The hardest thing for me in learning French is hearing and understanding it. It’s easier to read, and somewhat easier to speak, than it has been for me to understand spoken French.

I kept thinking that the language is not precise. And then my teacher told us something that helped me turn the corner: listen to the vowels, she said. The vowels are all-important.

I had been listening to the consonants and listening for stressed syllables—as if French were English. It never occurred to me that vowels could be more important.

And then a strange thing happened—I started to hear English somewhat as French speakers must hear it. With my new-found French ears (sort of) English sounded weird, a language spoken by people with mouths full of marshmallows. Suddenly it was English that sounded imprecise, more like a low-pitched humming than a language. Like the adults in the old Charlie Brown TV cartoons. Mwa mwa mwa.

29 May 2002