Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The parable of criticism is a compliment

Once upon a time, back when I was in grad school, I decided that I was going to learn to speak a foreign language. I'd enjoyed learning Latin in high school and college, but I felt like I'd missed out never having learned to carry on a real-time conversation with actual non-English-speaking foreigners. And since there were so many foreign students in the math department where I was studying for my Ph.D. (who could help me practice speaking their native tongue) -- it was an opportunity I didn't want to waste!

So I picked French as my new language, and I bought a stack of books and tapes and obsessively studied until I got to the point where I could carry on a rudimentary conversation. Then I scheduled regular conversation outings with various grad students who were from French-speaking countries, and by the time I got the opportunity to travel to France -- to spend a month attending a special semester of Number Theory at a university in Paris -- I was already able to carry on a perfectly reasonable conversation in French, as long as the person I was talking to was fairly patient.

When I arrived in Paris, I had plenty of opportunity to practice my new skill on the people of the math department I was visiting. And it seemed like everybody was complimenting me on how well I spoke French, to which I would respond with a faux-modest "merci" and then launch into the grand epic tale of how I'd taught myself to speak French. That was one of the stories I was really, really good at telling in French. ;^)

Then towards the end of the month, the compliments started to dry up. What's worse, instead of complimenting me, the new people I would meet would actually correct me -- pointing out errors in grammar and pronunciation in the middle of a conversation!

This annoyed me at first (especially since it limited my opportunities to regale people with my favorite grand epic tale), but I felt better after I thought about it a bit. When someone arrives fresh off the plane, obviously enthusiastic about speaking the language and capable of a reasonable conversation, but is making errors in every sentence, what are you going to say? The natural response is something like "Wow, you speak French well; you're learning fast..." Whereas when I'd gotten to the point where people were bothering to correct one lone mistake in the middle of a conversation, it must have meant that the other stuff I'd said was mostly right.

Thus I concluded that criticism is often a compliment. I think this is a general lesson that applies to a lot of life circumstances.

(The humility-restoring post script to my grand epic tale: now my five-year-old son Nicolas corrects my French. He's not even lenient about it either, he's like "Mom, it's not puissant, it's puissante," and he follows up with an exaggerated eye-rolling that says "duh, Mom, where did you learn to speak French?")


Anonymous said...

I never thought of it that way.

When I was in Russia, my host parents and prof's would correct my Russian (I was/am famously bad at the endings of the words). For example, if you say to the classroom, there's one ending, and if you say in the classroom, there's another. It's very confusing.

Sometimes the corrections were helpful. Sometimes it felt a little frustrating - there was a judgement thing there (why don't you get this yet??) I guess it was a different dynamic - even at 20 most of the students I were with were treated like pre-teens/children - simply because we couldn't speak as well as the other 20 year olds.

I think it is awe - inspiring that you learned french on your own, I took 6 years in high school/junior high. I remember some words, but they're now mixed up in my Russian. So, for example, if I think of the word small in French or Russian, if I'm speaking Russian I'll think of the French word and vice versa :)

Anonymous said...

And as you can see, I can't even speak English either. I meant - students I was with...

Cyn Bagley said...

Ah kids, ya gotta love 'em because ya can't shoot 'em

Umm.. I learned German, but since I have not spoken German in years (since we left), it has dried up.


C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

It's funny how learning another foreign language seems to interfere with one you've already learned. Learning French basically wiped out the Latin I remembered from High School and College...

Hey Cynthia!!!

That's the trouble -- if you don't have the opportunit for constant practice, it's easy to forget what you've learned.

AnnM said...

When the daughter of a friend (American/Canadian couple living in France) was about 5 or 6, her mom scolded her in French...and her daughter suggested with a laugh that she not scold her in French anymore.

When my son was 5, after 2 years in France and still not speaking a word of French, we went shopping for clothes at Gèmo. He asked what the name of the store was, and I said "Gémo, I think." And he said, "No, Mom. See the mark above the e? It's Gèmo."

Anonymous said...

I can so relate - my daughter has been rolling her eyes at me for well over 20 years now. Wait until Nicholas is a little older - he won't even bother to correct you; he'll just roll his eyes at you and that'll be the end of that.

In truth, I love that our kids can correct us once in awhile. I love learning from my daughter - there's just something so cool about our kids knowing something we don't.

What does puissante` mean?

Anonymous said...

The French have a beautiful language, but they are very snooty about it and hate to hear it misused in any way.

What a wonderful name you picked for your son!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

Cute story!!! Sometimes they know more than you realize....

Hey Tom!!!

So true!!! It's wonderful to learn stuff from your kids.

"Puissant/puissante" means powerful. It's an adjective with a masculine and feminine version that are pronounced and spelled a little bit differently. I was reading Nico a story where "puissante" was modifying a feminine noun, but I accidentally pronounced the masculine version. Oops! ;^)

Hey Nicholas!!!

I think the French are proud of their language, but they're understanding of the fact that people who learn French as adults aren't going to pronounce the words the way a native speaker would.