Photo: cc by Shandi-lee, thanks!
I can travel the world and I know I will somehow be understood. Even bad songs taught me a thing or two.
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST EMMANUELLE LAMBERT
I am going to let you in on a secret. Ok maybe not so secret but bear with me, I am going to elaborate just a little.
I started learning English when I was 9, in what in France we call primary school. In our “collège” (middle school) I was in a special class, “special” meaning we had 5 hours of English a week versus 3 for standard classes. In “lycée” (high school), the trend continued. And I majored in English and Spanish at university, now that comes as a surprise doesn’t it?
I had good teachers, really good teachers, the kind of teacher that would organize a trip to the US, work their butt off to make it happen without having the families emptying their savings account, make sure the children got a valuable experience and opened their mind to the newness that were the United States of America (culture shock, whole other story).
That said, you know what really taught me English? Music. Indeed.
La Isla Bonita is the mother of declension
We in France, and I think in Europe altogether, we are flooded with English-speaking singers and bands. How often does a French-speaking singer make it in the US or the UK? On a long-term basis? Indeed.
Anyway, when I was 10, I was a huge fan of Madonna. Sexually charged lyrics or attitude? I had no idea. I was only seeing a fierce and pretty gal singing funny things in funny dresses and outfits. If I recall correctly, I became a fan with La Isla Bonita. “Last night I dreamt of San Pedrooo” Bam! Irregular verb: to dream, dreamt, dreamt. Which is why I have become so uptight about “dreamED” and “learnED,” by the way. And there was that word, “lullaby.” Have you ever stopped and really played with “lullaby” in your mouth, “l”s rolling on your tongue?
When I got older, in high school, then was the time for my indie chick personae to unfold. Then was the time for US indie rock and Brit pop. For the discovery of older bands that had split up when I was 10 and a Madonna fan. Namely, the Smiths. You have no idea how much I learnT with them, and how many extra points I gained with their lyrics and the use of “but” in the sense of “except.” I still remember the look on my teacher’s face when I blurted this out in class. That’s advanced, for high school kids with only a few years of English under their belt.
Morrissey’s perfect British diction taught me how to actually pronounce those words. I owe much of my own pronunciation to listening to the Smiths over and over for a few months. Maybe one day I’ll post a video on my blog so you can hear. Or not.
“Nowhere Fast” got me somewhere real
At school, you are taught foreign languages out of books, sometimes videos, but nothing teaches you how to engage in a simple conversation, the day-to-day language, the one that is actually used.
Being so determined to pronounce the lyrics correctly, reading religiously all the CD booklets while, much to my parents’ dismay, singing along out loud, that’s how I got my first glimpse at what a normal human being could possibly say. Besides “baby I love you” that is. I understood first a pun on words thanks to the Smiths, again. Maybe it’s wrong to laugh my head off at “I am a man of means, of slender means.” Judge me all you want, I still think it’s clever.
Speaking a foreign language is like yoga: you are a perpetual student. A language grows, evolves, it’s organic, you never ever stop learning. Keep reading, keep listening, because the first transformations you become aware of appear in popular culture. Rap MCs for instance have had a huge impact on US English as we know it.
Regularly French authorities complain that there is too much English on the radio. Hell, in the 80s they even set up a minimum percentage of French music to be played on French radios. I can see their point, and I believe that English music is not evil either. That’s a tool for kids like I used to be to learn a language and be open to a whole other culture.
My English is far from perfect, there is still room for growth and there will always be. But I can travel the world and I know I will somehow be understood. Even bad songs taught me a thing or two.
Oh, and the lyrics might be plain ridiculous, but who cares anyway?
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.