Dépaysement: What the French Call That Feeling of . . . um . . . Un-country-ness

August 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Dépaysement. It’s a French word that means something like “culture shock,” but it’s for those times when culture shock isn’t enough to capture what you’re feeling.

I could give you my definition, but it would just be a reworking of what I’ve found others saying. Instead, I’d rather let those others speak for themselves:

Dépaysement—

  1. (sentiment dérangeant) disorientation
  2. (sentiment agréable) change of scenery

It’s hard to put your finger on the feeling. You’re away from home, in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign faces. You’re apprehensive, but excited. You’re nervous, but alive.

Every synapse feels like it’s firing when you first set foot in a strange place, when you have to figure out the lay of the land, try to decide if you’re safe or in danger, if you should be elated or afraid. Every part of you is in overdrive.

What do you call that? “Culture shock” doesn’t cut it. “Excitement” doesn’t do it justice either, given that undercurrent of fear. We don’t have a single term that sums all those feelings up.

But the French do.

(Ben Groundwater, “Why ‘Depaysement’ Is the One Foreign Word Every Traveller Should Know,” Stuff, May 4, 2017)

In France, the feeling of being an outsider is known as dépaysement (literally: decountrification). Sometimes it is frustrating, leaving us feeling unsettled and out of place. And then, just sometimes, it swirls us up into a kind of giddiness, only ever felt when far away from home. When the unlikeliest of adventures seem possible. And the world becomes new again.

(Tiffany Watt Smith, Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty—154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel, Little Brown, 2016)

People do some out-of-character things in foreign countries. They strike up conversations with strangers in bars, even if they would never do the same back home. They wear unflattering hats. There’s something about being a stranger in a strange land that’s equal parts exhilarating and disorienting, and this messy mix of feelings is what the French word depaysement . . . means to capture.

(Melissa Dahl, “10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had,” Science of Us, New York, June 15, 2016)

The gray and quotidian machinations of metropolitan life must be “deciphered” in order to discover another reality lurking just beneath the surface, the “sous-reality” of the historical marvelous. In surrealist wanderings through old neighborhoods, parks, cafés and restaurants, the city itself is text—the hidden mysteries like the markings on the Rosetta Stone. This mode of archaeological “reading” is linked to a phenomenological position which Jean Pierre Cauvin has identified as “dépaysement”: “the sense of being out of one’s element, of being disoriented in the presence of the uncanny, or disconcerted by the unfamiliarity of a situation experienced for the first time”. Literally, we might interpret “dépaysement” as “out of country”, or “displaced from one’s homeland.” Within the surrealist context, it refers to a cool disassociation from the mores of twentieth-century Parisian culture so that everyday material objects are freed from their ideological trappings and all of Paris opens itself up as a strange civilization to be “read” for the first time.

(Sasha Colby, Stratified Modernism: The Poetics of Excavation from Gautier to Olson, Peter Lang, 2009)

More than a statement of “homesickness,” depaysement implies a sense that you cannot go home again, that you may be forever disconnected from your old world (Smith 2006). Depaysement is reminiscent of a kind of ritualistic “becoming,” but does not imply being caught in the middle, as in Turner’s (1964) “betwixt and between,” because depaysement is not qualitatively transitional. A rite of passage implies a new social role or place in a social structure. Depaysement implies a sense of being stripped of that social structure altogether. It implies a new permanence in one’s experience in the worlds.

(Michael Holenweger, Michael Karl Jager, and Franz Kernic, eds., Leadership in Extreme Situations, Springer, 2017)

And then there are these musicians from Japan who call themselves The Depaysement (no, not “The Basement” or “The Debasement”). Watch their video. I’m sure they’d appreciate your views.


[photo: “Break Fast Languages,” by Enoz, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Do You Hear What They Hear? Babies Are Listening Bilingually Even before They Can Speak

October 18, 2013 § 8 Comments

I remember having a conversation with an American raising his children in Taiwan. The father was fluent in Mandarin, and he’d started teaching that language to his son at a young age. He told me that it hadn’t worked for him and that he’d read that parents who speak more than one language to their small children only confuse them, as they aren’t able to tell one language from another.

It seemed like sound reasoning to me.

42052685_df923ad167So it surprised me to see new research showing that infants are better at becoming bilingual than I’d thought. As it turns out, by the age of seven months, babies can distinguish between languages by recognizing their different grammar structures.

