Monday, April 28, 2008

La Langue Française

For one week, I took the metro across town to the France Langue school near the Arc de Trimophe. It gave me a sense of purpose as though I were commuting to my “job,” and not a bad job, either, getting to listen to and try to speak the language I most adore. I think I’d renewed my determination to learn French when I met a guy named Roberto in Mexico City. He was a few years younger than me yet spoke Spanish, English, Italian, and French, purely out of his own will to speak the languages of the art and music he so loved, mostly piano and opera. He explained that mastering these languages, he could integrate some of their cultural elements into his own life, adopting words and phrases and concepts into his own understanding and expression.

Well I wanted to do that, too! I realized that without becoming a “-phone” you couldn’t be a true “-phile” of anything; without the language of a culture’s expression, you couldn’t get inside its collective head. So I dove into French, which I hadn’t touched since Cornell, where there hadn’t really been time to absorb it anyway, since it was often more about getting assignments done to merely survive to the next semester. I re-opened my daunting grammar book, downloaded the “French Pod Class” podcast from iTunes, and made an appointment for a manicure with my friend Isabelle, an esthetician from Quebec who I made promise to only speak French with me while doing my nails.

This all gave me at least a refresher before arriving in France, where I found that all those warnings I’d received, that the French would be intolerant of anything less than perfect pronunciation, were unfounded. I received much more encouragement than snubbing, found that I could ask questions about menus, sizes, directions, opening hours, all the necessary stuff with no problem at all. I even bought a pair of shoes once because the store owner I chatted with declared my French “formidable!” (This compliment had the effect of boosting my confidence yet making me temporarily forget my budget).

The language course at École France Langue was an eclectic mix of five Germans, one Moldovan, one Korean (who it turned out had seen Quidam in Seoul), one Swiss, and one Brazilian (who was a freelance writer eager to give me tips on breaking into the business). The school itself, in fact, is about half Japanese students, and the combination of Japanese accents plus all the other nationalities’ layered over French words filled the crowded hallways, making me feel part of a small-scale Parisian United Nations.

I still have a long way to go until I am fluent and no longer have to frantically conjugate in my mind before speaking, but it feels like the most beautiful, indulgent work to do, this language-learning. It’s like watching my mind grow, and discovering in myself new ways of thinking and feeling as I learn new words to express things. It makes me think of Steven Pinker’s theories on how language shapes thought and whether we are limited in what we can conceive by what we can describe, even within our own heads.