Two things happened on the same day recently that opened up a subject that I have desperately tried to avoid for a while now: my tempestuous relationship with the French language. Ever since I chose it over Spanish in seventh grade, my French has been a source of pride and shame in equal measure. Pride that I learned it for years and actually used it its birthplace and shame because I’m not lying when I say I suck at it. This isn’t me being coy or fishing for attention; the tatters my French is in now would make my old middle school teacher “Madame” Fitch (an unfortunate name that rhymed with what she often could be) keel over. I often don’t speak about this love/hate relationship with my supposed second tongue because not many people get it, what it’s like to work at something so hard that you either naturally do or do not thrive at no matter how much you love it or dreamed of it.
First awkward experience occurred when I watched Gad Elmaleh’s comedy special on Netflix. I had heard him on the This American Life podcast about how he went from superstardom in France to struggling at gaining a comedy following in the States because his humor is so tied to his language. Basically a joke could make or break depending on where he put emphasis in a word. His special was funny, sure; who doesn’t enjoy awkwardly hilarious culture shock stories? But what got me was how he slipped in and out of French, using it as a point of deflection when the English was overbearing. I was the opposite in France, slipping into English with English-speakers so I could retain my sense of self as I struggled with expressing my feelings. I realized never got beyond this “franglais” despite my resume telling another story…
Second, I sold my used copies of Moliére and Voltaire to which the sardonic Half-Priced Books employee quipped to me “tu parles français”? (excuse me, Greg, we are not on “tutoyer” terms) to which I said “pas depuis l’université”. We chuckled and moved on, me $4.50 richer.
These instances make me realize how far away I am now from when I was in the height of my French relationship, when I was living in France, dreaming in French, studying it, breathing it, soaking in it constantly. When I was in my fourth month in France, on the brink of leaving, it was hitting everyone else “huh, if I stayed longer, I’d be completely fluent!”, I was realizing “oh God, I hit my natural plateau”. I chalk this down to two things: one, I started French when I was 12 so my language-learning aptitude was already past its prime and two, I wanted to love French more than French wanted to love me.
Maybe it’s my knack of regional accents that kept me from committing to the lilt of la langue or my completely un-French appearance and style that made me a sore Midwestern thumb in Provence but I was just never destined to slip into French like a beloved, worn-in pair of heels. The height of my French was being able to make it around the country with appreciative nods that I spoke the language and not horribly but there were certainly no exclamations of how good my accent was or how I could pass for a true francophone like friends around me.
I studied French because it’s unique in my family to speak another language (although my little sister has now surpassed me as she’s fluent in American Sign Language like a total boss) and it also made my degree unique. And I truly thought the climax of my relationship would be that I could finish a book in French, or watch a movie without subtitles and still get the jokes, or be able to pretentiously throw a little quote out at a dinner party.
It may seem that my French is now dead and buried, neatly stored in a little box in my mind that reads “EX-LOVER”, but it turns out I’ve used it more than ever in the recent years…albeit not like I expected to.
French did me the biggest favor by giving me the basics to pick up other languages. By breaking it back down to its building blocks and letting my brain unlearn the further complexities and mysteries I’d never be able to totally solve, I was able to pick up bits of Haitian Creole and Romanian…destroying any hope of language mastery but broadening my ability to communicate during my travels.
Getting to pick up Creole in Haiti and being able to joke around with people in the village in a way other “blans” couldn’t was priceless. Getting to understand more of the worship and culture through their completely unique and proud patois was worth the years of building-blocks French. It means verb conjugation will never come easily to me ever again but who cares when it meant getting to have so much more fun with all my students?
The same went with getting to learn phrases here and there because of the common Latin roots with Romanian. Understanding whole conversations where I couldn’t repeat back the words but knew their meanings just because I knew a whole other separate language? That’s amazing! Anyone would attest that my Romanian was wanting but for just diving in for three months, it was astonishing how much I learned. It’s a beautiful language I feel lucky to know any of. And that’s all because I had to learn silly songs about the “être” verb in high school!
French and I were never destined to be a love match. We were friendly acquaintances at best. But it gave me a basis of language learning that this Hoosier could have never acquired on her own and for that, I’d struggle with it all over again.
So to French, I bid you a “mèsi” (Creole), a “multumesc” (Romanian), and of course a “merçi”. It was never going to work out between us, ma chére, but thanks for the memories.