There comes a time, for most high school students, to pick a foreign language they’d like to learn. When my time came, I already knew: French.
At this point in my life, I had never been to France, thought about going to France, or hitherto expressed any interest whatsoever in anything French. So I can understand why my sudden desire to learn the language might have confused my friends and family.
What was unexpected, however, was the immediate backlash. “What do you wanna learn French for?” Because, well, I don’t know. Why not? “Who speaks French?” French people and people who learn French, I suppose. “Why don’t you learn a language that will benefit you more?” Well I already know English, which benefits me quite a bit, so I’m not quite sure what your quarrel is.
Spanish, I soon learned, was their preferred alternative: the second most widely spoken language in the United States, so it would probably be smarter to devote my time to learning how to speak it. You know, just in case. This argument made sense to me, and at that age, I was very easily swayed by people who seemed to know more than I did. So I bid au revoir to my French dreams and registered for Spanish, which turned out to be boring and deeply uninteresting to me.
So boring, in fact, that I dropped it too quickly and ended up with insufficient foreign language credits. I was accepted to Rutgers, but only to their school of environmental sciences, due to this deficiency. (I suppose environmental scientists have enough on their plate without about learning how to say ‘global warming’ in another language?) In order to switch to the school of arts and sciences, I would need to remedy this grievous oversight by taking a foreign language course.
All of the resentment and bitterness I had repressed from high school came immediately swirling to the surface, and with an aggressive sort of excitement I registered for my very first French class. Take THAT, pragmatic naysayers! I’m learning the language of looove, and Beauty and the Beast, and Phantom of the Opera.
I like to think I have a natural flair for languages, because I took to French very quickly and with minimal difficulty. It helped that I became mildly obsessed with it, engaging in ridiculous and Hermione Granger-esque behaviors such as reading my textbook and workbook for fun, attempting confusing conjugations we hadn’t yet learned in class, and watching Amélie until I no longer needed subtitles. I was always one of the most vocal students in my classes; never failed to turn in assignments on time, if not early; and I joined the French Conversation Club, a hilariously awkward weekly gathering of students self-consciously conversing in various mutations of French.
By senior year, I was pretty secure in my working knowledge of the conversational and grammatical mechanics of this previously exotic language, and completely fed up with the academic aspect. I just wanted togo. After graduation I was accepted as an English teaching assistant in three elementary schools, where I would be responsible for teaching English to rosy-cheeked children several days a week and get paid for it. I couldn’t believe my luck. The fall of 2010 found me packing my bags and flying to Paris, my home for the next seven months.
Then reality set in. To be fair, the reality wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great, either: my first couple weeks were fraught with much confusion and a disturbing lack of communication between my employer and the schools I would be working in. I received many blank looks from harried administrators after stumbling through an introduction, after which they would basically ask, “Wait, so – why are you here? Who sent you?”
The teachers were just as confused, but eventually willing to concede control of their classes to this perfect stranger; sometimes, too eager – one teacher quickly began to view my arrival as a 45 minute break. I soon realized I had been misled; minimal knowledge of French would have left me floundering here, despite my employer’s previous assurances to the contrary. ‘You only need to speak English’ sounds awesome in theory, but when you need to explain the rules of Simon Says to 25 five year olds who can barely say “hello”, you need to make some concessions. You need to speak French, and speak it well. Thankfully, my overzealous efforts assimilation the past four years paid off, and I like to think I was a half-decent English teacher.
A few years have passed since my return to the States, where yes, there are indeed French people and people who speak French, but few opportunities to exercise my ability to do as such. To be quite honest, I’m not sure my conversational skills are where they were in my golden years. Sometimes I forget really basic words, like ‘yesterday’ or ‘chicken’, and plunge into a downward spiral of shame until I remember four days later.
I could attend conversation meetups, in a poor, sad echo of my college group, but I must admit that I am not optimistic about the other attendees: elderly expats? Frustrated spouses of French people? Hardly vibrant and hip French 20-somethings, who could instead talk to their own friends – easily, with slang, and without needing to slow down to be understood.
I’ll just continue to languish here, with only my memories of France to sustain me through the occasional bouts of nostalgia, and every so often, google tickets to Paris to remind myself that I definitely cannot afford them. Somewhat bilingual, that ain’t half bad. It looks great on resumes and occasionally comes in handy, when the non-French speaking individual would just see or hear a nonsensical grouping of letters and think ‘French word’. Whereas I, having labored for countless hours on the complex structure and technical minutiae of this language, can immediately translate hier and poulet, and who can ask for more, really?
This post appeared on The Penny Ledger on September 10, 2013.