I’ve been on vacation this week with my husband’s Canadian relatives, and I’ve heard a lot of French. My in-laws switch from English to French and back again mid-sentence. It’s been an interesting experience to hear a language that I definitely do not speak, and I’ve enjoyed sitting back in the crowded room, trying to follow conversations with half words and body language. I don’t mean to say that I’ve been ignored in any way–when they speak to me, they always use English, but I enjoy listening to the pockets of discussion amid family members: the exclamations of frustrated children, the questions from other rooms as someone hunts for something, the names of friends and relatives that I could understand if I saw them in print, but cannot hear except for a slurry of vowels and cadence.
The English major in me knows that English has a lot of French words, make that a ton of French words, that it absorbed after the Norman Invasion. I even know how French influence changed both pronunciation and spelling, and I explain the transition from Old English (Beowulf!) to Middle English (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales!) to my students each semester. But knowing the history of a language and being able to sit in a room full of people who speak it are very different things, and I’ve found my vocabulary straining this week as I try to parse the French sounds from the words I know on paper and then connect them to the French inspired English words. After all, the French gave English something close to 10,000 words (because English did what it does best between 1066 and the 13th century–absorbed words); in fact, some scholars say that the average English speaker already knows some 15,000 French words already. I find myself trying to remember that this week. It’s not that I don’t recognize the words, I think; it’s that I don’t hear the sounds and translate what I’m hearing (which is a lot of musical ups and downs with lots of “j” and “v” to my untrained ears) into something I recognize. I keep asking my husband to spell things for me so I can remember them that way (apparently, I retain more information this way–who knew?)
So, I’m having a lovely time with my extended family, but I’m also enjoying the practical lessons in language acquisition. And since my characters often find themselves in places where they do not speak the local language, I want to remember this feeling of curious intrigue–wanting to know more, but wanting to figure it out for myself.