Last week I started class at the Alliance Française to prepare for my summer adventures.
Man, was I rusty. Hopefully that will be as painful as it will ever be during the next nine weeks of this conversation course. I’ve joined a class that’s been together for a while now — people who take French to practice, for work, or to prepare for travel.
Although it’s an advanced level class, everyone is operating with their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s great to converse with people who are trying just as hard as you are, and have an interest in you getting to the next niveau in your skill.
Here’s the thing. I started taking French in the 7th grade and I’ve had French every year through college, and even ended up majoring in it (totally useful degree). When I moved to Atlanta, to meet people, I did an internship at the AF and got more real-life practice (and free classes!). But for the past 5 years I have barely spoken a lick, save a few random occurrences at L’Atmosphère, with Anne, or my aunt, who I used to practice with all the time in LA. Not enough.
I won’t say I made an ass of myself, because I didn’t. I understood just about everything and held my own pretty well — except for this one article we discussed, where I confused melatonin for melanin and thought a conversation on sleep was about tanning. Yeah. I like to think my mistakes endear me to others. Not a lot of room for ego in language-learning.
So I am committing to reading in French, 5 hours per week. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s something. I am reading over 2000 pages this quarter in school. After I got to 2000, I stopped counting, so 5 hours is the best I can do. I’ll be looking at Garance Doré’s blog and news sites like this and this. That’s how we develop as speakers, even in our native tongue — my mom put book after book in my hand. And all good writers are voracious readers. So, voilà.
And it’s interesting to me, the way language affects your outlook on life and the creation of art. When things are said differently, they mean something else — to understand a culture is to really understand how they say things. Like, the French use the passive voice much more than we do. And they will always give up a grammatical rule to make a sentence sound prettier. What does that tell you? That the language evokes a people concerned with the way things sound and feel, more than the black and white basics? Maybe.
When they say “I miss you” or tu me manques, it really translates to “You miss me.” But it means the same thing. Kind of. When speaking in French you have to think in French, and that’s the part that’s hard; that’s the part you forget over time if you don’t use it. But that’s what I love about the French (if I can make such a generalization), and from the process of learning another language. You just have to come at everything a different way.