Learning a language: Seeking that 'second soul'

I tease Le Duc that I pay a man $35/hr to do for me what he should be doing. No, not that! But the cheeky implication is not missed by my husband.

Charlemagne said, "To have a second language is to have a second soul." My nascent second soul is being built by my tutor, Hugues. I imagine it as a pearl, forming over time, luminous, imperfect, but there.

Even though French is Le Duc's mother tongue, and he speaks it daily, he doesn't with me. I wish he would, because attaining a solid, intermediate level of fluency is important for life in Montréal, and it's also fine exercise for my brain.

The problem is, my efforts mean work for him. When I skid to a halt while my brain tries to navigate three tenses (I would have bought linguine, but I saw they were out of it— so next time I'll make sure I stock up), he loses patience, as would most mortals. Also, Le Duc is hearing-impaired, so listening to anyone is difficult; when I mangle irregular verbs, that burden increases exponentially.

Hugues speaks slowly and clearly, listens closely, and has gradually nudged me from simple declarations to more complex expression.

I have a new neighbour. Mike moved here from Pennsylvania last fall, and thought he spoke "some French". (Always a shock to those with university French learned some forty years ago to be greeted by our Quebec French.)

Mike said he wanted to take a class and learn "about 50 useful phrases". I pointed out that he could learn those, but when he uttered them, all he would hear back is "blah blah blah, non?"  Fifty phrases is for a visit, living here takes continual study, exposure, and wine. I made up the last one, but Mike seems onboard.

(If you're not in the workforce, you can live in Montréal without speaking French, especially in certain areas of the city. If you work, fluency is essential for nearly all jobs.)

For adults,  learning any new language is not an ascent up a climbing wall, but a long trek over hills. "One day" teachers have told me, "there's a 'click' in your brain". After six years, I'm still waiting for my click, but sometimes an entire French conversation enters with sunny, sparkling clarity. That's intensely rewarding, but then someone else speaks and I can barely make out a word—and both events can happen in the same day.

Next month, I'll visit another American friend, K., who spends part of the year at a language school in Quebec City, and the rest in the US, where she and her husband, both retired, live in the country. She's learning French for the love of the it, and inspires me to keep plugging. She doesn't have someone to speak to her daily, either, so hires a Skype tutor and commutes about forty miles to a regular practice group in the city. "Come on!", I tell myself, slogging thorough my devoirs, "K. has made major trade-offs to do this."

Are you learning another language? Tell us about it: what drew you to it, what does it do for you?


What I most want to do these days is get my Spanish/Castillian up to the point where I can do professional translation from it to English and French. Oh, I can speak Spanish at the many Latino shops in our neighbourhood, and read it, but when I speak the Italian interferes (so I have an "Argentinean" accent, but the real problem is cognates). I think I need immersion in a Spanish-speaking country. Yes, preferably one with wine, so Spain or the "Cono sur" countries at the other end of the Americas (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay...). Often a smaller city is a better choice.

One thing I'd advise French learners here is to listen to Radio-Canada. Most of the announcers have a type of Québec accent that is well-articulated and understandable by francophones from Europe and Africa. Just have it on for some hours.

And this is just for fun: https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2018/02/28/quiz-which-italian-word-are-you/

