Actually, it’s a little bit stronger than that. I want to master French. I want to be as effective a communicator in French as I am in English. That’s the long term goal anyway.
Bravado aside, the important bit of the opening statement is the “I want”. At many points in my life, I’ve been forced by circumstance to study French to pass tests, but it’s never something I’ve ever wanted to do for myself and for its own sake. It’s a significant change in attitude.
The catalyst for this change was the admission of a francophone colleague that she found it exhausting to speak English all day. It had never occurred to me that someone who spoke English as a second language as effectively as she does would also find it exhausting to do so.
With this important piece of information in hand, I became acutely aware each time the language of afterwork drinks had to switch from French to English because of me and very often only because of me. For the first time ever, I felt like I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain because of my poor French skills. Not Canada’s grand national bargain, but the simple and vastly more important bargain of friendship.
So, at the beginning of the summer, I decided to see what I could do on my own to pick up the slack. Because I was doing this on my own accord and with no particular deadline, I could start anywhere. With the freedom to start anywhere, I thought about how I came to be a fairly effective communicator in English. It occurred to me that it was in reading that I first learned to lose and find myself in words and language.
Then, I got lucky.
The first reading recommendation I received was Le petit prince. It turned out to be the perfect starting point. The language of the book is simple enough that I could figure out fairly easily that there is much more going on in the story than meets the eye. With the exception of a high school exchange to France, in which most of the participants were girls, this was the first time I felt like I was really enjoying myself, as I struggled through the thicket of French to some kind of understanding.
The other important factor motivating this unexpected desire to learn French was that I was finding it harder and harder to justify spending time with books and words and thinking. It may simply have been fatigue, but it was becoming harder and harder for me to answer “because that’s what I am/do,” whenever I asked myself, “why write?” Learning french, however, is very a good reason to read and write and think. If I can master French, it will address one of the biggest failures of my life. If I can do it now, later in life, it will also be nice “fuck you” to all the lousy teachers who helped me fail. Furthermore, any improvement in my French will only help my job prospects.
Then, not too long ago, one more idea entered the mix and this is the one that, I think, will motivate me to keep at it. So much of who we are is tied up in the language that we use, the language that we live in, and yet so much of our language is taken on by us at a time when we hardly reason about anything at all and much less our words. Effectively, most of our language is inherited from our family and peers in early life, without any real awareness of what we are incorporating into ourselves.
Learning a second language properly, this late in life, gives me the opportunity to make for myself a language all my own. To be clear, I’m not talking about the rules of the game. I’m talking about how I play the game, once I know the rules. And I do like me some rule learning. In fact, part of the appeal of French is the top-down approach used to determine the length and breadth of the language. It is a language I could conceivably learn more thoroughly than its native speakers because a central authority establishes what is or is not proper French. If only there were merit badges!
Last but not least, I also think the process of learning French will give me plenty to write about here on my blog. Learning a language is fascinating, when you can take the time to dig around in it at your own pace. It’s a pretty useful lens with which to look at a whole range of issues, including mind and culture. It might even be a neat story for others to follow, especially if I manage to get to a place where I am fully functioning Francophone, like my maternal Great Grandfather.
A friend recently reminded me of the importance of dreams, however achievable, to give shape, structure, and coherence to a live well lived. Call it a dream or a goal, either way I have an excuse to watch TV again.