Fear of Flying

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During my spring break, I'm going to Switzerland for a week. I'll be staying with a host family and doing a fairly intense week of French stufy. I'm hoping to build in a couple of days to get into France also and see some things. This summer I hope to go back and take my son (who just started back studying French) for a few weeks and some of the same.


But something occurred to me the other day when I put down my deposit -- I am afraid. Like really afraid. I've never been in a country where English wasn't the dominant language. I've never been anywhere -- save a few neighborhoods in New York -- where English wasn't all around me. I've been studying French for about a year and a half now, and the experience has been so much more than conjugations and vocabulary. All around me I now hear people speaking the language which I recognize, but do not understand. I was sitting in a cafe in Cambridge last semester and the couple next to me were arguing in French. It was terrifying.

Studying a second language is like very slowly absorbing the notion that intelligent life exists on other worlds. And that scares me because I don't know who these people are. I don't know if they're going to laugh at me. I don't know if I'm going to offend them. I don't know if the Swiss like black people. (I have homeboy who went to Barçelona and his tales still scare me.) I don't really know anything beyond, "Je suis Américain."

I think about this and begin to understand the ethic of staying in the hood -- wherever your hood may be. I understand people who want English to be our official language. They are afraid. They don't know what might happen. And neither do I.  Please don't try to reassure me. I suspect that being afraid is part of it. And I know that the fear isn't very rational. Let me be scared. It's not like I can turn back. I'm out on the ledge now. Time to jump.
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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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