I'm "aguto", or actually "aguta", the feminine.
Madame Là-bas said…
I don't use my French as much as I would like in Vancouver. I spent 4 hours a week with a Spanish teacher in Mexico last year and I still have problems with the Imperfect Subjunctive. It is more difficult to learn the intricacies of an additional language but i agree that it is good for the brain.
I both teach and learn a second language! On Tuesday's nights at my church I volunteer as an English facilitator for students who are here studying English and need to practise, or for new immigrants to Toronto who are just starting out. We have a topic for each class (each facilitator takes a turn) and we get them to speak as much as possible. I can have as many as 10 people at my tables from perhaps 4 or 5 different countries, and all at different levels so it can be a challenge - but I love it.
I probably have a bit more sympathy for them as I spend Saturday mornings trying to learn Scottish Gaelic - a most tricky language! I should be a lot more fluent by now but I just keep plugging away. We are a private group of 3 levels and a total of about 20 or so - we use class space down at UofT and try to support any other Scottish and/or Gaelic groups.
It is very difficult as there is masculine & feminine, and a lot of confusing tenses along with irregular verbs! Some do study online with Skype groups and we are encouraged to listen to Radio Nan Gael on the BBC. There is a group of our students who meet on a Tuesday night to just speak for an hour or so and I may join them this summer once my English group breaks for the summer.
As for my French - well I studied French for 14 years at school and can muddle through written pieces and if I was desperate I could get directions, book a hotel room and order a meal but that's about it these days. I try using it when I'm in Montreal but hotel and restaurant staff automatically switch to English upon hearing my feeble attempts! :-)
Janice Riggs said…
I've been studying French for 45 years (OH MY HEAVENS...) and I'm still just a really good beginner. I'm finally getting to the point that I'm accepting that I won't ever be mistaken for a Parisienne (aside from the fact that I don't really look like a French woman...) and so I'm happy that I'm able to function well. I've found that the people of France are always lovely and happy to hear you speak French, even if you're butchering things...

When we retire to Ireland, I might try to pick up some Irish Gaelic. Maybe. At least be able to sing the National Anthem? It looks incredibly difficult, but it could be fun.


p.s. I am the Italian word "eclettico" - which means eclectic. Just about perfect, I'd say!
MaryB said…
I have a BA in French literature, achieved some 40 years ago in BC. Needless to say, I am far from fluent and becoming very rusty from lack of everyday use.
Recently, we returned from a two week stay in Puerto Vallarta. To prepare, I had been practising my beginner Spanish using Duolingo for the past six months. What a surprise to discover that PV is a winter getaway for many Québécois. I heard and spoke more French in those two weeks than I had in 10 years. Mind you, I probably sounded like an old school marm (which I am) with a very proper Francais Standard accent.
I look forward to next year’s stay to practise both languages.
Madame Là-bas said…
MaryB, Did you study at UBC 1974-78? I was there studying French Literature as well?
Jane said…
My youngest son's best friend is Hispanic. When Trump was elected I vowed to learn Spanish in retaliation. I didn't. Now son is studying at Schulich, in Montreal, and his roommates talk about him in French! He knows enough French to understand them! I find the French spoken in Montreal impossible to understand, but I am most definitely not an auditory learner.
materfamilias said…
I've been able to keep my French at what i like to think is a fairly strong intermediate level, with a continuing wish that someday I might boost it up through protracted immersion. My big impediment is a hearing impairment -- mine is a very specific (congenital) impairment that makes it tough to discern t's from d's, p's from b's etc. all the fine points that matter. Frustrating! Aural comprehension is my weakest link.
I've been picking up some Italian for the last year or two, with one of my daughters having moved to Rome with her family, and I can at least ask most of the usual travel-related questions, make small talk when I pick up my granddaughter from pre-school, and with an online dictionary as back-up I can make my way through the newspaper headlines, etc.,
I've also been using DuoLingo to refresh the two years of university Spanish I studied decades and decades ago. There are many grammatical structures, rules, vocabulary, etc. shared between these three Romance languages, which helps sometimes, but can also be confusing.
I do like to think that, besides the immediate pleasure of learning new languages, seeing the world through those different lenses, there is also a cognitive benefit that will stand our aging brains in good stead. . .
MaryB said…
Madame LaBas: I studied at SFU at the same time. There were only 5 students in my cohort taught by very traditional Parisian profs.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Moving among languages at a professional level, as you can, is bound to support learning another one. I had a friend who was a a civil servant with many foreign postings. He said "the first five are the hardest"; he spoke at least a dozen languages proficiently.

Mme Là-bas: Sometimes one is just better off to recast the sentence so it veers far from the subjunctive. My tutor knows when I am avoiding it and hauls me back but in real life I can tiptoe out of there.

Jane: The French spoken here is all over the place, from clear, standard French (e.g., the Radio Canada broadcasts lagatta mentions), to more colloquial forms. But at a hotel desk, or in a restaurant, you would not hear that from staff. (Imagine being in NYC and hearing standard English and a broad Bronx accent, it's kind of like that.) And then there's the slang the kids use. My tutor has an anglophone client who is a musician. She hired him to teach her how to "talk like the guys" in the band she plays with sometimes. He taught her all kinds of street language and the speech habits that are deeply local.

