Many years ago, when I was teaching a “business writing” course in Yerevan, at the American University of Armenia, one of my more ambitious students was an unfolding bundle of irritation. Tall and sinewy, he was nervous in the way the very eager often are. Something always seemed to be eating at him although he did excellent work in class.
One evening, after class, as all of us were walking down those interminable steps of the university, he blurted out the source of his frustration. He had been to the US on some sort of program and was amazed at how fast Americans spoke. He wanted to speak like them, and he tried to persuade me that to know a language is to be able to speak it fast. (Of course, his ambition was to secure himself a position with a US company). We reached the bottom of the 114 steps, and he was still trying. I reasoned with him but to no avail. For him, fluency and speed were synonymous, and fluency meant speech.
I am sure this student has moved on in life. And he’s probably learned to talk very fast. But his complaint has stayed with me not so much for the wrongness of what he claimed about speed. That, there is no discussion about. But rather for the less obvious point he was making. For him, a young man coming out of the collapse of the USSR, his eyes set for the big wide world across the oceans, speaking mattered more than writing; he saw people around him speak a fast and furious English, which opened doors and possibilities. Why not he?
My student had a point but not for the reasons he gave. We begin with speech, with the sounds we put together, with what Walter Ong many years ago called “orality” in the contrast he develops between orality and literacy. We begin with speaking, with words uttered to ourselves or to others or both, the sound at our throats and our lips.
Which is what my French teacher A. says that utterance is the quintessential state of learning French–paying attention to the sounds in all their colorations and varieties and caprices, and listening to ourselves as we speak them. “That’s how we learn,” he says. “Even those interminable verb lists.” We make each verb, each tense (and there are 14, as I told you!) our own in this slow, almost trance-like way of creating familiarity with the verbs, with the sounds of the verbs.
The approach is diametrically opposed to the fast, bam-bam-bam way of learning anything by heart. Rattle them off long enough and fast enough, you’ll eventually get it. But my teacher’s insistence on the primacy of sound has everything to do with the alliance he sees between language and music.
Forget about this abstract stuff, you say. How does he actually teach this alliance between language and music? A. is a seasoned teacher; he has honed his method over many years, and he alone can claim it and explain its theoretical underpinnings. (And he has a lot to say about methods of teaching French, many of which, according to him are limited.) But I can tell you how it works for the student: Once you have the “formula” of the “sound stem” down, you learn the “song” it creates, and then apply it to the verbs. Now, the important thing is to slow down to a crawl, allowing each word to come into being at its own pace, even languidly, paying attention to all the little twists and blockages and obstacles and incorporating them into the utterance.
And it is utterance you’re after, for once you are able to utter the imparfait de l’indicatif, for instance, of the verb déchirer (to rip, to tear apart)–all six words–slowly, with attention to the way the vowels and the consonants intertwine, you will have created a universe of sounds which are imprinted in your linguistic intelligence.
This is only the beginning, of course. Because you have, in French, those wretched irregulars, the defectors which demand your attention. But, oddly enough, if you allow for the musicality of the word to enter your consciousness, if you begin to think of utterance as pleasurable, if you can hear your own voice in its many cadences and moods, you can — dare I say it–enjoy the rote and loop of verbs. And once fluency of utterance is on its way, you can begin to think about spelling. That becomes a detail you learn, for the sake of something larger and more alive.
Whether we writers like it or not, a new language begins to take hold in us in speech, in orality–slowly, voluptuously, taunting us, pushing us, luring us this way and that as we stumble on the rocks and crags of misspelled and misspoken sounds. And perhaps there is some truth to the small gimmick which many speech coaches insist on: If you want people to listen to you, speak slowly. But it is not really a gimmick; it is one of the hardest things to achieve, my Yerevan student’s complaints notwithstanding.
Language and music share the common soil of sound and melos. And what better way to bring this meditation to an end than to cite that beautiful passage from Carlos Fuentes where he pays tribute to the miners of Chile, to their vernacular song of Neruda’s poetry. It has nothing to do with learning French, but it is of the moment, coming into memory as though out of nowhere, though it was there all along, like the verbs when they see the light of speech, the light of day.
This is what Fuentes says:
One afternoon on the beach at Lota in Southern Chile, I saw the miners as they came out, mole-like, from their work many feet under the sea, extracting the coal of the Pacific Ocean. They sat around a bonfire and sang, to guitar music, a poem from Neruda’s Canto General. I told them that the author would be thrilled to know that his poem had been set to music.
What author? they asked in surprise. For them, Neruda’s poetry had no author; it came from afar, it had always been sung, like Homer’s. It was, as Croce said of The Illiad “d’un popolo intero poetante,” of an entire poetizing people. It was the document of the original identity of poetry and history.