm all right! I've got balls!"

(Yep, there's at least two different reasons why you need balls to play squash!)

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