Bad Vibrations: the Bizarre Explanation Why the French 'Can't' Learn Languages

The French have a completely absurd myth about language learning that blows my mind.

Having family in France, I'm lucky that I can sometimes visit. In some ways I'm unlucky, in that my family is largely insane, but insane family is a relatively common affliction. So, when a family member asked about my studies and then used that as a segue into pontificating about a totally ridiculous theory of why the French are physiologically incapable of learning English, I just assumed this was another instance of crazy family being, well, crazy.

Then I heard the same theory from a friend of my mother. When we recounted it to her French tutor, expressing our surprise at how two people who were apparently unacquainted shared such a preposterous view, this woman -- an educator, no less -- also supported it. As more and more French people we meet volunteer that they know and believe it, we're realizing it is a well-known, culturally ingrained myth. So what is it?

Apparently, it's simply common knowledge in France that The French cannot learn English (or other foreign languages) because of...different...frequencies...and...stuff.

The general gist of the idea is that different languages occur at different frequencies, and that native speakers of one language are ill-equipped to hear and interpret, and even worse equipped to produce, those frequencies.

It's unclear whether Mercury going into retrograde also affects things.

Now, as someone who likes to play Devil's Advocate, I kept trying to find ways to understand this nonsense. I thought, perhaps they recognize that the building blocks of a spoken language are its phonemes and that those can be thought of as being defined stochastically, so each speaker has a mental target, but every utterance will miss it by some margin of error. Maybe they also know that one can represent a speaker's vowel space by using a graph of the first and second formants (that is, the secondary frequencies produced by speech sounds) plotted as the x and y axes. This seems unlikely, but whatever, maybe it's common knowledge in France. If they recognize that individual productions of a sound will, in the aggregate, cluster around this target, maybe they also know that the target could potentially vary from speaker to speaker.

 

the vowel space derived from acoustic measurement of the first and second formant midpoints of short medial vowels in 50 Northern Mao words. From Aspects of Northern Mao Phonology.

the vowel space derived from acoustic measurement of the first and second formant midpoints of short medial vowels in 50 Northern Mao words. From Aspects of Northern Mao Phonology.

 

Perhaps, then, what they're trying to say is that the target is slightly different from language to language, so an English /i/ and a French /i/ are, on average, slightly different. Then, you can make a bit of a leap and say that the fact of slightly different phonemic targets, coupled with different phonemic inventories makes it hard for an adult to learn a foreign language, because we're basically trained to separate sounds into different mental categories than in our target language, and certain combinations of F1 and F2 frequencies are ambiguous and confusing.

There's only one problem:

That's not what they mean.

No, they actually mean that the entire language as spoken by everyone who speaks any version of it, just...vibrates at a different frequency. That they can't hear. Or reproduce. In fact, there exists website after website after website that propose to train aspiring polyglots (for a fee, of course) how to open their ears and minds to these different frequencies. They often have scientific looking graphs, like this:

A stupid graph.

A stupid graph.

Nevermind the fact that there is a range that all human voices fall into, and that the vowel space is pretty well defined.

Nevermind that it's defined in two dimensions.

Nevermind that there are studies on vowel spaces across languages, and on differences among dialects of the same language (which should then be totally mutually incomprehensible).

Nevermind that women and men have different base frequencies, so according to this theory, women and men speaking the same language should be totally incomprehensible to one another [insert your own joke here].

Nevermind that "North American" isn't a language (seriously?!).

This bunk science is widely accepted as obviously true by the vast majority of French people I've interacted with. There's even a corollary: even if the French could hear and interpret those crazy foreign sounds, they can't make them because their mouths and vocal cords have become adapted to French in such a way that they are now malformed from the point of view of non-French languages (ie., langues non-civilisées).

When I ask how it's possible that I can speak and understand French, the consensus is that the frequency problem is one-way. That is, anyone can learn French (obviously the best, most expressive, most beautiful language -- ideally suited to the historical mission civilatrice), but the French are uniquely ill-suited to learn any other language because of those pesky fréquences.

One of the most interesting aspects of this myth is that it is so (psuedo) scientific. Whereas in the US people will just say they have no need, or will say they're "too old," they don't then lecture about their half-remembered misconceptions about the critical period hypothesis. In France, however, it seems totally unacceptable to say "I tried and failed," or "I never felt much need to learn anything else," or even "I can't because of external factors like age, opportunity, etc." Rather, it is a fundamental flaw of other languages which has been scientifically demonstrated: they simply vibrate at unfortunate frequencies.

I'm not quite sure what I expected from a place where doctors prescribe homeopathy and public intellectual is totally a legitimate job, but this kind of absurdity is wholly, delightfully foreign to me. Now, to have a croissant and a grand crème while I ponder whether simply digitally adjusting acoustic frequencies could create a universal translator.

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©Taylor Jones 2014

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