Swift Thought

"France for the French." .....

This was supposed to be written yesterday but it never was. It’s the first and probably not the last post that will fail to adhere to the every-other-day pattern of my blog.

This time Montaigne came through with some pertinent things to say that can be strongly related to my experiences. Instead of talking about proper ways of conducting a ceasefire, he’s talking about speech! Exactly the thing that has brought me to France! He says,

So we see in the gift of eloquence, wherein some have such a facility and promptness, and that which we call a present wit so easy that they are ever ready upon all occasions, and never to be surprised; and others more heavy and slow, never venture to utter anything but what they have long premeditated, and taken great pains to fit and prepare.

The Italian lady who took this picture refused to include the other half because there was construction going on. "E brutto!"

As for my own experiences in France thus far, I exemplify each of these by turns. When in a conversation with more than two French people at once, I say almost nothing unless directly addressed. Instead I sit there and try desperately to follow what is being said. There is no room for wit or eloquence. I simply struggle to keep my footing, not bothering with any fancy maneuvers that might trip me up. And even in conversation with one French person, where I am obliged to speak, I make myself understood, but often so circuitously that the original point of what I said has been obscured or lost. Presumably this will get better with practice, but true eloquence is yet a ways off.

Par contre, when I am with other English speakers, the eloquence that I strive for so longingly in French spreads its wings, which have remained unexercised and encaged within a foreign tongue, and takes flight, soaring and dipping and dancing through the sky. I feel so natural and free in English. Judging by the loquacity of the English speakers who I went out with yesterday evening they were experiencing the same sense of freedom restored. Perhaps these were even people who would normally choose words carefully, but who were so thrilled by the familiarity of their own language.

But of course Montaigne was not seeking to extend his differentiation between spontaneous, effortless speech and methodical, premeditated speech to people seeking to express themselves in foreign languages. The trajectory of his essay therefore does not coalesce with mine but is nonetheless interesting. He says that the person who meditates less on what s/he says, says things more gracefully and approachably. What he means to say is that over-thinking and over-exerting bog down a person’s thoughts and actions. He says, “I know experimentally, the disposition of nature so impatient of tedious and elaborate premeditation, that if it do not go frankly and gaily to work, it can perform nothing to purpose. We say of some compositions that they stink of oil and of the lamp, by reason of a certain rough harshness that laborious handling imprints upon those where it has been employed.” He is cautioning against overworking your own ideas and projects to the point where it is obvious that they were achieved with great difficulty. The implementation of my 30-minute time limit was essentially conceived to the same purpose.

And here we find ourselves.


6 thoughts on “Swift Thought

  1. Krogers says:

    I will take Patrick’s usual first post spot. You chatty cathy.

    This pics look great! You are a lumberjack in France!

  2. Patrick says:

    I detect, like me, you’re endowed with the gift of gab… in English.

  3. Cody says:

    Gasp! I often fall into the trap of overworking. Although William zinnser of “writing well” would attest that good composition is the result of repetitive copyediting. As would some of my professors, although they were teaching engineers. Perhaps the engineering mindset is geared toward “overworking” and so they teach to that style. Different styles for different minds? Writing a composition is very different from designing a complex mechanical device. Different sides of the brain. But can one learn both–a modern day Renaissance man? I haven’t met one yet.

    • jamesrnelson says:

      You make good points. I think one of the things that makes the spontaneous speaker and writer better is that s/he experiments more with the effect of certain words, intonations, etc. The person who too carefully chooses words abandons opportunities to experiment, thinking s/he can anticipate the results of saying something without actually saying–in short, hypothesizing and then concluding without experimenting. In this sense, volume and repetition is exactly what makes a spontaneous person better at speaking.

  4. Cody says:

    It is also interesting to see your perspective of the repressing your native language. Do you feel your French regresses when you fall back to your native tounge? I knew many foreign students, mostly Thai and Korean, who never improved their English because they spent most of their time speaking their own native language with their friends.

    • jamesrnelson says:

      Well I don’t spend much time speaking English, so I don’t think my once-a-week forays into English conversation pose a serious threat to my French learning.

      Then again, my Entire blog is in English and my skype conversations are in English…

      But since I don’t have any friends nearby who are English-speaking there’s no real danger of insulating myself from French culture.

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