Le scaphandre and the diving bell

Our DVD player came with a manual, which I last consulted when hooking up cables.  Every so often the player seems to tire of its default settings; it activates a feature we didn’t know existed.

A diving suit -- un scaphandreLast weekend we watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (here’s the trailer), based on the life of French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby.  A massive stroke left him unable to move except to blink his left eye.  (The French title is Le scaphandre et le papillon.)

I think the DVD player chose to play a version dubbed in English, rather than in French with English subtitles.  I found it confusing that the characters spoke English (with French accents) but pronounced the alphabet in French.  Only afterward did I realize the the movie hadn’t been made in English.

For me, trying to follow a soundtrack in French is confusing enough. There’s an almost unavoidable gap if you understand the spoken language as you’re reading subtitles — things get left out for the sake of speed or clarity or simplicity. And of course nuances get lost.  The Italian proverb is traduttore, traditore — “translator, traitor.”

Like the quirk in the English title — “scaphandre” isn’t “diving bell,” as in bathyscape — it’s “diving suit.

This morning I read Starting with Cantonese on John Biesnecker’s blog. John speaks Mandarin and is learning Cantonese. As he says in an earlier post, he wanted more exposure to the language than he was getting in a formal class.

What language classes really provide is not language education, but rather structure and expectations. You have to show up at a certain time, and you have to study in order to keep up with the class. In a perfect world, those things would push students to excel, but in reality the result is often frustration and abandonment.

There’s a lot to what he says, I think. The best formal language classes generate interest and excitement. They provide incentive to learn, and some students transform that into their own motivation.  But not all do.  I was thinking how enthusiastic I was in high school, learning French — but none of my three schools had language labs, and so my exposure to high-quality spoken French was limited to my teachers (which may account for the hint of Québec in my accent).

So I studied, which may explain why as a junior in Maine, I tended to get the highest grade in my class, but was unable to flirt with girls the way classmates like Boissoneault, Parisien, Bolduc, and Gagné could — they spoke French at home, they spoke it with one another, they joked around with the French-Canadian and French-Canadian-descended brothers who staffed the school.

John’s not a complete novice for either Cantonese or Japanese (another language he wants to improve), so his strategy of viewing movies and other media isn’t bad.  No worse than sitting in a language class with its inevitable reversion to the mean.

Last night, my wife and I went to a Smithsonian event, a book-tour chat by chef Jacques Pepin (who does a hilarious Julia Child impression).  Pepin’s been in the U.S. for 50 years, still with a strong French accent.

The point is that he’s succeeded in an English-speaking world, communicating clearly and entertainingly on a variety of topics.  He hasn’t let the accent stand in his way.  He’d notice that scaphandre doesn’t strictly mean “diving bell,” but he’d probably pay more attention to the compelling story in the film.

(A 2005 interview with Pepin by Bruce Cole.)

Diving suit photo by Terekhova.

5 thoughts on “Le scaphandre and the diving bell

  1. For me, the biggest benefit of consuming media in the L2, even when you don’t understand all (or most) of it, is that it lets the brain’s natural pattern recognition abilities do their magic. It takes a while — I’ve listened to The Incredibles probably a dozen times on my walks in the last week — but high frequency things start to leak out.

    People talk a lot about how children learn, and this is basically it. I suppose, if I was willing to spend the sort of time that a child puts in (tens of thousands of hours before they’re five), I could pick up the language in this way basically without any reference to L1. As I’m on a schedule, I use media saturation to train my ear and pick items that are worth learning, and then look them up, drill them, etc. It’s very satisfying to listen to a movie that you’ve listened to so many times before and come away understanding more of it each time.

Comments are closed.