Musicologie en Paris

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Université Paris 8Université Paris 8

I’m going to interrupt my series on rehearsal techniques to stop and boggle for a bit about my trip last week to France for my first ever experience of a conference conducted mostly in my second language. I had been invited as one of two keynote speakers to a conference entitled Music and Gender: Current State of Research,* and although conference was genuinely international, with speakers from Brazil, Italy, Spain and Greece as well as France, England and Ireland, we were the only two to present in English.

Now, I have read a good deal of French over the years, including some reasonably dense music theory, so I wasn’t entirely unprepared for this. But most of my actual live interactions in the language have been of the ‘two beers and a cheese sandwich’ type, so in other ways this was something of a baptism of fire. I will have some thoughts to share on matters of music and gender arising from the papers and their discussion in due course, but my most immediate response is to want to reflect on what I learned about language, learning and communication from the adventure.

In an ideal world, I would have travelled to Paris a day or two early so I could start to get my ear for the language in. There is nothing like immersion in a world where people are speaking a language to reawaken the parts of your brain that know how to deal with it. As it was, I couldn’t travel until the morning the conference started, as Magenta was performing in Birmingham Cathedral the night before, so I was dropped straight into a conference already in mid-flow. I arrived just before lunch on the Thursday, and found that conversations I had over that meal were some of the most awkward and stilted I have ever struggled through.

By the end of the afternoon, I was starting to find my stride as a listener, and thus rediscovered that difference between passive and active use of a language. Just because you have understood much of a paper and would like to know more about certain aspects of it, does not guarantee that you will be able to frame a coherent sentence in the language in which it was presented. Stutter, stutter, blush, try again in English, and resolve henceforth to stick to private conversations to gather more information where I would display my ineptitude to fewer people at once.

(This is a bit of a shame of course - as an invited speaker I wanted to show support of other scholars by asking questions, and it is something I am usually quite good at. But, oh well. One of the nice things about conferences is that once you’ve heard a few papers, you have plenty to chat about over coffee with people you’ve only just met.)

Of course, by the end of the second day, I was just starting to get comfortable, both as a listener and a conversationalist, just in time for it all to finish. My notes were increasingly in French rather than English - it was becoming easier to stay in that part of my brain than move from one to the other - and my thoughts were also coming through in a mix of the two. As they have remained since I came home. It is akin to that experience of rehearsing hard for concert, and then not being able to get the music out of your head for the next week, when you no longer need it.

I have recently been reading about the physiological as well as psychological effects of cognitively-demanding tasks, and it was interesting to experience some of these from the inside. You won’t be surprised that the brain uses up a lot more glucose when it is working harder, and I was aware of feeling incredibly drained by the end of a two-hour session. And as I got more tired, I found it was the longer-range comprehension that degraded. I was still understanding many if not most of the words I was hearing, but was increasingly struggling to string them together into complete thoughts. Also, you know when something interests you, and you want to make a note of it, and have a bit of think about it? In English, I can do this and keep some connection with the thread of the paper. In French I found that when my attention returned from reflecting on an intriguing point, I had no idea what was going on and had to find my feet all over again.

These were all effects that I knew about in theory. I spent a good many years teaching classes which included people studying in their second language, and knew that using shorter sentences, and giving people just that bit longer to absorb information before asking for a response is what makes the difference between people coping and not coping. You can see in people’s faces when they are working hard to stay with you, and when they have just fallen out of the interaction. But it is good for one’s empathy to experience these things from the inside too.

Something that I found most pleasurable, during the interstices between the formal sessions, was the cooperative conversational style that we developed as a group working in multiple languages. We would work together and help each other frame and express ideas in each other’s languages, appealing to others when we got stuck on translating or explaining a particular word.

Turn-taking is a normal part of conversational etiquette, but I was intrigued to discover a form of linguistic turn-taking when we’d been talking one language for a bit, we’d switch to the other for a while. This sometimes occurred around a concept we’d been struggling to handle in one language, but at other times it came round a change in subject matter. If we’d been in English for a bit and a French-speaker was starting to look a bit tired, we’d start a new subject in French to give them a bit of a rest. Thus, we all got to marshal and manage our cognitive resources.

The pleasure came partly from this flow-inducing sense of moderating the challenge to match the capacities available at a moment-to-moment level, and partly from the sense of social connection you get when people are working together to generate meaning.

* I’ll attach the programme so you can see what was covered.
A. Programme colloque musique et genre.pdf262.82 KB

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