France, J'ai Peur de Vous

On finding out the truly frightening and exhilarating part of language study

This morning I sent off the following e-mail:
Bonjour la famille d'xxxxx. Comment allez-vous? Je suis Ta-Nehisi Coates. Je crois que je resterai à chez vous pour quatre jours. Je voudrais vous remercier pour votre hospitalité. Mon français n'est pas bien. Mais, j'adore le langue et j'espère l'apprendre. Donc, quelque chose ne le sujet de moi. Je m'appelle Ta-Nehisi. Je suis américain.  J'habite à New York avec ma femme Kenyatta et mon fils Samori. (J'envoye un photo de ma famille aussi.) J'ai 37 ans et je suis en écrivain. J'aime leer, regarder le film et courir (faire du jogging.) 

Et je pense que c'est toute. Merci beaucoup pour toute le chose. Excusez mon français s'il vous plait. Merci beaucoup.
I'm leaving for Europe on Thursday for nine days--three in Paris and six in Montreux. The first three will be me attempting to apply what I've learned over the last two years. I'll spend the last six in intensive six-hour French classes. The note is to the family I'll be staying with. 

I am feeling the need to, again, express to you how precisely afraid I am. My passport arrived last Friday and I was -- all at once -- excited and horrified. Let us talk about the horror. For some time now I have been engaged to the theory of français. I've enjoyed playing around with the tenses, using the language with my tutor and butchering the grammar in my notes. I've generally played around with the idea of actually going to Europe. Even after I made travel and study arrangements, it all still seemed like theory.

Somehow I'd held on to the idea that my passport would be lost in the mail, or my application would be rejected on account of my Dad's seditious past. No dice.

There is an image stuck in my head: I board a plane. The plane takes off. A hole in the sky appears. The plane flies through the hole and disappears into some unknown other side that people call "Europe." 

What happens over there? Can I jog in the streets? Will people ask if I know Kobe Bryant? If I forget my place and say "tu" instead of "vous" will they cane me? And if I say "vous" instead of "tu" will they think I am being sarcastic? Who goes to another country and stays with people they don't know?

I don't know. I don't know anything. This is truly frightening -- and exhilarating -- part of language study. It's total submission. All around you will be people who know much more than you about everything. And the only way to learn is to accept this. You can't know what's coming next. You can't think about false goals like fluency. You just have to accept your own horribleness, your own ignorance and believe--almost on faith--that someday you will be less horrible and less ignorant. 

I've come to the point where I can accept that I am afraid and keep going. This is not courage, so much as understanding there's no other way. People who read this blog now send me notes in French. At speeches Haitian students approach me, and they speak French. My kid is starting to believe that learning a language is cool. I'm hemmed in by all of this, by ma grande bouche

And now there's no other way. Ces choses doit être fait.
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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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