When I started Middle School, there was a foreign language requirement, and we could choose Spanish, German, or French. I don't remember what went into my decision, but my older brother had already started studying French, and I did the same. I remember regretting that a bit because that produced yet another class where a teacher was comparing me against my brother, and also because just about all my friends started taking German. But I stuck with it, all the way through a few years of French language and French literature at Cornell. I remember thinking and dreaming in French. But then I graduated and never had to use it, so the ability just faded away.
While I was working for Nokia in 1998-2001, I was sent to a technical conference in Paris. I was there for 4 or 5 days, and was really frustrated by how little of my French I could remember. But as the week progressed, I started understanding more and more of overheard conversations, and the voice in my head started trying to speak in French --but it was really frustrating because I'd get parts of phrases, but be stumped on vocabulary and verb conjugation. After 3 or 4 days, a flood of vocabulary and facility came back, but I was still unable to hold a conversation. I felt simultaneously frustrated and stunned that so much that I'd thought I'd forgotten was still in there!
When I started working for SpeechWorks in 2001, HQ was in Boston, but a lot of the new embedded speech team were in Montreal. I was eventually reporting to a guy in Montreal, and made a few trips up there for meetings. They were just once or twice a year, but I found the same thing happened as in Paris: after about 3 days the French voice in my head started being able to speak like a 3 year old in French. Since moving to Vermont, I can drive up to Montreal in less than 4 hours, versus the 7 hours it took from Ithaca, and my team has grown a lot with new hires in both Detroit and Montreal. I go to the Nuance Montreal office 6-10 times a year, but it's usually for only 2 or 3 days at a time, and we speak English in the office, so I'm never there long enough for that voice in my head to get ramped back up. I'd like to think that if I had to live up there for a few months I'd get fluent again, but I don't know if that will ever happen.
I'm about to head up for another visit to the office, and I thought about this song from a little over 30 years ago. I was a student at Cornell University, taking a French class, but it was a beautiful spring day in 1984 and I was procrastinating the way I usually did: playing guitar. I had the borrowed, gorgeous, Gibson Hummingbird 12-string acoustic guitar and started strumming out this song. I wrote some lyrics, the core of which translate to "I don't want to do my French". I wish I'd had the gumption to turn in a tape of the song to my teacher in place of the homework I didn't do that day. Then again, maybe these lyrics are really terrible.
Written and recorded with two mics into a cassette deck. On the album Umbrellas.
Thanks for listening!
Mon Français Je ne veux pas De faire mon Français Le printemps est en l'air Mon coeur s'est rempli Mon guitar est appelant de moi Et je ne peut pas refuser Translation: I do not want To do my French Spring is in the air My heart is full/filled My guitar is calling for me And I cannot refuse/resist ©1984 by Andy Wyatt written and recorded 10 April 1984