Monday, February 22, 2010

It's Like Riding a...Rollerblades

I had a fantastic time this weekend with friends from France, who spent Thursday through Sunday at my house. All five of them can speak some English, but we spoke French ninety-nine percent of the time. My husband was born and raised in France, but since he learned to speak English, it has become his preferred language for day-to-day conversation. This is unfortunate for me, who desperately needs to practice my French. More often than not, when I begin a conversation with him in French, he responds in English, even though it's generally considered bad manners among bilingual people to answer in "Language B" when someone initiates a conversation in "Language A" (provided, of course, that both speakers are fluent in both languages). As a result I am perpetually out of practice, and the first two and a half days of our friends' visit were torturous for me and my tongue.

It struck me, as I stumbled over pronunciation and searched for every third word, that there's actually a lot in common between being thrown back into using your second language and picking up rollerblading after a couple years off skates. How, you ask? I believe it comes down to muscle memory.

A few weeks back I took my daughter and her friends to the roller skating rink. In my twenties, I lived on the coast in Los Angeles (Hermosa Beach) and clocked more time on my rollerblades than I did in tennis shoes. However, tying a pair of skates on after all these years proved deceptively challenging. I could keep up with the girls, propel myself forward, glide, and come to a reasonably quick stop, but all my movements were jerky and barely in control.

After a few dozen laps, I felt the muscles in my shins relax. My inner thighs remembered to do most of the work. As I sat back more on softer knees, I noticed my weight transfer from over my toes to over my heels. I got my glide on. It was as if the clock had turned back a decade and the fluid, slolam sashay returned to my movements. With little effort, I sped down the straightaways and crossed my outside skate over the inside one on the curves. It was awesome, like flying.

This kind of muscle memory also comes into play when picking back up a second language. English speakers keep their tongues more or less in the center of their mouths when they speak. When speaking in French though, your tongue must perform crazy acrobatics in order to push the correct sounds out. Also, English is spoken from the front of the mouth, where French is throatier and more nasal. It took several days for my throat to relax and my lips to adopt the proper pouty purse. It wasn't something I could force, because the more I concentrated on how French I sounded, the more I lost track of the words I was trying to say. Either way, I stumbled. It was frustrating, but sure enough after a little time, my fluency came back.

Of course, as soon as that happened, it was time for our friends to leave. (*sigh*) Oh well, at least I won't have as much trouble getting back into the swing of French this summer when we spend three weeks at my husband's family's home...I hope :)

How was your weekend? Did you do something you haven't done in a long time, or did you try anything new?