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La Musique de La Langue

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I have been largely monolingual for most of my life, aside from the obligatory few years studying French in high school and learning a few words of other languages here and there, mostly through singing something in one foreign language or another in the school choir.  I’d actually pick up on the sound of a language pretty quickly; one of my music teachers once tested me and found I had perfect pitch, and I can only assume it helps me copy the phonetics and sounds of whatever foreign phrase I hear.  I have no idea what I’m saying, but the way I’m saying it is perfect.

Lately, I’ve been practicing French a lot more, though.  One of my co-workers is from Paris herself, and my roommate knows French as well.  And after making one trip to Paris – and preparing for another – I’m getting a bit more serious about polishing my French up.  And the best way to do that, I read once, is to talk to yourself in French a lot. And thus a lot of my inner monologue these days has been in French – or what little of it I can remember, as I check out the colors of people’s hats on the subway (“Quelle bizarre chapeau, quelle coleur est-il?”) or shop for food after work (“eh bien, pour dinner….hmm, du fromage, du saussicon, et….des pommes de terre, peut-etre?  Oui.”).  I’ll imagine I’m trying to explain things to an imaginary friend visiting me (“Les Etas-Unis a seulment deux partis politiques”) or comment to them about things I’m watching on Netflix (“Mais non, Scully n’est pas vuer des petits hommes verts – c’est Mulder seulement!…Et non, je ne connais pas comme ils sont retourner a l’Antarctique.”)

The problem is that eventually, my vocabulary just plain runs out, and I have to switch to an English word here and there because I simply don’t know the French one.  I had to do that a lot in Paris, and I’m doing it still now, even talking to myself.  But I’m finding myself doing it less and less – not because I’m gradually remembering more words, but because I’m actually trying to avoid the way English sounds mixed in with the French.  My brain will be skating along on a stream of lovely romance-language lilt, all soft je and la, and then suddenly throwing in a clunky, germanic English word sounds like falling down after an attempt at a triple lutz, all knees and elbows and bang on the ice.

The heck of it is, I like the way English sounds too.  And I also love the sound of Gaelic languages, which are even starker compared to the way Romance languages sound; I spent a good year and a half trying to find a translation for this song by the Scottish singer Karen Matheson, simply because I loved the way the words sounded.  The fact that it’s essentially Scottish Gaelic scat singing doesn’t bother me at all, either; I still will wander about singing the sounds as best as I can copy them. I also did the same for Great Big Sea’s cover of the Quebecois folk song Le Bon Vin.  But gradually I’ve noticed that my accent is getting better than theirs, and that I also know what I’m saying – which is making the singing all the more fun.


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