The Intoxicating Fear of Language Immersion

The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #4
Gora Mbengue's painting of Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba (National Museum of African Art)

So I went off to face the elephant today, still a little woozy and weak from yesterday's adventures. But as much as I love the food, and as much I love the fashion, and as much as I love the river, the weather, the small streets like sanctified alleys, the kids who roll papers, the old people who will not surrender the street and are not asked to, the Parisians' galactic disregard for the science public health, I came to Paris to learn French. If you are studying a language, you eventually reach a point where learning the rules--divorced from any applicable environment, excised from hot, random reality--becomes insufficient. It is one thing for me to run through the conjugations of the verb vouloir. But to, in the moment, say "Ils ont voulu plus d'argent" without thinking, without conjugating, without searching, is something else. It's the space between theory and practice, between diagramming a safety blitz and seeing whether you actually like hitting and being hit.

And I got hit today. Four hours of punishing French. Plus, as I discovered, the groups actually start at the beginning of the month, so I was a week behind. Plus I missed yesterday. The professor looked at me doubtingly and said, "Vous connaissez le passé composé n'est pas?" When I answered "Oui," she said "Whew" and kept trucking.

I need to practice. I lost my language in these last few weeks of American travel. I should be practicing right now. But I am here with you.

My teacher was nice but all business. American French teachers have a way of slowing down the language for you, so that you catch every word. No dice over here. Madame Pascal spoke like the people on the Parisian streets. Catch up or get run over.

Here is something else--I am old. The average student in my class is about 19, and there were some as young as 17 (I think.) I'd seen the same thing in Switzerland, where I met kids whose parents sent them away to Montreux for whole weeks to learn French. I think back to what I would have done at 16 had my parents sent me away. They could barely send me to school without complaints. In France, I would have settled for nothing less than a second revolution. (Or is it the third?)

But I am old now. There were always two parts of me. Gandalf Ta-Nehisi and Peregrin Ta-Nehisi. Gandalf Ta-Nehisi always knows what's wise and correct. Peregrin Ta-Nehisi is all chicken and beer. Peregrin Ta-Nehisi runs up the credit cards, leaving Gandalf to pay them off. Peregrin stays out drinking till four, then shows up for pancakes a Veselka at five AM. Gandalf wakes up at six, takes the boy to school, then nurses his hangover with chicken patties and ginger beer. For a great many years Peregrin has had his way. Now Gandalf is rising and a new power stalks the land.

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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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