Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hills of Language

I have returned to Rabat a restless woman. Here is why.

My Marrakshi weekend turned into an intense French-immersion. Trying to find my way in that Francophone bath, I went from nervously thrashing about to letting myself go and realizing that I could actually stay afloat. I made mistakes in my sentences, and many of them, but I realized I could communicate. I realized, too, how tangible conversational fluency in French is for me, how fast I had already learned so much, in the span of only a night and a day. Had I spent the last 2 months intensively studying French, imagine how far I would have come.

But back in Rabat, I have to push the French that is now so fresh in my mind back to the bench, and return to Arabic. I feel as though this weekend was a climb uphill, and just when I have reached the summit, just now that I am ready to race down to the valley of fluency, I have to turn around to continue my way up a completely different hill. This is frustrating me to no end. Firstly, because the hill of Arabic is much, much higher. And secondly, because having turned back to Arabic, I already feel my French capacities taking a step back, floating away into the darkness of my brain. It will be there, but I will lose the comfort I was building up this weekend.

Trying to learn two languages at once, and both intensively, does not work, I have concluded. I am very sure I have made progress with each, but not nearly as much as I would have if I had focused on one of the two. With neither have I reached the level of comfort where I no longer have to think so hard before uttering a sentence. Trying to focus on two languages at once means that it is impossible to get the kind of total mental immersion that you need in order to begin to understand a language from the inside out. On top of that, I feel constantly torn; when I study Arabic I feel as though I am neglecting French, and when I take time to work on French, I feel as though I should be working on Arabic. This feels especially acute right now: I want to continue riding this wave of French, but I am here, and paying, to study Arabic. Yet French may actually be the better time-investment. Not only because it’s easier to make progress, but also because it may be much more useful to me right now. The first part of my research will involve interviewing psychiatrists, and this will almost certainly happen in French. At the moment, I am not capable of carrying on a specialized conversation about psychiatry in French. But I am so sure that had I done – or if I do – a two-month intensive course of French, I would be.

And so the idea of going to France, or Quebec, has popped into my head. I want to immerse myself, for six or eight weeks, and attain that level of fluency that I need. On one hand it seems like a crazy idea – another intensive language course, another location, another big trip. It feels a little unrealistic and off-course. But on the other – it’s not off-course, not really. I am going to need a solid command of French for my research. It doesn’t have to be faultless, but I have to have a comfort, a confidence in my ability to express myself and to understand the subtleties in someone else’s speech. I am on my way, but I need more. And I think that what I need is not a twice-weekly course in grammar – I’ve learnt the grammar. What I need is to learn how to use that grammar in the construction of sentences, how to actually express myself in French. What I need is to get a feeling for the language, to learn how to think in French so that speaking becomes more natural. And I think that a month or two of intensive immersion – a month of two of no choice but to speak and listen to French 24/7 – would do the trick.

The only problem (and a big one, too): right now I have all the time in the world to go, to spend some time in Paris, or Montréal – but I have no money. And once I do have money – once (if) I receive a grant – I will have run out of time. I will be expected to begin my research… without having a solid fluency in either language.

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