II’d taken “French” for years before I finally made it to France. (I use quotation marks because I took it in West Texas, where the accent is — believe me — different.) I stepped out at the Paris train station with my three friends from the London semester abroad program and immediately made a discovery: There were people in the world who lived and breathed and spoke only French. In fact, they were surrounding me. It wasn’t a classroom exercise, not an elective, not a grade; it was their lives.
Go ahead and laugh if you want. I was 22 and I’d never been anywhere in my life, unless you count Oklahoma. The world was strange and scary and enthralling. The people in Paris, surprisingly, didn’t sound like my French teachers. Plus, they spoke very, very quickly.
The four of us went to a sidewalk restaurant for dinner, where I was in charge of ordering. I might speak West Texas French, but that was more than any of my friends did. I ordered slowly and painfully, ending with a final request for a banana. “Un banane, s’il vous plait,” I said.
The waiter, round and curly-headed, looked at me like I was a moron. “Une banane,” he corrected me and I wanted to die. I still remember that moment very precisely, the way you usually remember new and formative experiences — the condescending look from the waiter, my own flushed cheeks. It took me years to wonder something: Why in the hell is banana feminine in French? Of all foods, of all fruit, doesn’t it have a distinctly masculine shape? J’avais raison!
After living with a family in Le Mans for six weeks a little later, my French improved dramatically. It should have. I spent all six weeks completely immersed, till finally, I was thinking and dreaming in French. At night, I’d go to bed with French-induced headaches. “Her French isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be,” the family’s mother commented about me in French one evening. “I can finally understand her now.”
But that was 37 years ago, years that have passed with brief times in France, but for the most part, they’ve been French-free. I’ve tried to learn Spanish, too, which is confusing to my lingering reservoir of French. Mixing two Romance languages, I’m pretty sure I’m now speaking Esperanto, which is conveniently located in the Foreign Language section of my brain.
Last week, when my husband and I went to Brussels for a few days, I dusted off my French once again. Unfortunately, most of the world now speaks English and wants to practice it. Nobody has time for my slow butchering of French. For a variety of reasons — mostly geographic isolation — Americans have always been reluctant to try other tongues; now, we have yet another reason to discourage us.
Finally, Saturday night, my husband and I blundered into a restaurant where no one spoke English. It was wonderful. I was forced into exercising my French and the proprietoress actually complimented me.
The whole experience made me recall what a pure thrill it is to try to speak another language. If you never do it, you never understand the humility and effort it takes to move beyond your own native tongue. You never understand what it’s like to amuse other people with your efforts, to be reduced, in many ways, to the linguistic status of childhood.
I know that all sounds completely non-alluring. But you know what? It gives you an extra dimension of compassion and respect for the immigrants in our own country. The next time you hear one of them struggling with English and making humorous mistakes, you might recall the sheer guts it takes to open your mouth and jump in.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about the world’s worst houseguests