Monday, August 31, 2009


I’m studying French. I’ve done this before with varying degrees of success. I took two years of French in college. My first year was taught by a Japanese professor who spoke at least 5 different languages. I took the second year two years later at a different college from a professor who we suspected came to class more than a little tanked the majority of the time, but who read Le Petit Prince to us in its entirety – a lovely book, even more lovely if you read it in French. So I came out of those experiences unable to speak more than the most rudimentary vocabulary (with a faint Japanese accent), with no understanding of the grammar, and wondering how I could get 10 college credits and not have learnt anything. It was a painful experience due, certainly, to my own lack of study and effort and not to any neglect on the part of my instructors.

About nine years ago I had another go at it. I knew I was going to be traveling to France and I wanted to be able to speak at least the courtesy phrases and be able to ask for (and more crucially) understand directions while there. I studied for two years before my trip, enhanced by twice a week sessions with a native French speaking tutor. By the time I took my trip, I was conversational – not fluent. I was able to get hotel reservations and book train tickets, have conversations with shopkeepers, and even convince a taxi driver to drive me 30 miles to the next town when a train strike (la greve) descended during my visit and I was stranded short of my destination.

Since I’m returning to France in May I decided a refresher was a good idea. I’m amazed at how quickly it’s coming back. The vocabulary has big gaps in it, but the basics of grammar have stuck with me – arguably the hardest part of learning any language – so I’m grateful for that. Now it’s back to flash cards for vocabulary learning and trying to keep the genders straight – table is feminine, book is masculine. In regards to les vetements (clothes), a man’s shirt is feminine (une chemise) but a woman’s blouse (un chemisier) is masculine. Aarrgghhh!

The most interesting part of studying a language, though, is the cultural study that goes along with it and my instructor does an excellent job of communicating the vagaries of French culture to us. When I took the class nine years ago, he spoke at length of “la greve” the strike – how the French strike randomly and with great participation. One day it is decided that the transportation system workers will strike and, seemingly, the next day it all grinds to a halt. When I found myself coming into Paris from the north and having to walk to switch train stations to catch another train headed south (my scheduled train simply did not show up at my station and the only train headed south was at an adjoining station a 30 minute walk away), I was grateful for his preparation. Although it was admittedly irritating, I was able to deal with the day’s late trains, absent trains, lack of taxis, and absolute gridlock with good humor and my trusty credit card.

As an adult of a certain age, I look back to my college days and my lack of study. I marvel at the narrowness of my own interests back then, my complete and total focus on the here and now and my immediate, very small world. I saw my General Ed requirements as roadblocks to my goal, hoops I had to jump through to satisfy the ‘powers that be’ and couldn’t plow through them fast enough to get on with what I thought was interesting and important. Now, I think I get it. There was a purpose and a point that would probably have been helpful to learn back then instead of now. Understanding even a little bit of another culture helps us to have a greater tolerance for people who behave in ways that seem totally foreign to us. Seeing the world through a different set of eyes gives us an appreciation for all the variety in the world – the ability to see outside our own little box to new ways of thinking and doing. In doing that, we can begin to see different ways of approaching our own lives as well. Apprenez, comprenez, développez-vous!

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