The Book of Human Language

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III. Apprendre

I've now been studying French for a little over a year now. (J"ai etudier le Francaise pour quasiment un an, mantenent." or some such.) You can see the beginnings of the journey here. As you can tell from that translation above, I am far from fluent. When I read an article in Le Monde, as I try to daily, I can get a general gist of the thing, but the words appear to me something like this:


He..goes...often...family. Important...but he was liked by everyone...town...carry...large...about the same time...who..child...hospital...shooting...According to his sister...

When listening to RFI, it's considerably worse. I can speak the language about as well as I recall my son being able to speak English at about two and a half years old--though he understood English at that age, a lot better than I understand French. 

A large amount of time has been spent figuring how I learn best, and then crafting systems that take advantage of that particular bent. For instance, memorizing the 1000 most popular words in French was a big break-through. I'm still getting them down, but learning vocabulary by frequency--as opposed to subject--has helped me interact with the language a lot quicker.

But to get that done, I've had to craft flashcards with imagry that corresponds to my own native data-set. So it's not enough, for instance, to put the French word "besion" on one card and the English "need" on the other. No, I have to have a picture from the video for "Kids," in which the hook is "Control yourself, take only what you need from it..." I, more or less, had to do this about 900 times.

Memorizing various verb forms has required simply writing them over and over again. I think in the past I've given the impression that rote repetition is somehow unconnected to "real" learning.  But I don't really know how else you get good at something without practicing. I was once told that if you want to develop a jump-shot, you need to learn form, and basically shoot a thousand  jump-shots a day until the form becomes you. I've found that in French, I'm trying to recreate a similar trick--turning a overtly conscious act into muscle memory.

I've come to love the repetition, the constant rhythm of the jump-shot. I like the slow progress. It's a kind of revelation. I find myself taken by fantasy. I imagine that I am breaking some ancient code. I imagine I am learning the rudiments of plane-walking. I imagine SETI in reverse--like all the teeming life of the Francoverse broadcasts itself to me, and someday I shall hear it all.

As always, I wonder how/if I could have felt this way earlier. If I could change anything about my schooling I would have made the connections between abstract method and substance more real. I would have closed the distance between conjugating "Apprendre" and sitting outside in some lovely Paris cafe, fully comprehending all around me. Perhaps that would have failed too. But I really did want to get out of West Baltimore, and somehow it never dawned on me that French was a great way. They also started us too late. In my school French was seen as a subject, but I wish it had been seen as a medium, as tool for understanding other things, and simply as another abstract formula that might keep you out of jail.

C'est tout mes amis.

Just a few thoughts as I go into the second year of this. I think it's key that I am actually enjoying the learning, as opposed to just slogging my way through. 

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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