Or Perhaps You Are Too Stupid to Learn French

The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #13
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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.

Whatever. I'd take their curse over mine. Yesterday I started B1 French. Hooray. It was like someone putting me on a boat, sailing out into the middle of the Pacific, tossing me overboard and telling me to swim back home. We had to read some text about Sartre and a mirror. Then we had to compare it to the evil queen's "Mirror, Mirror" monologue in Snow White. I pride myself on being stupid in front of people, on holding up the class with the questions that I really should know. I paid my money. I will get the knowledge. But yesterday I reached one of those points where I had to let it go. The humiliation of not knowing--and not knowing how to know--was too much. I say that knowing that it is never shameful to know, so much as it is shameful to sit in class an act like you know.

Public school teachers, listen up: I had flashbacks of West Baltimore, because that was surely the point where, were it 12-year-old me, I would have started prepping the spitballs and jokes. I strongly believe kids act up in class for three reasons--1.) They aren't being challenged. 2.) They don't understand the value of the instruction 3.) They don't believe they can ever really know. I had a lot of those last two when I was in school. I was not the smartest kid in my class, and I was never quite clear on why I should want to be.

As an adult whose chosen to be instructed, you understand the value--indeed you see it all around you, here--but the doubt, the belief that you might just be an idiot, does not go away. Halfway through yesterday's lesson I kept waiting for my instructor to just drop her book and say, "Est-ce que tu es stupide?!?!" Yup. "Vous avez raison." But she was patient. She kept going. We powered through. I walked out of class in a total daze. In my head there was a jumble of French words and grammar rules. I "knew" them. But applying them in real time, actually ordering them to make sense is another skill. I've had to keep myself from being lazy, because the French are too forgiving. You can mumble out some nouns and unconjugated verbs and they will figure out what you mean. But you won't get any better. It's not enough to simply pat yourself on the back for trying out your French. You have to force yourself to try and apply the rules.

Before I came here everyone told me that the enemy was the French. It would be their rudeness, their retreat into English that would defeat me. But I am here now and it is clear that--as with attempting to learn anything--the only real enemy is me. My confidence comes and goes. I have no innate intelligence here--intelligence is overrated. What matters is toughness, a willingness to believe against what is apparent. Learning is invisible act. And what I see is disturbing. In class my brain scatters, just as it did when I was in second grade. I have to tell myself every five minutes to concentrate.

The hardest thing about learning a language is that, at its core, it is black magic. No one can tell you when, where or how you will crossover--some people will even tell you that no such crossover exists. The only answer is to put one foot in front of the other, to keep walking, to understand that the way is up. The only answer is a resource which many of us have long ago discarded. C'est à dire, faith.

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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. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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