How to Read Camus Like a Boss

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I haven't written about French in a while, but I'm still studying. Next month will mark the end of my second "official" year at this. Last week I started Camus's L'Etranger. It's the first time I've tried to read a book en français. I wanted to read Du Contrat Social, but my tutor looked at me like I was crazy. At any rate, I think I'm getting about 45 percent of what's actually happening. It isn't because I don't know the words or the grammar. I probably know about 80 percent of the vocabulary and, soon, I suspect I'll have a better academic understanding of French grammar than English.  

Whatever that means. I still speak with the world's ugliest tongue. Try to imagine a three-year-old baby gone senile and you'll have some idea of what it's like to have a conversation with me in French. 

But I delight nonetheless. I was in Chicago last week doing my internship with The Atlantic's incredible video team. Half the people at the front-desk of my hotel spoke French. I eagerly engaged. I was in straight faux pas mode. My brain said "bonne soirée" and my mouth said "bonne nuit."  I am that loud uncle, drunk at your wedding.  I am the dude on the dance floor who refuses to keep it in the pocket. And I have always been that dude. I have gotten a lot of things in my life. Not a one of them came pretty. Life is humiliation and failure, but the way is always up. Until it isn't.

So I'm basically bashing my way through Camus. I plan to read it three times before February. My hope is that it will reveal more of itself each time. Part of the problem is that the French have phrases that can be translated into English, but not on a "word to word" basis. So you may understand every sentence in one paragraph, and every word in that sentence. But then you'll get a phrase like "au beau milieu de" which does not mean "at the beautiful middle of" and you'll be lost again. (Another favorite: "La tradition veut que...")

Someday I am going to do a piece for the magazine on how language is taughtespecially to kids who go to the kind of schools I went to as a child. You can't just conjugate all day and get quizzed on your colors. Some of this is rote learning. Some of this is osmosis. To really get the language, you have to not just learn the rules, but hear someone employ them constantly, break them constantly, and then you have to try to imitate. That is what immersion is supposed to be. But we hear that word so much in foreign language education that it's basically more marketing than anything else.

Anyway, I'm committed. Turning back now would be like burning money. How far does this ride go? I can't call it. I gave up on fluency, as a workable concept, some time ago. What I see happening to myself is a slow, grinding acquisition of skills. So two years ago, I could only say "Hi," "Good-bye," "How are you?" and "I am well." Then I could say "I cooked yesterday" and "When I was young, I loved football." Then I could read a simple article. Then I could write a short email. Then I could order from a menu. Then I could give directions to a taxi driver. Et dimanche dernier, je pouvais dire l'homme, "Je voudrais laisser ma valise ici."

Each of these skills overlaps the other, giving birth to new skills until, at some undefined point, you have the ability to have a substantive and deep conversation with another human. Even there, "fluency" doesn't quite capture what's happened. Language can't erase the individual. I have spent a day talking to different people in France, barely understanding what they were telling me. And yet I still understood some more than others. I still enjoyed some more than others. We know that we are all human individuals, underneath. My need to have this repeatedly confirmed is ridiculous. And yet it's one of the most gratifying parts about language. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/12/how-to-read-camus-like-a-boss/282408/