My son has been told to keep a mood diary this week, and he is faithfully filling it in. ‘It’ll be easy,’ he declared confidently. ‘I just need to write “despair” on the days I have French lessons and “relief” when they are over.’ My poor child has not inherited the maternal genes and considers being obliged to learn a modern language akin to being tortured. I help him with his homework and watch his expression glaze over as I explain what constitutes the object in a sentence. Behind his eyes lies an empty prairie over which a few dust bunnies cartwheel. I found myself begging him, ‘Just let me have ten minutes of your concentration so I can explain how to conjugate verbs to you, and then if you get that straight in your head you can coast through the next two years’ of lessons!’ But there was no deal to be had, and he continues to mangle the simplest sentence and plead absolute ignorance of the correct grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.
But, you know, I do have a lot of sympathy. I found languages easy and fun when I began them, and I undertook a degree course for no better reason than that I was good at them. If university taught me anything, it taught me that speaking a foreign language well is something that takes a lifetime of hard work to achieve. And even though I was good at languages, speaking out loud in a different tongue is a real screw-up-your-courage hurdle to overcome. I remember leaving my ‘A’ level French oral exam and the examiner saying to me, ‘How nice to see a candidate with a big smile on her face’, and my jaw was too frozen to reply to him more truthfully ‘No, this is a rictus of fear.’ I’ve been practising my French seriously for more than twenty years, and yet, when I give a paper at a multi-lingual conference, I live in terror of being asked a question in French. The sudden switch over from one language to another is always disorienting, and it seems to me a horribly public place to make a glaring idiomatic error. Because, let’s face it, a) I’m supposed to get it right and b) at the very best of times, nothing makes you seem more stupid than expressing yourself in a cock-eyed fashion to native speakers.
I’ve never come across this process more amusingly described than in David Sedaris’s essay collection Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris lived in France for many years, including a spell in Paris, during which he attended language classes taught by the linguist’s equivalent of Attila the Hun. ‘You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain,’ she tells them. ‘Every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section.’ I have to say that I have indeed come across French language teachers of this ilk, and there is nothing to do in their company but gamely plough on, churning the intricacies of grammar, along with the remnants of your self-confidence, under your hopelessly clumsy tongue. There’s a scene in this book I love, where one Moroccan student in Sedaris’s class asks for Easter to be explained to her, and her fellow sufferers do the very best they can with what tools they have at their disposal.
‘He call his self Jesus and then he be die one day on two… morsels of…lumber.’
The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.
‘He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.’
‘He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.’
‘He nice, the Jesus.’ […]
Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “to give of yourself your only begotten son.”
I often think that speaking a language is a bit like driving a car. When you begin to drive, the fact of having to use the pedals and the gear, and the indicators seems an impossibly complex feat of multi-tasking. Heaven only knows how other people manage this and keep up a conversation at the same time. Practice is the only thing that stands between you and mastery of the vehicle, and the same is true with languages. Eventually you learn how to conjugate the verb, and use the right word order, and even on a good day make the correct agreements according to gender (on a very good day), and if you keep practising the point will come when you can move beyond parroting phrases with your fingers crossed to actually wondering what you might want to say. But oh language is treacherous, because there seem to be ever more complex levels of engagement between what you can say, and what you would like to say, and the seemingly relentless autonomy of your mouth.
When I was living in France I rented a little studio apartment, high up in a teetering terrace in the centre of the town. One school holiday I left my pot plant with my downstairs neighbour, a charming West African, to be watered in my absence. On my return, I went to fetch it and was momentarily thrown, when I opened the door, to see that he had about ten West African friends round and they were all cramped into his tiny living space, the window wide open to the southern early summer heat. With barely an inch between them they sprawled over any available space wearing a range of teeny shorts and nothing else. What made the situation particularly painful to me was that I could not pick my neighbour out amongst all these lean, black men; I didn’t know him that well. And so, drawing on what inadequate social phrases I had, I blurted out, ‘Ah! vous êtes tous en train de vous bronzer, alors!’ (Ah, I see you are all working on your suntans), and frankly I couldn’t have said anything more abjectly stupid if I had tried. They looked a little bewildered amongst themselves, but fortunately the situation was saved (from my perspective) by the fact that the plant my neighbour handed over with some embarrassment was a wizened, fried little skeleton; he had completely forgotten to water it. At least then we could call it a draw.
People who are really good at languages know that beginning with what you might say in your own is a false move. Languages are internally different to one another in a radical and inexplicable way. People in different cultures think differently, they conceptualise differently, they explain things differently. One friend of my husband’s family who was bilingual went for a walk whilst pondering a problem. On the way out, he thought in French and came to one conclusion; on his return journey he thought in Italian and came to the opposite conclusion. It’s why you can often tell when you have a translated novel in your hands; there’s just an otherness about the language that can’t be entirely removed. Once you start to see it this way, learning a language seems an impossible, monumental task, and sometimes I feel my fluency is still a painfully poor approximation of a mother tongue. However, living in France was encouraging in all kinds of ways, not least the recognition that when you are actually in a country, no one expects you to be word perfect. The French people I met were tirelessly enthusiastic about whatever I said, and more than ready to discuss the finer points of their language. The fact that they could never agree on how things ought to be expressed was alarming on one hand, but reassuring on the other. Communicating is still the important part of a language, and that can be achieved on minimal vocabulary and an injection of good will. I don’t think that this happy conclusion will prevent my son from dreading his French lessons, however, or make him receptive to the perplexing oddity of the vocabulary he has to learn. I have just asked him what his latest thought on learning French are, and he clutched at his heart, fell backwards onto the sofa and cried ‘It burns.’ I rest his case.