The Mellow Sounds and Romantic Mood of the French Subjunctive

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To help with understanding the subjunctive, my French instructor has started giving me these "Subjonctif ou Indicatif" quizzes. The subjunctive is the terror of French students. You can go through any of my French posts and find people generally lamenting their ability to master the subjunctive. Part of the problem is that the subjunctive mood very much seems like a "mood." In other words, as much as it carries literal information, it seems like the subjunctive also emotes. Likely other moods also emote information (hence the point in calling them moods)

As someone who began his career in poetry, and is constantly telling his kids that language must carry both emotional and literal information, I love the subjunctive. It's like this dark, mysterious, achingly beautiful stranger. Which is different from saying I've mastered or I totally understand it. Mastery isn't the point. This is language study and study--in and of itself--is rewarding.

Part of the problem is that we think of foreign language as something to be conquered, or completed. We grade people in foreign language classes. The 'net is filled with sites that make claims like "Speak Fluent In French In Three Months!!!!" Everyone--including me--wants to know how long it will take to be fluent. But yesterday my French instructor told me there is no fluency, even she isn't "fluent." This is a person who speaks beautiful, beautiful French. Her point isn't that there is no literal "fluency" but that this isn't the best way to think about language study.

So these "Subjonctif ou Indicatif" quizzes are really about "study." They are about learning how the language feels. This isn't to say there aren't rules--there are. But the rules aren't enough. You have to try to understand the intent of the speaker, and then pick a form that best matches that. This is really just the essence of writing. It's not just matching words to thoughts, but finding words and ordering them in such a way so that they carry the full range, the full body and all the color of thoughts. "Subjonctif ou Indicatif" is basically what I try to do every day. I am amazed, and depressed, that it took me this long to get into foreign language.

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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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