The study, published in Nature Communications, focused on languages with opposite grammar patterns—such as English, which most often has the verb before the object, and Turkish, which follows the object-then-verb arrangement. Infants in bilingual environments pick up on these patterns and can distinguish between the languages, by listening to differences in pitch, duration, and word frequency.

Janet F. Werker, of the University of British Columbia, is co-author of the study, along with Judit Gervain, of the Université Paris Descartes. Werker reassures parents in bilingual households. “If you speak two languages at home, don’t be afraid, it’s not a zero-sum game,” she says. “Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways.”

Mental Cartography

Werker and Gervain’s research is one more step forward in what we know about infants and language learning. In 2001, Patricia Kuhl, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning, told the Smithsonian magazine that six-to-eight-month olds can already distinguish between different vowel and consonant sounds in the languages they hear everyday and in languages “foreign” to them. But by their first birthday, they can no longer differentiate between sounds that are not part of a language that they’ve been exposed to. This is because they have developed a focus on familiar sounds, while “tuning out” unfamiliar ones. Then, later on in life, when the familiar competes against the unfamiliar, say, when learning a new language, the old sounds will usually win out. The result is a non-native accent.

To register what sounds infants can differentiate, Kuhl used a “head-turn” study (similar to that used by Werker and Gervain). In one example, two-thirds of both American and Japanese six-month olds could hear the difference between “la” and “ra.” But by the one-year mark, 80% of American children responded to the difference, while only 59% of the Japanese children did. Since the latter rate is only 9 percentage points above chance, this showed that the Japanese children had joined their parents in no longer being able to distinguish between the two sounds.

According to Kuhl,

The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears. That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain’s network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic. You don’t think about it, like walking. [Familiar sounds] become more and more embedded into the map, until eventually they are almost ineradicable.

This accent map gets harder and harder to change as time goes by. On the other hand, if a child is exposed to multiple languages early enough—while the map is being drawn—the child can create more than one map at once.

Kuhl also has found (as shown in the TED Talk below) that if this exposure to languages is to have an effect on an infant, it must come from a live person. Listening to audio, even with an accompanying video of the speaker, does no good.

It’s Never Too Early to Learn

According to DNAinfo New York, some parents in the Big Apple are even learning a new language themselves in order to make sure that exposure to multiple languages happens for their children at an early age.

Take, for instance, Rhonda Ross, of Harlem, who went to a boarding school in a French-speaking area of Switzerland when she was a student. Later, when her son, Raif, turned one, she began speaking to him only in French. “I started with a French babysitter,” she said, “but a friend convinced me I would have to speak French to my son myself if I really wanted him to be fluent.”

Not being fluent herself, that means that Ross has to keep learning as she teaches her son. But she feels that the effort is worth it. In fact, she is so pleased with the outcome, that she’s introduced Raif to Mandarin and Spanish, as well.

Linguist Jennifer Wilkin, of Brooklyn, is another advocate of early bilingual education. In 2001, she founded Science, Language & Arts, where parents and children can learn French and Mandarin. “There is certainly a trend among New Yorkers to give a language to their children,” said Wiklin, who “knows several parents who are learning, and speaking, Spanish, Japanese, French and German to their children.”

While Wilkin’s school has students from preschool through fifth grade, Lyndsey St. John started Baby French in a Brooklyn ice-cream parlor and candy shop named The Candy Rush. The class caters to children who haven’t even learned to talk yet. “It’s really good to start those [language] pathways forming at a very early age,” said Wilkins. “Anywhere from 8 months to 3 years is when children are really sponges. They’re picking up everything.”

(Judit Gervain and Janet F. Werker, “Prosody Cues Word Order in 7-Month-Old Bilingual Infants,” Nature Communications, February 14, 2013; “Bilingual Babies Know Their Grammar by Seven Months,” The University of British Columbia Public Affairs, February 14, 2013; Edwin Kiester, Jr., “Accents Are Forever,” Smithsonian, January 2001; Julie Norwell, “New York Parents Learn Foreign Languages to Help Kids Become Fluent,” DNAinfo New York, March 6, 2013; “Even before They Utter First Words, Brooklyn Babies Take French Lessons,” DNAinfo New York, August 22, 2012)

[photo: “Mommy Tells a Story,” by Dan LaVange, used under a Creative Commons license]

 

If I Had a Hammer, I’d Still Need to Listen

September 6, 2013 § 4 Comments

Thanks to my daughter for showing me “It’s Not about the Nail.”

