The too-small school seats with half-desktops that hold nothing but your elbow. The overpriced and incomprehensible textbooks with photographs of eager adults using overemphatic gestures and expressions make it seem that you’re studying facial recognition techniques rather than a romance language. The put-upon teachers. The put-upon students.
We entered our proscribed classrooms at Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail and found seats at one of the tight little desks that lined its airless rooms. Some of the classrooms were better equipped than others and had more up-to-date technology – computer-generated graphics that aided language learning – rather than the overhead projectors with transparency sheets that most teachers used. Certain students would carry little pencil cases or book bags, others hopeful notebooks ready to be filled with scribbled phrases that would never be looked at again, others still had nothing but an attendance card and an attitude, as if they were still in junior high and bruising for a rumble.
You’d think that everyone who was there would would want to be there at Alliance Française: This was language learning by choice rather than conscription. But half of the 18 or so students in my very first class were sent by work and anxious to stay employed in France or by the church and eager to spread the word of Jesus in some other part of the world (that would be nuns from Africa or Brazil or Central America). The others were, like me, trying to immerse ourselves in the country and its culture. Or were tourists passing through and looking to brush up on their Molière.
I knew a little about each of them, because at the start of each class we’d speak our name and then let the class know why we were there, what we did, where we came from. I believe this was a ploy on the part of our teacher. She showed up late every day, breathless from the metro, a dervish of overstuffed bags and insincere apology. By making us torture each other with our incomprehensible biographies, she could buy time until she herself tortured us with exercises that involved finding the words to say good morning, to ask the time or where to buy a poodle. The usual mélange of useful and idiotic phrasemaking.
Learning a new language is both humbling and energizing. And very often frustrating. A fellow student of mine, Anand Varma, was mainly frustrated. His wife is French. He’s Indian, and while he already spoke two languages, learning this particular third one – that of his wife – was almost beyond his endurance. I would watch him from my side of the classroom as he entered downtrodden, took his seat dismayed and remained both sullen and a bit sad. At every question the teacher asked he would stumble in his rudimentary of French. But he showed a remarkable fluency in eye-rolling. He did not want to be there or put up with the agony of adult learning.
Of course, it was hard enough to get comfortable in those cramped classrooms, let alone try to concentrate on the little nothings that make up so much of daily discourse.
It seemed to me at the time that Anand and his wife had never exchanged a word in French, at least to judge from his inability to respond even to the teacher’s “Comment allez-vous?”
He might have resented the question itself, since it was so obvious he didn’t go very well at all. He might also have been irritated, like others of us who’d grown up or spent time in the United States (Anand had worked in Los Angeles for a while) at French classes that started late but ended on the hour, like ours did three times out of four at Alliance Française.
We were encouraged to speak to each other in our inchoate French outside of the classroom – in the hallways during the pause café and after sessions before going our separate ways. But Anand would have none of it. I had introduced myself to him after our second class, but as I gave him my name in a French-ish pronunciation he looked at me with revulsion, or even with horror. He responded in English as if he couldn’t get far enough away from the impossible language of the country where he – or perhaps his wife – had hoped to settle.
When I later met his wife, and spoke at least passable beginning French with her, she looked at me with surprise and then at her husband with something like wonder, or perhaps bemusement.
“Are you two in the same class?” she asked.