Me talk English real good. French, not so much.

So my wife and I bought the Rosetta Stone software as a mutual Christmas present to learn the language of love, gay Paree and downtown Biddeford. I’ve always wanted to learn a second language, and since I’m retired now I figured this was a perfect time. I studied Spanish in school, but it didn’t stick. Spanish speakers are rare in Maine anyway, and since many people around here speak French, I decided French was the way to go. Plus, my wife and I like to travel to Quebec, where we need to find bathrooms and order mussels. In French-speaking Canada, I need only say “bonjour” (good day) and the locals start talking back to me in perfect English, which is a little embarrassing.

I did consider the problem of learning Parisian French when my target audience spoke Quebecois, but I didn’t want to complicate the learning process any more than necessary.

Voila! Decision made.

An additional benefit, I deduced, was a better brain. Neuroscience research suggests new language acquisition builds synapses in the cranium, those critical connections to clear thinking. Since the possibility of a brain transplant was years in the future, I figured I had better work with what I had. Keep the existing brain cells firing.

When I opened the software to begin my studies, I had forgotten how terrible I was at language learning. And French, a beautiful sounding language, can be a bear for English speakers.

All those nasal vowels. I quickly discovered French pronunciation is best reproduced by pinching my nose and talking like the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew.

My wife and I saw the sci-fi movie “Arrival,” about a human scientist/linguist who learns to communicate with the Heptapods (the alien race) by deciphering their inky calligraphy. The actress, a plucky Amy Adams, invokes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the language you speak affects the way you think. In the movie, it’s all about the difference between how we – humans – and the aliens experience time. We experience time linearly, while they experience it circularly. Amy achieves this remarkable feat in two hours of screen time, convincing me that it’s easier to learn how to talk to a seven-tentacled alien about theoretical physics than it is to ask your average French waiter to please bring the check.

But I persevere and hope for the best, building those synapses, improving my age-addled brain.

Funny stories abound about language learning gone terribly awry. The best one I’ve heard comes from a good friend (and great storyteller) who relates the tale of a man traveling in a foreign land and who is reasonably comfortable with his mastery of the native tongue.

When questioned on a bus about how he is enjoying his stay in the country, the man responds with a few well-chosen words. The bus passengers erupt into laughter. Later, he learns he had clearly and confidently announced: “I have an erection!”

Note to self: practice, practice, practice!


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