Point taken (all puns intended). It can be frustrating when someone—like a wife—won’t listen to common sense, ignoring a problem that’s as obvious as the nose on her face. She just wants someone to listen. No advice allowed.

Funny stuff. I feel this guy’s pain.

But wait a minute. Don’t I like to talk about the need for people to be heard, without having someone trying to fix everything? What about her pain? What gives?

Here’s what I’ve decided: Sometimes it is about the nail, but that doesn’t mean we should stop listening. Yes, some people, like this woman, won’t listen to reason. They don’t want to hear the truth or take responsibility, and they need to hear the truth clearly.

8559722063_d78cba51bc_tBut much of the time, our friends on the couch know the problem well and already have the solutions. Maybe they’re in the middle of fixing it but it’s taking time . . . or the fixes aren’t as quick as they should be . . . or the most obvious solutions would do more harm than good (anybody got a claw hammer?) . . . or there are other issues that make things more complicated. And in those cases, the person with the nail doesn’t need to be pummeled with advice, they need someone to hear about their hurts and fears.

There are a lot of people in the world who don’t want to listen to the truths that will solve their problems, but there are also a lot of people who don’t want to listen to the problems of others, so they use easy answers to try to make their own discomfort go away.

I know, I know. It’s just a comedy skit, and I shouldn’t try to make too much out of it. But I wanted to post the video, and I just couldn’t do that without tacking on my thoughts.

Oh, and one more thing. The writer and director for “It’s Not about the Nail” (he’s the male actor, too) is Jason Headley. Here’s another one of his videos. It’s called “A Little French.” (This will be the last of my comments about learning French for a while.) It doesn’t have millions of views like the one above, but it’s just as funny.

How can you not appreciate the thought process of a guy who can say, “I don’t want to learn French, I want to speak French”? If only. . . .

[photo: “Hammer,” by homespot hq, used under a Creative Commons license]

Language Study: Live (There) and Learn

September 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

3797213895_8586cd8e5e_nMan, I really should have studied French harder in college.

That’s how I ended my last post. Actually, I did study hard, got good grades in my three French classes, and was only three hours short of getting a French minor.

The reason I didn’t get the minor was that when I showed up for the first class of The History of the French Language, a 3-hour class taught in English, I realized I was in over my head. It was in the fall, after a summer full of not speaking French, and the girl in front of me asked Professor Honeycutt if he would teach the class in French. She asked this in French, and the girl next to her nodded in agreement. The teacher said he couldn’t do that, but I dropped the class the next day anyway.

It was one of the best decisions of my college career. I’m so glad that today I don’t have to tell people that I have a French minor but about the only thing I can still say is “I speak a little French.”

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t study hard enough. The problem was I didn’t need to use it outside of class. And inside of class, what I said didn’t matter as much as how I said it. You know what I mean: If your teacher asks you to tell about your pet, and you have a dog, but you’ve forgotten the word for dog, but you remember the word for cat, suddenly you have a cat. The professor isn’t asking you because he’s concerned about the animals in your life, he simply wants to see if you can put sentences together.

It’s not a silver bullet, but putting yourself in a place where you need to use a language in a meaningful way is key to learning a language. That’s one of the foundations of Education First, named the official supplier of language programs for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. EF was founded in 1965 by Bertil Hult in Sweden, “on the principle that cultural immersion was a superior way to study a language.”

Below are five EF commercials about people learning a language where it’s spoken. Granted, they glamorize the whole expat experience, but they are commercials, not documentaries.

I just wish that I could become fluent by watching cool videos about cool people living in cool places—and not have to worry about conjugating verbs.

The commercials are called “Live the Language.”

(By the way, who knew that speaking Australian and Canadian was so easy? Almost as easy as what they speak over in England).

(“About Us” and “EF in Brief,” Education First)

[photo: “cafe,” by  pim van boesschoten, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Britishisms Are Coming! So Are the Americanisms! Is Any Language Safe?

November 27, 2012 § 8 Comments

In his new book, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, British historian Stuart Laycock claims that Britain has attacked more nations than any other. In fact, according to Laycock, Britain has “invaded, had some control over, or fought conflicts in the territory of something like 171 out of 193 UN member states in the world today (and maybe more).”

Of course, Britain’s incursions aren’t limited to the military variety. Who hasn’t heard of the British Invasion, when the Beatles and Rolling Stones came to American shores? And now those sneaky Brits are at it again.

