Travel June 2013

How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination

Pardon my French
The snow-covered mountains and punctual trains of Montreux, Switzerland, summon childhood train sets, and the daydreams that accompanied them. (Harold Cunningham/Getty)

When I was about 6 years old, I started collecting model trains with my father. We would assemble the track in the attic, put a foam mountain with a tunnel over the top, and, through the magic of a transformer, watch the trains make their rounds. My dad took me to train shows, and for my birthdays back then, I always got train sets or trestles. I had books on model trains, and books on actual trains. Both kinds showed pictures of big mountains parted by trains, small towns bisected by trains, and trains adorning white Christmas-scapes.

It is from those books that I built an imagination and acquired my earliest notions of heaven—a highland where it snows often and when it doesn’t snow, it rains, where summer seems always in retreat. There is a big lake. Behind that lake is a mountain. Between the lake and the mountain, there is a village.

The village exists. Its name is Corseaux. It sits in the Riviera region of Switzerland, sandwiched between Lake Geneva and the Bernese Alps. I was there in April, reeling at how the postcards of my childhood fantasies had materialized into fact. On a clear day, across the still, black water, I could see France demarcated by white, snowy mountains. There was only one clear day. Clouds constantly threatened snow or rain.

Each day, I woke, washed, dressed, had a breakfast of bread and chocolate, and walked to the train station. The train’s punctuality strained the perceived limits of human engineering. So I was always on time, for I felt that to be here, among the real things, and stray from my appointed place was to abet some great evil. From the Corseaux-Cornalles station, I would train into Vevey and then transfer to another train to Montreux. I would then walk five minutes to the language school—the purpose of my visit—and the work would begin.

I started studying French in the summer of 2011, in the throes of a mid-30s crisis. I wanted to be young again. Once, imagination was crucial to me. The books filled with trains, the toy tracks and trestles—they were among my few escapes from a world bounded by my parents’ will. In those days, I could look at a map of some foreign place and tell you a story about how the people there looked, how they lived, what they ate for dinner, and the exotic beauty of the neighborhood girls.

When you have your own money, your own wheels, and the full ownership of your legs, your need for such imagination, or maybe your opportunity to exercise it, is reduced.

I would hear snatches of conversation, or witness some strange way of behaving, and wonder would take over.

And then I came to a foreign language, where so much can’t be immediately known, and to a small town where English feels like the fourth language. The signs were a mystery to me. The words I overheard were only the music of the human voice. A kind of silence came over me. I would hear snatches of conversation, or witness some strange way of behaving—the bartender’s reply, in French, of “Service” after you thank him for a drink—and wonder would take over.

I studied four hours every day at the school. Class began promptly at 8:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. back in New York). I nursed a nasty bit of jet lag, but wonder drove me. Hearing a foreign language is like seeing a postcard from some other land, even when you are actually in that other land. I experienced my ignorance of words and grammar as a physical distance, as a longing for something that was mere inches away. In that gap, there was all the magic of childhood.

I stayed with a host family and took my dinners with them. These were awesome affairs—wine, cheese, meat, chocolate. They took no pity on me. They bombarded me with French, and from snatches of body language, from a smile or a frown, I deduced what I could. I went through entire dinners—and even engaged in conversations—during which I understood only snatches.

We spent those evenings talking, our gestures making up for a paucity of shared words. But I knew, in some unnameable way, that they were good people. And from that, I could tell how two people with no shared language could fall easily and deeply in love; how the way a man expresses longing, or a woman expresses possibility, could be like discovery; how an entire person could be, to another, a long, dark country.

The Internet is overrun with advertisements meant for those who feel the longing for another language, who hope to attain understanding without the fear, the pain of mocking or rejection. There is a symmetry in language ads that promise fluency in three weeks and weight-loss ads that promise a new body in roughly the same mere days. But the older I get, the more I treasure the sprawling periods of incomprehension, the not knowing, the lands beyond Google, the places in which you must be immersed to comprehend.

Presented by

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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