as i suspect you know, i am living in paris. i have been here for exactly three months. to the day. today.
i came here thinking – hey, i’m gonna learn french. i’m gonna take out that little french scarf i started knitting in high school and i’m gonna make it into a big french blanket! shoot, i’m gonna be a fluent little americano, wrapped up in my big french blanket, full of beautiful sentences – i will make french metaphors and similes! i will make french imagery, stealthily navigate french expressions, hilariously energize my small talk with subtle and charming french wit!
on skype the other night with my brother – his children and pets and all the sounds of his household – the footfall and toy-fall on self-laid pergo – all sounding through the computer speakers – he asks me if i feel fluent now. absolutely not! i tell him.
i hear french every day, everywhere i go. how is it then, that there are so many days when i do not feel like i am living in french? how can the event of hearing my brother’s household have the effect of transporting me to a place that i am not, while hearing french all around me everyday sometimes leaves me feeling as if i am actually far away, insular, isolated – when in fact, this french language is what there is immediately around me?
language, i learn more and more, is much, much more than pieces of sound we make in order to communicate some meaning. language creates sensations – the sensation of feeling at home, for example; the sensation of feeling detached & distant. so, have i put my knitting needles away? will i be ever-clucking small-detached phrases, struggling to unite the beginnings and ends of sentences with the substantive thoughts they are meant to contain – muddling pronouns & negations?
last weekend, out with an american friend, i was trying to explain this tactic of speaking french in which you allow your language to feel like it is moving faster than your thoughts. i think we do this all the time in our native tongues – we don’t realize it because we rarely, in speech, are actively constructing our sentences in an attempt to accurately reflect our thoughts, as new speakers of a foreign language do regularly. doing this in french is a bit like trying to meditate without letting yourself hear your interior monologue. the english voice WANTS to talk! i am more intelligent, it says. i have a bigger vocabulary! it boasts…
so, then, expletives. the first thought i have is something from phonetics class – it is a very relaxed manner with which the mouth is to make certain sounds – the instructor describes these sounds with her entire body, curving at shoulder, waist, knee – to describe a state of total laxity.
but, the second thought i have is the more correct one, in this case: it is the sound of a bell being struck: –piinng–
there is something important about expletives and acquiring a second language – they strike out: connard! putain! – their piinng a salient signal to every fence-twisted english-syllabled barricade: Make way! Clear space! We’re doing this next part in MY language.