The Next Tango With Paris

Joie de vivre and the case for the "hard student."
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Last week I posted an essay about my time away from the world of English, and some of the lessons I'd learned. I am incredibly grateful to Middlebury College in general, its language schools in particular, and the French school especially. I am forever indebted, personally, to mes professeurs, Corinne Fertein, Véronique Ogden and Simone Muller. They were not just great French teachers, they were some of the best teachers I've ever had. (The teaching quality in the French school is the subject for another day. It was superior.) I am exceedingly thankful to have been selected as a Kathryn Davis Fellow

Attending Middlebury was one of the most significant experiences of my life. It's not even so much that I never dreamed I'd go seven weeks without English. It's thatuntil very recentlyI never even knew that this was something worth wanting. My son did a four-week version of the same program. He stayed on another campus, but his group came to visit my campus on the second week.  I can't quite explain what it is to see your child, meet all of his friends, and have this entire interaction in another language. It was surreal. 

I'll save all the other such experiences for another post. What we have here is my "after" video. (Here is the "before.") The video can't really show the progress that was most important to me. What changed most at Middlebury, for me, was not in how I talked, but how I heard. The first time we did this video there were several moments when I didn't even understand the question. I had no such moments this time.

I now feel that I have a crude map of the language, even if there are many unexplored islands. On the map of things I do not know, prepositions and pronouns loom large. You can see this in the video. I make the typical anglophone mistake of using the preposition "pour" when trying to indicate time. That is because in English we use "for" a lot to express time and duration. The French use a blizzard of prepositions to do similar work, (il y a, depuis, en etc.) 

The hardest thing about learning any new skill is that beginning portion when you are forced to walk in the dark, with no map at all. It's not just what you don't know, it's that you have no idea what you don't know and when you'll stop not knowing it. Fear then takes over. Will I ever read Rousseau? Why can't I get that "r" right? When I will I stop embarrassing myself every time I speak? Why do I keep confusing "son" and "ton?" What is wrong with me? Do I have a brain injury? The questionsthe darknessdogs us. And so we quit. It's hard to sit in ignorancemostly because there are no real signs of when that ignorance will end. 

I am privileged, in that I was born into a culture where no one had the right to be the best at anything. You had better dance at that party. No one cares that you can't cabbage patch. And you had better play basketball on that crateeven if you can only rebound and play D. I've sucked at a lot of things in my life. I've also gotten better at them. At 15, I was an awful djembe drummer. By 17,  I could both play the djembe, shave a goat-skin, attach it to the head and string the drum. I was a bad poet. I became a better one. I was a bad reporter. I became a decent one. I knew very little about the Civil War. And then I read some books, and I knew much more. It's true that I was not a scholastic high-achiever. But have always beenand expect to always bea hard student. School never ends for the hard student. She is primarily concerned with her curiosities, not the benchmarks of others.

My expectations for French are derived from my experience. I expect to suck for awhile. Then I expect to slowly get better. The point is neither mastery, nor fluency. The point is hard studythe repeated application of a principle until the eyes and ears bleed a little. And then all of that again. In my time as a hard student, I have found that it is much better to focus on process, than outcomes. The question isn't "When will I master the subjunctive?" It's "Did I put in my hour of study today?" 

I've gone back to some classicsEnglish Grammar For Speakers of French. I've gone back to some non-classicsX-Men: Second Coming en Français. I'm going to have three hour long conversations a week. And I am going to do this because I like doing it. I like the study and discovery. Fluencyto the extent it existsis not really up to any conscious part of me.

On y va mes amis.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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