In my long effort to learn French there days when I am painfully aware of my 37-year old brain. I had such an instance about a week ago. I was working with my instructor to answer a series of questions. The questions required negotiating a few basic tenses which in turn required the conjugation of few basic verbs--avoir, aller and être. This is really basic stuff, that a dude with a year and a half of French under his belt should be able to do with some ease. Imagine a point guard on the varsity basketball team who still has to work on his dribbling, or a shooting guard who still has to work on his jumper.
But that's the point. Athletics is all about "practice" and a significant portion of "practice" is repetition of basic skills. When I used to watch football as a younger man, I would wonder why the starting quarterback would get all the "reps" in the week before a big game. Isn't it the backup quarterback who needs the most practice? But the quarterback's success is based on his ability to repeatedly execute the playbook as though it were second nature.
People often will say that you've become fluent when you can stop translating. When I say the phrase ça va for instance, I am not thinking "Hmm I need to greet someone in French. How do I do that? Oh right..." I've said the phrase ça va so much that it now corresponds to a thought, or a feeling, in the same way that "Hello" does. To be fluent in a language is to experience a good portion of the vocabulary and its essential rules on that level of thought and feeling. Tom Brady can't really "think" as the blitz is coming at him. He has to be fluent.
Among African-Americans, there are certain forms in which we have achieved disproportionate fluency. There's often the sense (especially in dance) that this fluency is achieved through some innate connection with the jungle. In fact it's achieved in the same rote way that anything else is achieved:
"I practiced all day," [Magic] Johnson told USA Weekend. "I dribbled to the store with my right hand and back with my left. Then I slept with my basketball."
When you see the basics of language broken down in their component parts, the first impulse is a kind of wonder. A sentence as simple as "When I woke today I was hungry, so I went to the diner and ordered my favorite meal--blueberry pancakes and sausage" is actually incredible. It's not enough to know the vocabulary, you have to know whether it's in the future or the past, and then which future or which past, and then the difference in degrees between something that is your "favorite" and something that you just "like." And this sentence is executed in seconds. The language has been repeated by the speaker so much that the calculation happens somewhere beyond the conscious brain, in a place where there isn't any conscious language at all. A neurologist could do better here.
In much the same way Magic Johnson's passing could look more like instinct, than any kind of conscious choice. And in some sense it was instinct--a practiced one. The long goal is to make French my instinct. I feel the impulse sometimes. Somewhere in my brain there is a switch and when the switch is on, my impulse is speak in French--even if I do not know the words. The feeling is as if you suddenly turned off the freeway and into the woods, fully expecting an exit ramp.
Building that exit ramp, that highway, has very little to do with my age. And at this point, age is irrelevant. I can not go back. Nothing means anything except practice.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.
Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.