Your Brain on French

By Ta-Nehisi Coates


Some thoughts on my continuing studies of the language:


1. I took some time off this summer--mostly in August-- to pretty much devoted to family. In September I had to handle moving up top for the teaching gig. But I'm back at it, now. 

I've transitioned out of class, and I'm working with a tutor three times a week for one hour sessions. I find these sessions to be much more intense than "classes"--even the relatively small ones I was taking. If you don't understand inversion or "Est-ce que..." there's no moving on, you just keep practicing until you nail it. It's a much better method--second only to immersion from what I can tell--but it's tough. 

2. When I was in first grade, I remember the kids reading in class and thinking "Why do they read so slow?" I generally took to reading pretty quickly. I learned at a young age (Sidenote: I don't know how much that means over the long-run. My son learned late and he's already a faster, and better, reader than I was at his age.) In my French sessions I feel like one of those kids. I stumble over everything, and repeatedly make the same mistake--"Le" is not "Lay" but more like "Luhr." (My "luhr" at least.)  Every sentence is a knife-fight.

3. The phases of comprehension are themselves interesting. At first it all just sounds like gibberish. But then you start to being able to distinguish individual phonemes and sentences. And then you start to recognize certain words as familiar, though you don't know what they mean. You probably could have them dictated to you and spell them reasonably correctly, but you couldn't translate. And then you start to not just recognize the words, but to even understand a few. 

And you even start to understand the differences in how you think about the world and how they think about the world. The Frenchmen doesn't so much "wake up" as he "wakes himself up." (Or some such.) I can detect subtle differences in psychology and culture, perceptions of the self, but I'm not yet prepared to analyze. 

This is where I am, at the moment, and expect to be here awhile. It's as if I were trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with a million pieces. Each day I get more pieces but only a few connect and I can't yet see the shape of the whole thing.

4. The feeling in the brain is itself interesting. My brain will cut on the "French" portion and sometimes I'll start to say something, the thought fully formed, and realize I don't have the words to express it. It's as if I got on a speeding train only to discover that the tracks weren't yet finished. 

5. I now understand why two-year olds are so frustrated.

6. French is a beautiful language.

7. If you are in the New York area and need a French tutor. I have one for you.

8. A second language needs to be mandated for all American school-kids. I have no idea why we start in high school or middle. It should start in kindergarten. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/10/your-brain-on-french/263843/