Je ne comprends pas

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When I told people that Tim and I signed up for a beginners’ French class, I got some wary responses.

“Why?” was a common one, perhaps alluding to the “who has time” as well as the “do you need it” aspects. My father, with some exasperated gesture, answered all of these other voices by declaring to my mother: “Because she wants to run off to Paris, of course.”

And he was not wrong.

Four years in the Netherlands did not make either of us a fluent Dutch speaker. We never took a formal class; it was easy to get by with English; and Tim didn’t need it at work. He decided pretty early on that he had other ambitions for that time period besides garbling Dutch. I kept at my technique of active assimilation and turned out to know quite a bit in terms of vocabulary, but with basically no concept of grammar or structure. I am a pretty good reader and can pick up on a bit of conversation by listening… and then I’ll answer you in English.

But it made a deep impression on both of us to leave the US and enter the multi-lingual world, where our friends switched easily from Dutch to French to Spanish to Portuguese to many, many other things. Foreign language classes in middle and high school were always a kind of whimsical study, like painting and geometry were for many of us: it was fun to try, but you didn’t really see yourself using it later on. One day a year students would bring in questionable renditions of foods from the country they studied, and generally someone got ill. If you had an especially active teacher and money, your class might have done a summer trip to Rome or Spain, but that never happened to me.

Yet I think I chose something that inadvertently positioned me well for travel: I took Latin. My contributions to Food Day were minimal, and it was weird to be studying a language that at most was getting some use in the Vatican… but those Romantic roots stuck and made me a good guesser of signage and menus in a variety of settings.

I was searching wildly for those guessing skills when our teacher entered the classroom for the first session this Thursday night, and commenced to do that infuriating immersion thing where it became clear that he intended to speak only in French. I could see a lot of frustrated faces when a vocal woman interrupted: “Excuse me, but isn’t this class for people who don’t know French?”

She was correct. The description had specifically indicated that this was a zero-level course, not even for those who took French 101 ten years ago.

Much to my relief, the instructor accommodated the general grumbling and switched to a blend of English and French, and for an hour and a half we learned to introduce ourselves, say our nationalities, and the complete lie “I speak French.” (We also managed to negate many things: “I am not called Jean.” “She is not German.” “He does not speak Russian.”)

It is a strange thing to learn a language as an adult, and somehow I wonder if it will work. Children don’t begin to speak by introducing themselves, running around saying “I am so-and-so” over and over again; nor do they then immediately decline the verb: I am / you are / he-she-it is/ we are /you are/ they are…

They speak in nouns, naming everything, as our niece Rachel did recently when, utterly excited, she pointed up at the sky and said: “A MOON!” This is a bit how I felt learning Dutch: “A fiets! Een zitbank!” Expression is an exciting thing.

The day I went to pick up my textbook for the French class, I found myself in a foreign-language bookstore in Harvard Square, where there were not only textbooks for learning languages, but books in those languages. I was floored. I had so latched on to the image of myself visiting France and speaking French, that I had completely forgotten the other door this knowledge would open: reading new books, and reading books in their original language. (I have already looked online and wondered: “Is it too soon?”)

If Dutch is a language with a lot of hard consonants, grinding together in your mouth, French seems to be bewilderingly fluid. Four forms of one verb sound the same, but are each spelled differently. “Say that at your normal pace,” a woman asked the instructor after he had coached us through a sentence of three distinct words. When he complied, we were appalled. Was that anything more than a vowel?

By guessing the meaning of the instruction “to spell,” I found myself put on the spot to spell my name in French. Scanning the pronunciation notes I’d just made, I drew a total blank. All I could think was: I forget how to spell my name. I considered shortening it. It felt like I took five minutes for six letters, and I’m sure that at least eleven out of thirteen people in the room had no idea what I said.

Perhaps to my ignorant surprise, there was quite a mix of people in the small class. One girl who looked like a high-schooler introduced herself as Mexican; two retired gentlemen sat at a distance and sometimes declined to answer the exercise questions. The majority were women in their twenties and thirties, and not all had English as a first language. Some of their accents seemed to lend their first-week French a natural loveliness, in comparison to my halting “juh… swee…”.

“Always,” our instructor lamented (to us all). “Always you are struggling with the negative form.” This is true, I thought: philosophically as well as linguistically. And the delight of calling things by someone else’s names is part of how we spark against that struggle.

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3 Comments

Filed under Moving Back to the US

3 responses to “Je ne comprends pas

  1. Jo Ann

    I remember my surprise at finding books in foreign languages in my local public library while I was studying Italian in high school (3 years worth, and I still remember the vocab, but not much else…). I picked up a copy of “Pinocchio,” thinking that I already knew the story, so how hard could it be to read this classic??
    VERY HARD, it turns out. Hmmm…. Maybe it wasn’t the Disney version after all…
    Ciao, Bella! Bet Pinocchio didn’t know that line!

  2. Lianne

    My senior year (HS) French class was a long trudge through the French translation of Madame Bovary. It was difficult… mais pas impossible. Check out the free language podcasts on iTunes in between classes; there are different learning styles available there to stay fresh! Next time you visit Paris, you’re going to have an even better time. Sante!

  3. Jen

    Toujours! Toujours! Good for you, J’aime le francais!

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