In my first classes at Alliance Française in Paris our workbooks had extracts from news articles, which we were to read – sometimes aloud, in an agony for the reader and the listener – and then attempt to discuss.
This kind of exercise doesn’t have an immediate impact on your ability to think in another language, let alone argue in it (something the French love to do). For one thing, you’re too new to the language, with too skimpy a vocabulary, to grasp what’s being said, even if you eventually arrive at understanding in a general way the gist. For another, any discussion of a subject was at that point rudimentary, and served not to illuminate what was being written about but to demonstrate our ineptitude in spoken French.
But it was practice, and it prepared us for reading the newspapers or even literature. And maybe even discussing them. Or at least mentioning them at some point in the future.
I wanted my future to begin immediately, however. Not that I wasn’t earnest in working through the articles and coming up with a sort of oral book report on what I’d read. But because I wanted to make the most of every minute in France, and in learning to speak French, I was determined to read more than the stuff that the language pedagogues had chosen for us.
I tried the free newspapers that the Club Med Gym (now branded as CMG) provided its members: Le Parisien, La Libération, Le Figaro, L’Équipe. In those early months, even the relatively straightforward prose of Le Parisien was a bit too much for me. I was lost with La Libération and even the right-wing Figaro (though even then I could figure out its unremitting devotion to Nicolas Sarkozy). And L’Équipe, being a sports newspaper, had too much wordplay for me to comprehend its recaps or analyses.
I could squeak by with the handout newspapers, 20 Minutes, Métro, Direct Matin, which were written to be digested in the minute or two between metro stops, but I couldn’t read even them without stumbling over a few incomprehensible words every few sentences.
Still, I wanted to read and I was willing to stumble along, if I could find the appropriate material. Although I plodded through some newspapers, I was years away from reading Maupassant or Zola or Proust, as I eventually did. At that point I was just about the right linguistic age for certain children’s books.
One afternoon, strolling with a friend through one of the many neighborhood brocantes – which are sort of professional/amateur flea market-cum-garage sales – at a used-book stall I came across several titles in what was popularly known as the Hachette Rose series. Hachette, the media conglomerate, has been publishing its Bibliothèque Rose books since 1856. These are geared toward readers between the ages of 6 and 12.
At the time I was at a 6-year-old’s reading level – maybe 8, if I were to grade myself on a curve compared to some of my fellow students – but I was willing to try harder to progress toward an older reading age.
The novel I finally bought – for all of 50 centimes – was “Le Mystère des Gants Verts,” or the mystery of the green gloves, by the prolific English author Enid Blyton. It had been published in English in 1950 under the name “The Rilloby Fair Mystery,” then translated and included in La Bibliothèque Rose under this new title. I didn’t care that it was a translation – all that interested me was that it be easy enough for me to get through it.
This was for my reading in private. I certainly wasn’t hipster enough to be caught reading a book for 6- to 10-year-olds on the metro. Besides, this was sort of like my post-homework homework.
Each night, on going to bed, I would read aloud – thankfully I was alone, though I’m sure my pronunciation could have done with serious correcting by a native speaker – with a tiny edition of a Collins English-French dictionary at hand. I’d make my way through a few sentences, put the book down, search for the word in the little dictionary, and continue, slowly, inexorably, toward the finish of a chapter before drifting off to sleep.
I can’t say that I was particularly taken with the story, or the mystery (the deciphering of the sentences was mystery enough for me ). But I have a feeling that although the immediate results of these efforts weren’t apparent – rather like our discussion of particular French news articles – the practice eventually led me toward greater comprehension of written French, albeit French written for children.
And finishing even a book such as this provided me with a little victory, the kind of milestone everyone needs as he attempts to learn something new. It wasn’t as if I were going to jump from Enid Blyton to Marcel Proust, but I nevertheless felt a real sense of accomplishment.
And after finishing this first novel, I was delighted to find another Hachette “Rose” mystery by Enid Blyton the next weekend.