June 21, 2012

Out of My Comfort Zone: The Malaise of Learning Français

I have two weeks left of my eight-week French course I've been taking at the Alliance Française, something I've wanted to do for years now.

I studied French for five years between seventh grade and tenth grade and loved it. In truth, I was ready to take a language in fifth grade, having completed all of the lessons required through the end of eighth grade English, but the school system didn't have a track for a student like me (who also completed eighth grade level spelling and math before the end of fifth grade, yet not allowed by my parents to skip a grade).

While my sister embarked on her studies of Spanish because it was practical, and Italian because it was similar to Spanish, I opted for French because it was the pretty girl language equivalent of playing the flute, something else I wasn't allowed to do as an awkward child (instead being forced to lug around a giant French horn that instilled a permanent metallic smell into the inside of my nose). I dreamed of the Champs Élysées and champagne and salade niçoise. I wrote stories in French. I read stories in French, preferring those written in it (Le Petit Prince, par example) rather than their English translations. I had a French penpal. I thought in French (albeit rather simple thoughts of amour, la famille and les amis).

Five years was the maximum course available in our school system for any one language, so during my last two years of high school, I let French go. When I got to college, I never took it up again, and to this day, I cannot explain why. I suppose there were too many other studies to tackle - philosophy, psychology, embryology - that I didn't want to retread old ground. After all, I'd already studied French for five years, which at the time felt like an eternity. What else was there to do there? Why eat the same meal twice? Why jump off the same cliff when there are so many others that stand ripe for conquering?

So aside from a weekend trip to Montréal in which I was the sole French-speaker in a pack of American college students, I didn't really use it for years.

But French has never let me go. Not entirely. At my first job in the music industry, I was responsible for distributing a variety of classical music albums released by a French label in the United States, putting me on the phone and in email correspondences with Francophone colleagues (as well as those who spoke German and, oddly, Finnish). I dabbled in replying to them in French. I'd maintained my good pronunciation and some of my vocabulary, but most of all, I'd retained my love for it.

In 2008, when I was trying to strengthen the thread by which I hung (at work, and in life in general), I escaped to Morocco for a short trip, feeling drawn to the French-influenced culture but wanting an adventure a bit more dangerous and less European than France itself. Michelle was impressed with my French, but I knew I was getting by on bad grammar by looking cute, somehow convincing the locals I could be française or moroccaine, when in truth I was a-mér-i-caine. Vraiment!

Two years later, I again escaped to another former French protectorate, this time Tunisia, where my French linguistics were not as up to par since French is compulsory in their school system, and therefore the Tunisians' mastery of the language far exceeds that of the Moroccans - or mine. I could understand most of what was going on around me - reading signs and menus, eavesdropping on conversations, receiving instructions from hotel staff - but I'd lost a lot of my ability to actually communicate in the language. It was a palpable loss in my life, and one I couldn't entirely explain.

But this was a loss that I could do something about. French lessons are expensive but they're possible. And even though I shouldn't leave work at 5:30 twice a week for eight weeks, I took the placement test anyway and signed up for an Intermediate I class excitedly, with coupon in hand.

Unfortunately, I'm such a good test-taker that I fooled them into thinking I remembered anything from 1987. Upon my first class, it became very clear to me that I would be very remedial in the course, surrounded by classmates who could conjugate in various tenses, and who could conjure vocabulary on demand, both of which I could not do.

I'm not good at not being good at something.

It makes me very uncomfortable.

It has been a stressful six weeks.

But if nothing else, I am learning parts of grammar in French that I never learned before, understanding the construction of the language conceptually even if I can't execute it perfectly myself without the aid of a dictionary.

And when these eight weeks are over, I think I'd like to find a way to go back to the beginning, and start again with the Basic study of French. I know how to count to 60, but past that, I struggle. I know the alphabet. I know pronouns. And I can say them all perfectly.

I'll be the star of the class, which I'm much better at than being the dunce.

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