Or Perhaps You Are Too Stupid to Learn French

The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #13

I'm entering into my last two weeks of French education here in Paris. I started taking classes two days after I arrived. I will be in class until the day before I leave. I spend four hours every day drilling grammar and then an hour or two outside, studying. This has meant me seeing the city differently than most people who come here. Paris has basically been another work-site for me. To be absolutely clear, it is a privilege to work here, but it is not the same as, say, taking a vacation.

The best way to think about this is to say I've more lived here than I've visited here. I have not visited most of the things I would like--the Louvre, the Museé D'Orsay, and especially St. Denis (Clovis!!!) I spent time up at near Nation (I would live up there if I could), I walked La Coulée Verte (Awesome-sauce. Totally sons The High-Line.) I drank some great wine. Ate some incredible bread. But I make no pretensions on having "seen" Paris.

I came here to study the language. That was the job, and thus my life. I understand why people see places without knowing any language--indeed if you waited on fluency, most of us would never see anything. But knowing even the rudiments of language is so transformative, it makes the city four dimensional. And, for me, struggling with the language is part of the act of seeing the place. They go together. C'est moi.

I would go further and say that people cannot solely be known through their buildings, no matter their magnificence. The woman at the café who is sure to tell me that it is "une baguette" not "un baguette" is telling me something about herself, her people and her nation. A buddy of mine was insulted by a French woman the other day. She basically said to him "Go take a shit." Hmm. That's different. Different and as important as as any glass boat floating down the Seine.

But what if you never learn the language? I don't mean what if you never decide to learn, but what if expend a great amount of effort and learn nothing. This seems doubtful--but when learning something the fear of learning nothing is one of the greatest obstacles. This is magnified in French because in any class worth it's salt because the instruction is almost entirely in French. What this means is not only is your subject obscured from you, but the method of accessing the subject is obscured too. It is dreadful cycle. You can only barely understand the instructor--because you can't speak French. But in order to speak French you need to get the instruction, which you don't wholly understand because you don't speak French. So mostly you muddle your way through. And if you have a good teacher he will make sure you understand the instructions before moving on.

Still there's no getting away from the basic feeling of complete idiocy. You are aware of being spoken to as though you were a three-year old, even though you have all the pride of an adult. Worse, if you are like me--a monolingual American in a class where virtually everyone speaks a second language and is now working on their third or fourth--you will be the slowest person. When it comes to comprehension. the Spanish and the Italians are going to just destroy you. They simply have an easier time learning to hear the language than you. This is a gift and curse. Many of the Spanish-speaking students have a much harder time learning the accent. It's as if the closeness of the two languages makes it harder--"parce que" must be be "par-ser-kay" and they will have it no other way.

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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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