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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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power