It’s Enough to Get One’s Knickers in a Twist

This time they’re assailing something as personal to us Americans as our English language. (Yes, yes, we originally got it from them, but we’ve made it our own.) The headlines speak for themselves:

We have Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, to thank for keeping track of the incursions. Such is his acumen, his work is sourced in each of the articles above. Yagoda’s blog, “Not One-Off Britishisms,” keeps track of the invasion as it occurs, one word and phrase at a time. Britishisms such as spot oncheekychippy, and have a look have already taken up residence within our borders, and it looks as if there are more to come, what with Harry PotterDowntown Abbey, and Doctor Who helping with the assault.

American Offensives and Offenses

In all fairness, though, as an American, I must admit that my country has done its fair share of invading over the years, militarily and culturally. And evidence suggests that this most recent verbal offensive by the British might actually be a counter offensive.

Take, for instance, the following from Alistair Cooke’s 1984 radio broadcast, Letter from America. The host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater for 20 years, Cooke had one foot planted firmly on each side of the Atlantic, being born in Lancashire and later becoming an American citizen. Letter from America ran for 58 years, and the BBC has just recently put over 900 of Cooke’s audio installments online.

The “letter” of note is “Americanisms,” in which Cooke discusses American words that have made the jump across the pond. There’s caucus and pow-wow (both of which came initially from American Indians) and hunky-doryparolescientist, and awful.

French and Chinese under Siege

French has not been immune to the encroachment of English, as well. (Granted, this isn’t all the fault of us Americans. Maybe we should consider it a joint invasion from the US and Britain.) An article in Les Echos gives several examples of Franglais in the French business world, which now “has French people talking about ‘addressing’ problems, ‘delivering’ solutions, attending ‘meetings’ and ‘workshops’ and ‘conf calls.'”

Finally, we can’t ignore the awful things that American English is doing to the Chinese language. According to Jin Zhao, of the blog Things You Don’t Know about China, online Chinese have latched onto Oh my Lady Gaga!—a phrase from the TV series Ugly Betty and a variation on the globally ubiquitous Oh my God. (Now there’s a phrase I wish we could put a stop to.) And then there’s “Chinglish” like geilivable, a combination of the Mandarin gei li, meaning “give” and “strength,” and the English adjective ending able. The result means something like “cool” or “impressive.”

Chinese innovators have also created new words completely out of English, such as antizen (from ant and citizen) for “college graduates who share a small apartment with several roommates, working hard, yet making little money,” and smilence, meaning “smiling silently” to show mutual agreement.

Is the government of China taking this lying down? Of course not. Two years ago, China’s People’s Daily Online reported that the General Administration of Press and Publication had declared a ban in official publications on geilivable and other forms of “abuse of foreign languages, including arbitrary use of English words; acronym mixing in Mandarin and coined half-English, half-Chinese terms that are intelligible to nobody.” “All these have seriously damaged to [sic] the purity of the Chinese language,” says People’s Daily, “and resulted in adverse social impacts to the harmonious and healthy cultural environment.”

Maybe It’s Nothing to Be Gobsmacked About

So what are we to do? What is the world to do? Maybe we can learn from Alistair Cooke, who says, given time, it will all be OK. “The invasion of Americanisms into Britain is never a problem to any generation born after a particular invasion,” he asserts, “since they don’t know they were invaded, but only to the generation that can see the invaders offshore.”

So no worries. Carry on.

(Stuart Laycock, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, History Press, 2012; Alistair Cooke, “Americanisms,” Letter from America, BBC Radio, February 24, 1984; Philippe Bertrand, “Franglais: How English is Ruining the French of the French,” Worldcrunch, July 21, 2012, translated from “Le Français, l’Anglais et Notre Crise d’Identité” Les Echos, July 19, 2012; Jin Zhao, “‘Oh My Lady Gaga! This Is So Geilivable!’: Chinglish Entering Globish?” Things You Don’t Know about China, June 4, 2011; Li Mu, “Authorities Ban Mixed English Words ‘Ungelivable’ in Publications,” People’s Daily Online, December 21, 2010)

Thanks to Chris WoolfClark Boyd, and Patrick Cox of PRI’s The World, whose stories pointed me towards much of the the source material above. Well played! I say. Well played!

[photo: “250th Fort Necessity,” by ryanophilly, used under a Creative Commons license]

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