The Intoxicating Fear of Language Immersion

The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #4
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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.

But Gandalf is grey, son. And these kids today are magic. Their brains shift through languages as though shifting lanes on an empty highway. With five lanes. Because all of them are bilingual, and none of them are American. They know their native language (Japanese, Spanish, Italian) and are now about the business of picking up a third. They are killing us, son.

For at least half of the class today, I was lost. And no one would slow down. My wife was in another class and basically got the same treatment. Afterwards we met, walked down Rue de Rennes and bought some cake, because we had earned this. I thought about stopping for beer. But I had to come talk to you. And more, Paris will vanquish your bank account, your credit cards, and even menace that 401k if you are not watchful.

As we walked my wife gave me that "The fuck have you gotten me into?" look. Whatever. She likes it. She knew what she was doing when she first came here, and insisted I follow. And we both like it. We both like being hit and hitting. There is something about being down, about being lost, about being estranged that is narcotic. It is that hit of fear you get the first time you swim in the deep end and understand that your feet can not touch the bottom.

So I blame it all on my wife. But I specifically blame this post on Jim and Deb Fallows, who are heroic to me and my small family, who are, together, our own Gandalf. I don't want to go into other people's business. But I think it's public information that they have made a life together, raising children and traveling the world. I didn't even know people who knew people who did things like that. And now it is so much of what I want. I blame them for talking to me about it and urging me and Kenyatta on. You can't hear them and not feel the glamour. It is the sorcery of the wide world. It is the song of the wanderers. It is the knowledge of a one-shot life. Who can truly live, hear such music, and decline to dance?

Dakar--watch out. We are coming. Again.

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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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