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It was like someone flipped a lightswitch.

I’ve been listening to a number of podcasts from France Culture for the last couple of weeks, trying to tune my ear to a more rapid-fire, more quotidien mode of spoken French than I’ve been able to pick up from any of the French instruction audio I’ve listened to. Some of it’s been interesting, some of it’s been perplexing, some of it’s been an outright mystery, but all of it’s been work.

And then yesterday, I was listening to “le journal de 7h” (a five-to-thirteen minute podcast of the morning’s news headlines), and about three minutes in, I suddenly realized I’d heard it all. Heard, as in understood without actively listening, without paying attention, without trying to — or needing to — parse the sentences. Just heard.

As soon as I realized what had happened, I got a bit self-conscious about it, and the transparency of the language disappeared — but relaxing again, I was able to get it back, or at least glimpses of it. I spent much of the rest of the afternoon downloading and listening to other broadcasts, to see if the feeling was replicable, or if it was just a fluke, produced by the fact that I understood the basic facts of all of the stories presented. (No small feat: the conventions of French journalism are a good bit different from those in the U.S., not least around the amount of background info provided; in a story about the Bastille Day ceremonies, for instance, that mentions the détente between Sarkozy and the army stemming from the Carcassonne affair, you can’t necessarily expect to be told what exactly happened in Carcassonne. It’s assumed you’ve been keeping up, so jumping in mid-stream can be hard.)

It turns out that the feeling was replicable. And even live: I turned on the radio and caught an absolutely amazing Barthesian analysis of the bagless vacuum cleaner, followed by a remarkable interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet.

It was the damnedest thing: one day, I could comprehend fine, but only with effort; the next day, the effort was gone. Like flipping a switch, and now the lights are on.

That sensation will probably come and go — my struggles with this language are far from over — but I wanted to record this moment for myself, so that I can remember that the possibility of fluency is really out there.


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