- Technologies: One would think that at this late stage of globalization, all developed countries would be at the same technology level. But as in a game of Civ, France is behind America in some areas and ahead in others. For example, Europe has switched over to chip-and-PIN credit cards, forcing Americans with obsolete magstripe cards to buy their Métro tickets from a surly clerk at the ticket booth instead of the vending machines. On the other hand, automatic subway door-opening technology lags behind America, with most lines requiring the rider to pull a latch to open the door when he wants to get off. (I assumed this was an energy conservation measure for the climate-controlled trains, until I noticed that they weren’t actually air-conditioned and the windows were open. Maybe it’s just for the winter, but then why is it that newer lines do have automatic doors?) Finally, Europeans still have yet to figure out that if they mount the shower head on the wall, they can have both hands free when showering.
- Speaking French: My 1.5 levels of Rosetta Stone turned out not to be so useful; they usually spoke too fast for me to decipher it, and when I tried to speak it they looked at me as if the sounds I made didn’t even resemble human language. (Which is entirely plausible.) There was one place it was very useful, though: the opera. I’ve been spoiled a bit by the Met, which has individual subtitling screens on the back of each seat with a selection of languages. The Opéra Bastille has the more common setup of a single supertitling screen above the stage, in French only. Fortunately, through a combination of my meager French, my dimly-remembered Latin, knowledge of the story, and contextual clues, I was able to figure out a lot of what was going on. Otherwise I would have been very confused at the end of the opera when the female lead starts passionately kissing a severed head. Really.
- The French health care system: I have a trick for translating technical terms and proper names that don’t appear in normal language dictionaries: go to the English Wikipedia page for the thing you’re trying to translate, then click the link on the side for the target language and use the title of the page it links to. I normally use this to get the standard katakana spellings of Western names for my Japanese homework, but I was also able to use it in France to tell the triage nurse that I had a kidney stone: calcul rénal. I found that French hospitals were not the socialist, dystopian nightmare that I’ve been warned about by Fox News, but calculs are pretty annoying in any country or language. On the other hand, I definitely recommend seeing Versailles while buzzed on painkillers.
- Stairs: My friend Caroline (who lives in Paris, and whom I saw for the first time in years on Wednesday) related to me one of her rules for sightseeing: if it can be climbed, she has to climb it. I wasn’t quite so thorough, and was content to enjoy the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame cathedral from the ground level. I did, though, climb to the second platform of the Eiffel Tower (the stairs don’t go all the way to the top) and to the dome of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. The latter doesn’t have as many steps as the Eiffel Tower, but they more than made up for it by putting it at the top of a giant hill, then putting the Métro station at the foot of the hill, then burying the train platform itself deep beneath the Earth’s crust at the bottom of a long spiral staircase. Sure, there’s an elevator in the station, but that would be cheating. By Friday night, after I had also traversed a number of the many, many staircases in the Louvre, my legs were informing me that they were not going to climb any more steps, and I was to pick an altitude and stick with it.
- Art: An anonymous American tourist I overheard in the Louvre expressed it more poetically than I ever could when he said, “These are some awesome-ass pictures, man!” There are too many masterpieces to properly appreciate without weeks to spend in the museum, and so I just wandered the halls slack-jawed with amazement, trying to take in as much as I could before the guards threw me out at closing time. I went to the Louvre on Friday, when it stays open until 9:30 at night, and the evening was a great time to be there: it’s very quiet and peaceful and not at all crowded. I also wanted to see some modern art, but the Palais de Tokyo (which houses the modern and contemporary exhibits) was under renovation: only three rooms were open on the modern side (but admission was free) and only one room on the contemporary side. The former did have some great Picassos on view, and the latter earned its 3€ admission with a fascinating installation called The Tragedy of the Commons, basically a gigantic ant farm with various food and scent stimuli supplied to the ants to direct their trails.
- Food and drink: Excellent of course, with one exception: the andouillette. On the one hand, it’s just a sausage; on the other hand, it’s made entirely of coarsely ground tripe, and no amount of delicious mustard sauce is sufficient to hide this fact. I did however eat many tasty pork dishes that weren’t derived from the gastrointestinal tract, and never needed to resort to that other French delicacy, the Royale with Cheese.
- Traveling solo: I picked Paris for my vacation because I expected it to be a good place to visit on my own; this worked out in practice as well as in theory. Some people did ask me if this was a romantic trip, but that’s certainly not the only aspect of the city. Exploring the museums in solitude allows the visitor to set his own pace and focus on his particular interests. And the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés are ideal for taking a table for one and watching the passers-by. Since I was traveling by myself, without a backpack or giant camera, I apparently looked like a local: the hawkers of souvenirs left me alone, but attractive Parisian women would ask me in French for directions. Of course, those women moved on quickly once I revealed my true nature as a tourist, but the disguise was nice while it lasted.
- Photos: Photoset on Flickr
In a week I’m headed to Paris for a sightseeing trip. When I originally planned the trip, I didn’t know any French beyond what I have picked up in pop culture, which consists of:
- Fetchez la vache!
- Garçon means “boy”.
- You’re a good guy, mon frère. That means “brother” in French. I don’t know why I know that. I took four years of Spanish!
So, it’s clear that I’ll be relying on the ubiquity of English to get around. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that it might be fun to learn a bit of French before I go, so a few weeks ago I got a Rosetta Stone subscription and started working my way through the basic levels.
Something I don’t have a good sense for is just how much study of a language is required before it starts being useful. On the one hand, if I know nothing (as is the case here), learning just a few words has almost no value because almost all sentences I encounter will still be unintelligible. And on the other end of the spectrum, if I’d been studying French for years, there’d be diminishing returns where learning a little extra on the margin wouldn’t affect the quality of my experience any. So the utility as a function of time spent studying must have an S-shape where it starts out nearly flat, takes off at some point, and ultimately levels off again. The important question for this project is how long it takes to get to that first knee in the curve: the point at which I start to understand some of what I hear in the new language. I don’t really know the answer to that, so this is something of an experiment.
It’s interesting to see that Rosetta Stone is basically a video game: the user proceeds through a series of levels, each of which is further subdivided down to the level of individual screens, and on each screen the user needs to click in the right places (or speak the correct sentence) to advance to the next one. At the end of each section the user gets a percentage score based on how many errors they made. You could call it “Language Hero”. At the end of each level there’s a speaking test called a “milestone” which is basically a boss battle. There are even achievements! (The program calls them “stamps”.) It’s a direct application of the Reality is Broken thesis to language learning. (I haven’t actually read that book, so hopefully I’m not misstating it here.)
The only problem is that language learning takes a lot longer than mastering most video games, so that I feel as if I’m playing some game that requires a lot of grinding for each minor advancement. On top of that, it’s an inherently social game in which I’ll get much more out of it if I seek out partners to practice with. Fortunately, I can meet such people through the online component of the course, for which I pay a periodic subscription fee. Wait a minute, all this sounds strangely familiar: Rosetta Stone isn’t just a video game, it’s a MMORPG! And I thought I swore off that whole genre years ago…