When people ask me at what age I started learning French I tell them that I started when I was six. That’s somewhat true. I was in first grade when I started learning a few French words. In second grade, I learned how to identify different classroom objects. “Pen” is “un stylo”, “pencil” is “un crayon”, etc. But I only started learning French grammar in seventh grade. Then in eighth grade I decided I was too cool for school so that I had the privilege of retaking French 2 during my freshman year of high school.
Enter Madame Andre. I first met her while taking my language entrance exam. After a curt “Bonjour” she pulled out her red pen and marked up my exam while I was taking it! Mme Andre returned a half hour later to correct the rest of my exam. She told me in her thick Parisian accent that I belonged in first year French, but if I promised to work hard she would allow me to retake French 2. “How kind”, I thought.
But I was a competitive figure skater throughout high school, so I missed first period nearly everyday of the week. I missed over 70% of my French classes that year. But I did fine. I turned in all of my assignments and did pretty well on all of my exams. Still, Mme Andre insisted on meeting with me during my lunch breaks. We soon became friends. It is largely because of Mme Andre and another French teacher at my high school that I fell in love with French.
Mme Andre never spoke English in class. Immersion learning is quite fashionable today, but I am sure Mme Andre was one of the few high school language teachers in the country who taught beginning French courses entirely in the target language. My first French 2 class I did not understand a word of what she was saying.
We had a grammar book, but I learned most of my French through reading books. In French 2, we were assigned some stories in René Goscinny’s Le Petit Nicolas a des ennuis. One of the first French words I learned was “langoustine” (jumbo shrimp). The little Nicolas had a thing for them. At first, I looked up nearly every word in the dictionary. It took me a week to read a ten page story. There was no way for me to cheat. I couldn’t find an English translation of Goscinny’s work. But the stories were so funny, that I wanted to read all of them. With my trusty Larousse dictionary, I spent what little spare time I had reading Le Petit Nicolas.
After finishing that book, I asked my mom to buy me the only French work at the now-closed Borders: Le gentil petit diable by Pierre Gripari. The title story was about a devil who wanted to be good and enter Heaven. If I remember correctly, one of the stories in the collection was about a man who marries a potato!
One of the skills a language student learns is how to use context to understand a sentence with an unknown word. I kept a notebook for all of the new words I was encountering. Every week, I went through the notebook and checked off the words I had properly learned.
At the end of French 3, I decided that I wanted to try reading a novel. My high school library had a very good French collection. The first novel I read from cover to cover was La tristesse du cerf-volant by Françoise Mallet-Joris. This was no grocery store book. This was literary fiction by an award-winning Belgian writer! The first time I read the novel, I’m pretty sure I understood only about 20%. It took me about a month to finish, but I found the story captivating. It is a family saga centered around a controversial surrealist fresco. Mallet-Joris is known for writing LGBT fiction. In La tristesse du cerf-volant, an art director named Georges Doutrement falls in love with Christophe (the artist of the fresco) but Christophe’s sister Clara has a quasi-incestuous love for her brother. This was definitely not the kind of fiction I was normally into, but I couldn’t put it down.
A year later, I reread the novel and understood around 60%. I read many other novels as well, but none were as complicated as La tristesse du cerf-volant. Today, I not only understand the plot, but I enjoy analyzing its many themes. I’m pretty sure La tristesse du cerf-volant is the most obscure of Mallet-Joris’ novels, but it is one of my all-time favorite French works because it was the first French novel I ever read.
In a little over two weeks, I will be starting my PhD at a prestigious university. I am proud of my accomplishments, but I’m also nervous. Since high school, my teachers have always patted me on the back. But in the past few months, I’ve been taking a more objective look at my language and research skills. I know that my PhD program will be much more intense than my Master’s program was.
My research and interpretation skills have certainly improved, but I’m not sure my written and spoken French skills have. Last week, I reread Courrier Sud by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It was one of my favorite books of 2014. However, this time around I noticed how many words I didn’t understand. I’m afraid that I have plateaued. Because I don’t need to know every word of what I read, I don’t go out of my way to expand my vocabulary. I’ve rested on my laurels for far too long. I need to recover the same attention to detail that I once had.
I am still learning French. I don’t want to admit that publicly. I don’t even want to admit that to myself. I’d rather see myself as a great language-learner, but I will fail to improve if I keep deceiving myself. We should certainly be proud of our accomplishments, but we also need to acknowledge our limitations.
A PhD program is not just school. It is professional development. I am climbing a steep mountain, and I need all the training I can get. I need even more discipline than before because I’m also learning Latin. The humanities are not doing so hot. There are only a few academic positions open and so many applicants.
Maybe you can relate to my journey. People have always told you that you are good at one particular thing. You are proud of your talent, but you also need a good kick in the pants. Perhaps, it wasn’t necessary for me to make this post. I’m not sure if any of it will help language learners. But I guess sometimes we need to tell our own stories to remind ourselves of what we have done and where we are going. I will always be grateful to Madame Denise Andre for encouraging me to learn French. I haven’t talked to her in a few years. I’m sure she will be proud to know that one of her students is pursuing a PhD in a language she spent over 30 years teaching.