Sound vs. Meaning

The other day a friend of mine confessed that to him spoken French has no meaning. He finds French mastery a hopeless endeavor and has no ambition whatsoever to continue studying the language. I know what he means. Compared to Italian, which can be broken down into smaller chunks for digestion, the French melody of seamless sound represents a challenge—where does one word end, and a new one begin?

Still, I chose to pursue the language of love. For years I’ve listened to French radio in my car in the vain hope that eventually the melodic flow would begin to reveal meaning. I bought a few audio courses and visited France a handful of times. But my ability to communicate has been limited to uttering simple phrases that, luckily, sometimes resulted in the transference of ownership of a bottle of water or perhaps a crêpe.

sheet musicPersistence turned out to be the key. As years went by, something began to happen. I sensed microscopic pauses within the sound, and here and there meaningful words became discernible. Not that I can say I understood—far from it. But this experience kindled a flame of hope in me that one day I’d be able to get past the sound barrier and climb the francophone wall. I sensed it could be compared to learning to appreciate a polyphonic piece of music—repeated listening will reveal more of the composer’s intention, and the enjoyment transforms as the musical landscape widens.

This experience gave birth to Petter’s Law, which dictates that observation of sound and comprehension of meaning cannot occur at the same time. Either you hear the sound—or you get its meaning.

Alas, listening to French radio continued to be more sound than meaning to me. I needed  stronger means to bridge the language gap. I therefore chose to buy yellow-boxed language software. Compared to my previous approach this felt like being on steroids. I am now in the final stage of Rosetta Stone French Level 5. The outcome? The sound of French has practically ceased to be. Now there is meaning.

I just came back from a visit to where Polish is spoken. Now there’s a language of complex sounds. Imagine if the yellow box of magic plus persistent practice could transform Polish sound, paving the way for meaning? I know from experience that that sort of dramatic change can happen. It’s all up to me.

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