Learning a Foreign Language Is Like Learning a Sport

The long road to not sucking at French

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We had a debate a few weeks ago about athletics and education. I was making the case that the old notion that only people who excel at sports should be urged to participate is pretty horrific. The phrase "Physical Education" should have actual meaning. Moreover, I think people should be encouraged to continue their "Physical Education" throughout their lives, just a surely as they should be encouraged to continue their "Intellectual Education" throughout their lives. It's certainly true that everyone can't be NCAA-caliber point guard, or a great marathoner. It's also true that everyone can't be a great literary critic or playwright. That is no excuse to not read Shakespeare. 


One of the things I've noticed in my studies of French is how much it resembles my studies of athletics. Predictably, I struggle in both athletics and foreign language. But one of the great lessons of my childhood was that no one has the right to be naturally good at anything. More there's a particular pleasure that comes from becoming good at something which you kind of naturally sucked at. I played the djembe as a kid. I had a pretty good ear for rhythm, but no physical coordination. I could hear what I wanted to play, but my imagination exceeded my abilities. For the first year I did it, I sucked. 

But after a year of practice in my parents garage I came to suck a lot less, and by the time I gave up the instrument I had risen to the ranks of the "Merely OK." But I didn't feel "Merely OK." I felt like a king, because I knew from whence I came. I knew that great distance (and it is great) between "Utter Suckage" and "Merely OK." So while I believe in natural talent, I've never seen much point in talking about it. Generally if I decide I want to acquire a skill, I don't see much point in talking about "aptitude." I have chosen the road. Now it's time to walk.

In that vein, it is the physicality, the theatricality of foreign language study that shocks me. To speak French you need a different mouth. Your lips and tongue must live somewhere else--even when resting--then where they live in English. When an American is trying to think of something she often goes "Uhh, Uhh." But the French will say something like "Euh, Euh." (Or some such.) This acquiring of of a new mouth is a physical act. It is not enough to memorize the words. You have to train your mouth to say them. It's like weight-lifting. Your mouth and tongue need "reps."

And this acquiring of a new mouth has a way of spreading over a person's entire face. If you ever talk to someone who is fluent in two languages, while you are fluent in one but just grasping at the other, you will have the sense of talking to two different people in the same body. The thoughts may be universal--but the face, the tongue, the mouth--the very lens through which the light of soul is refracted, is different. It is the oddest thing.

So the journey continues. Jim Fallows told me when I started that this could easily take five years. I am thinking it could easily take ten. But he also told me that (much like his wife) I would have a book when I was done. That'd be awesome.
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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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