For the past couple of weeks, I have been taking classes at l’Alliance Francaise, a language institute for foreigners and French nationals of all levels who want to improve various aspects of their French. You take a placement exam and have a brief interview in order to determine your level. I placed in one of the highest levels, C1, in which you are considered to be a proficient, advanced user capable of succeeding at the university level in French. My reasons for signing up were many, including my desire to really perfect my written French and enrich my vocabulary. Some people were confused as to why I would need to take French classes in the first place. The best way I can explain it is this: throughout your education in the US, you are required to take English classes in order to exercise and develop your use of the language. Well, this is the equivalent in French for me. For example, can you list the synonyms for the verb “develop” and explain the nuanced differences in their definitions? Now, can you list all the synonyms for the same word in Spanish, French, [insert whichever second language you studied]? That is part of fluency and it takes time and practice to achieve.
We sit at the tables set up in a semicircle around the classroom. People come and go every week depending on their individual needs and schedules, our class roster fluctuating between ten and eighteen students each week. So far, there have been Americans, Brits, Italians, Germans, Russians, Argentinians, Brazilians, Indians, Spaniards, South Africans, Syrians, Norwegians, and Kenyans. Everyone brings with them a unique perspective of the world and society. Some of us are straight out of college, starting our lives in a different country, hungry for human contact and friendship after leaving all our friends behind. Others are more seasoned with age and life experience, wrinkled from the sun in Buenos Aires or adjusting to raising children in another country. We are all strangers. There is no other context through which we know each other, no backdrop except a vast city with its many neighborhoods and intersecting cultures. It is different from any kind of educational setting I’ve ever been a part of. But somehow this formula works.
As I observe the dynamics of our class, I can’t help but laugh. It reminds me of David Sedaris’ book Me Talk Pretty One Day, in which Sedaris brings to life a foreign language class in France similar to mine. I remember listening to the book on tape years and years ago with my mom and my brother, and howling with laughter as the author describes an episode where the Christian members of the class try to explain Easter to their Moroccan classmate using their limited French skills: “He comes to your house and dies on two morsels of wood” stands out in my memory. Although my classmates and I are able to express ourselves very well in French, I now understand the context behind the humor of Sedaris’ book. Because let me tell you, there are some pretty hilarious moments when you take people from all over the world and put them in the same room to communicate with one another.
Take a look:
We are reviewing the subjunctive, one of the most difficult modes to wrap one’s head around because it requires you to really understand the cultural mindset behind a language. If you don’t grasp these concepts, then you are left having to memorize a long list of verbs and impersonal expressions that require the use of the subjunctive. Discussions on whether the speaker is trying to express certainty or doubt, a judgment or an emotion are very common. This sparks debates as each of us resists letting go of our respective culture’s conceptualizations. Each sentence must be deconstructed and put back together again adhering to FRENCH standards.
“In Russia, there’s no such thing as wishing that someone do something. You are ordered to do it and that’s that,” a woman grumbles, scoffing at the verb “souhaiter.”
“Well, we’re in France now,” our teacher says patiently (have I mentioned how much patience this man has??).
“In Italy, we never talk about race,” another woman shares, rather shocked and visibly uncomfortable at even saying the word. The theme for the week is identity.
Later, we are working on vocabulary.
“Why does a cat have whiskers?” the teacher asks.
“So that he can digest himself,” an Argentinian replies, very sure of herself.
The entire class turns to look at her in confusion.
“What? It’s true!” she insists, not realizing her mistake. We start to laugh. She has mixed up the verb “diriger,” to guide, with the verb “dégirer,” to digest.
We are onto fables now and that pesky passé simple, a very formal and literary form of the past tense with its irregular forms and antiquated sound. Our teacher asks us to share fables or proverbs from our countries and to create another fable using a character and moral from different countries as a class. The end result is an odd little tale about a hyena with a sweet tooth who feels that the sand is always warmer on the other side of the Sahara. It’s the most entertaining lesson on the passé simple that I’ve ever had.
Then there is the indignation and pride that comes with being adults who are fully capable of expressing themselves in another language and, for some of us, who have established careers, and suddenly finding ourselves unable to describe exactly what we want to say. We think we know it all. Sometimes it gets the best of us, some more than others, and there goes one of us telling the teacher that we know perfectly well what we’re trying to say, thank-you-very-much. It seems to be an instinctual reaction to being repeatedly corrected, especially when you think you know better. By the time you’ve reached the C1 level, you have a pretty good mastery of the language, as well as some bad or incorrect habits of using certain words or grammar the wrong way. Being told that what you’ve thought for sure you knew is actually wrong isn’t always easy.
“Mais si,” the flustered classmate will bluster, fiercely pointing at their paper to justify their mistake. “I am right.”
Need I say that, usually, we are indeed wrong?
And then, in the middle of vocabulary enrichment on health, it comes to light that one of us is HIV-positive. A silence falls over the room. No one knows what to say.
“Well, now we all know how to talk about AIDS in French!” she laughs, breaking the silence, and we follow her lead. Our teacher guides us back to the lesson.
These are moments that remind us that, differences aside, we are all human and all face our own struggles. We all miss home. At times, we are all intimidated by Parisians’ tough demeanor. We all have had moment(s) where we think, “What the hell am I doing with my life?” Some of us are afraid to return to their own countries, for various reasons. And somehow, among these “strangers,” it feels okay to share all these things.
I will probably never see most of these people again. But I am grateful to have known them, if only for a few weeks.