June 16, 1991|By ROBERT KANIGEL

IN FRENCH, BRIGITTE MICHEL-HEATH NEVER SWORE, NEVER SO MUCH AS A MERDE. AND when she visits friends and family in France, she still doesn't. Yet in English, her second language, she will occasionally resort to an obscenity. "It doesn't mean anything to me," she explains. "I know it's a swear word, but I have none of the emotions that go with it."

Ms. Michel-Heath is a native of France. She has lived in Baltimore for 16 years, holds degrees from a top American liberal arts college and a big state university, has read more Herman Melville and Sinclair Lewis than most Americans, and can wield her accepted English with as much finesse as you or I.

Yet an unfamiliar accent, like that of the Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore, or an unfamiliar expression, like "to case the joint," can throw her. And the way a slight change of preposition can make meaning abruptly change course -- as in break down, break up, break in, break out -- still drives her batty.

For Ms. Michel-Heath, after almost two decades in America, English remains "a borrowed language. It will never be my mother tongue," she says. Every year or two, when she returns home, speaking French again is like taking up where she left off with a best friend. "You wouldn't believe," she says, "what sort of psychic vacation it is." To her, English is still work, though it is no longer, as it was for so many years, hard work.

That's what many Americans don't understand about learning foreign languages: You can't expect to learn much from a year or two of it in school.

"The public doesn't know anything about foreign language learning," says Richard Brod, director of special projects with the Modern Language Association. " 'Fluent' is used so much in a sloppy, ignorant and uninformed manner." Says Ms. Michel-Heath, who has taught French in the United States: "American people tend to be so optimistic and unrealistic about learning a foreign language. They think, 'I have a French teacher. I will learn by osmosis.' They don't like to memorize."

Back in the 1960s, amidst a rash of wild claims about how one could, in the words of a Sunday magazine article, "Learn a New Language in Five Days," language expert Mario Pei observed: "It is time to stop kidding ourselves about short cuts to full language ability." There's nothing wrong with knowing a few stock phrases, he agreed. But recognize that that's just a bare smattering. Real fluency means speaking, understanding, writing and reading the language pretty much as you would your own.

Even accomplished learners will say that reaching that point is agonizingly difficult. In part, that's because of intellectual hurdles -- obscure idioms, grammatical Gordian knots, thousands of new words to learn. Think of the impenetrabilities of English spelling, where the "sh" sound can arise from a dozen letter combinations. But often the difficulty stems not so much from linguistic roadblocks as from the emotional obstacles erected by stepping into another language and culture. You feel confused, inadequate, stupid.

William Durden, who teaches German at the Johns Hopkins University and directs its Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth, visited a German-speaking Swiss canton on a Fulbright scholarship. Mr. Durden already knew German, or thought he did. But the Swiss, he found, spoke a dialect almost unrecognizable to an ear tuned to stiff High German. His first day, he walked into a bakery and was instantly lost in a sea of alien sounds. "You get so nervous you tend to simply agree. Yes, yes, you say." By the time he left, he'd bought so much bread, pound and pounds of it, that he had to lug it home before he could resume his shopping expedition.

Nancy Rhodes, of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., once asked the immigrants in her English conversation class whether they had ever, in talking to native Americans, indicated they understood something when they had not. All smiled sheepishly and agreed they had. In a foreign language, says Mr. Durden, "you're out of control. And that's a terrifying feeling. Your mind is racing, but all you can do is grunt."

Being lost in a foreign language strips away part of the personal identity you wear like your clothes. "You see it on their faces when they come in here," says Arlene Wergin about the foreign students and faculty members whom she advises at Hopkins. " 'What am I doing here?' their expressions say." For European students, who often know English, it's usually not so bad. But for Hopkin's Chinese students, many with poor English skills, "it's culture shock," says Ms. Wergin. "They're extremely reserved, visibly agitated. Or else quiet and withdrawn. They just want to say, 'Please help me. Where is my department? How do I buy food?' "

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