Ok. It sounds like a romantic idea to be able to say that you speak French. “Oh, yes. Je parle français. Oui, oui. Fromage, fromage. L’eau, pamplemousse, chantilly, Versailles.” And then you twist your mustache and adjust your beret while ordering a baguette. (By the way, I have never seen all three of those things happen at once.) Well, I’m here to tell you that learning another language is not romantic. It looks like a lot of verbs – in too many tenses that you don’t understand and can’t pronounce. It sounds like making a fool of yourself. It sounds like conjugating all the wrong verbs when you speak about simple ideas: “I is coming here this morning to making fish for you family and me, maybe.” Honestly, you sound dumb. And you either get used to it or let it destroy your immersion experience. You can no longer get simple tasks completed without exaggerated gestures and noises: (pretend to hold a washboard between your knees and wash imaginary pants) “I need wash. Um, my clothes dirty. I am without pants. Help.” You laugh at yourself, you get red in the face so many times that you begin to tan, you learn how to untie your tongue in 30 seconds flat at the end of the day because becoming tongue-tied is as common as scratching your head. Deep breath. It’s hard. It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of humility.
But there are also these moments: ordering a croissant and a café au lait in Paris for the first time without stumbling and having the man behind the counter switch to speaking English; getting stopped in the streets of Paris and getting asked for directions, in French, and then being able to answer helpfully, in French; getting complimented by real French people who don’t know you (and are therefore not obligated to be nice) that you speak sans accent; finding that you have a formidable enough command of the language to ask the public transportation bus driver if he can stop and let you out because you realized you missed your stop. Or now, I can even interview French professionals about education, religion, social class, immigration, and women’s issues – in French. Can’t say I understand a lot of their responses, but I’m becoming very good at appearing as if I do (plenty of nodding and eye contact). Plus that’s what the advanced students taking notes in my group are for.
Learning a foreign language is about much more than gaining linguistic fluency. In fact, I have found that I am in the process of becoming more fluent in multiple languages at once. You know them, too. Patience and humility I have mentioned, but there is also confidence, and trust. When you’re in a foreign country and your speaking skills are far less than perfect, you just have to go for it and trust those around you to help you. Because you are far more helpless than usual. I am finding that language reveals just how reliant on each other we really are. Mere verbal fluency in a language can lull us into a false sense of autonomy and independence: “Oh, I can handle this. I understand. I’m good at communicating. I don’t need to ask for directions.” Well, guess what? You can’t do any of that anymore because you sound like a four-year-old. You have to lean on those around you while revealing your need and vulnerability. You have to be that guy who awkwardly enters the conversation at the wrong time. You have to be that guy who speaks two words a minute. You have to be that guy who asks others how to read the map, the menu, the street signs, the museum guides, who needs help buying bus tickets. And you thought you could do all that on your own now, didn’t you? Welcome to the “romanticism” of learning a foreign language.
However, as I mentioned, as you slowly improve your linguistic fluency, you are probably advancing much more quickly in your other language muscles: patience, humility, confidence, and trust. I am learning to pay attention to my progress in speaking, but more in living these languages. In actuality, being the most freakishly polyglot-ish person in the world is no comparison to the grace, power, presence and beauty of well-articulated patience, eloquent humility, perfectly punctuated confidence, and the melodious accent of trust. Who gives a darn about learning French? I mean, really. Don’t get me wrong, because I love it. Yet, in the big scheme of things (and the little), no one cares and it doesn’t do squat in the way of making you a better person.
So, perhaps it is not that you are learning a foreign language, like French, that matters. I believe the primary issue is how are you learning French. Are you building your linguistic fluency or are you toning your other language muscles? (Hopefully both). Because these are the languages we live life with, the languages that shape our words, our relationships, our happiness, and our humanity.
Learning a language is what you make of it. It could be embarrassment and the passé composé instead of l’imparfait for seven weeks on a college abroad to France, or it could be made of the stuff of life itself. Choose. Trust me when I say that now I know why we learn languages. They are the currents, the structures, of life. They are the languages of authentic living, purposeful interaction, and blessed being. Speak with your heart and you are heard:
“When the heart speaks, however simple the words, its language is always acceptable to those who have hearts.” – Mary Baker Eddy