Margie from Toronto: I am certain your sense is accurate; you know what it is to have the brain of an adult and the linguistic skills of a child. Gives yo empathy for their frustration. It has been a thrill for me, when in Wales and in Ireland, to hear Gaelic, whatever local dialect. Yes, here anyone in the service industry will switch nearly all the time when they see that you are anglophone, unless you ask them to stay in French.

Janice: Any effort to speak the host country's language is a sign of respect and amity. I am always shocked when anglos move (permanently or at least for a few years) to Montreal and do not learn any French. It is a minority, but I do have an interest in nudging Bob away from being in that group.

MaryB: Yes, you will also hear it in other French Canadian tourist enclaves, like some communities in FL.

materfamilias: I have done some immersion but now, I find daily but shorter stints better; after 3 or so hours my brain is fried. Maybe it is my age. The language school I mentioned in Quebec City does not recommend total immersion because of learner fatigue. But I have friends who do full immersion and like it.

Mary said…
For 417 days in a row, I have been using an ap to learn some French. Fluency? Non. But my understanding of the written word has come a long way. I did not take French in high school (studied German--lived in Germany at the time), nor did I do so at university (studied Spanish)and I am not fluent in either of those languages. To show respect, I have always tried to learn a number of basic phrases wherever I travel--even back in the days when there were only phrase books available and no internet/or voice aps. Learning to at least be able to say hello, thank you, please, how are you in Japanese, Italian, French, (Gaelic was beyond me--so much for being Irish) always seemed to please people I met, even if I mangled the pronunciations, they seemed to appreciate the effort. The least we can and should do.
I have a friend in Paris who speaks at least 12 languages. His parents were German-speakers, Jewish Viennese, who left Austria to settle in Sao Paulo where he was born. His family always spoke Viennese German at home; I doubt his grandmother really learned much Portuguese. Later, he had to flee in turn when Brazil became a military dictatorship, but earned a merit scholarship in France. He speaks Greek and Hebrew as well as several Latin and Germanic languages.

Discussing languages and grammar is accursed: I wrote aguto, not arguto, too early this morning.

The struggle to revive "conquered languages" such as Irish and Scottish Gaelic and others of the Celtic fringe is echoed here in the work to revive and foster Indigenous languages.
Linda J said…
I've been learning German for about 2 years. I'm using a computer program and taking a class. However, I don't really know anyone that speaks it. Once I am able to carry on a basic conversation, I plan on searching for a meet up group for speaking German. Right now though I'm watching German cartoons and films on YouTube. I don't understand most of it but I think it's important to hear it as much as I can. I don't really have a reason for learning German, I just have always wanted to learn another language. I went to Berlin 3 years ago and loved it and want to go back, so I chose German. Also, my mother's family has German roots.
Duchesse said…
Linda J.: Good for you! I don't know what local resources you have, but an online tutor (Skype) is such a good way to augment classes and sel-fstudy. Sits like Profly offer all kinds of tutors and the prices (which range from level of experience and what is offered) are reasonable. I got my French tutor by word of mouth. I also have used a local tutor for many years. It makes all the difference, because in a class you often speak with other students and can't be corrected that often.
Susan said…
Our two year old granddaughter is being raised in a bi-lingual home and I had high hopes of learning Mandarin as she learned it. So far, about all I know are the Chinese names for grandmother and grandfather and a few words like milk and duck!

Fortunately, our son, her father, is fluent in Mandarin and he and our daughter in law are committed to speaking only Mandarin at home. I'm intrigued by your comment about having two souls. I"ll be thinking about that for a while.
Duchesse said…
Susan: Acquiring fluency in Mandarin is exceptionally difficult for native English speakers, so you have set yourself a real challenge! In case you are interested in estimates of time to acquire another language (when one's native language is English)) see:

Susan said…
Duchesse, I should have been clearer---I would like to be able to say basic things in Mandarin and have no wish or expectation of ever being fluent. I'm just so surprised that our son managed that as he starting learning Mandarin at about age 23. He had the advantage of attending all day classes for two years and living in China for two and a half years. I'm still thinking about the two souls idea.

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