Learning French for me was as much for communication as for understanding.
I wanted to be understood and to comprehend others, and see how a new way of expressing oneself might lead to another way of looking at the world. I was still a bit naïve when it came to people, but my vocabulary was improving rapidly.
What struck me often, though, especially in my first weeks of learning the language in France, was how often my kind, patient French acquaintances seemed to know what I was trying to say.
Linguists, using the incomprehensible expressions particular to any specialty, even one regarding language, call this an ostensive-inferential model of communication.
This means that people who are conversing – or in my case, “conversing” – often use gestures or facial expression to understand each others’ communicative intentions. That is, once the other speaker recognizes that you’re acting with communicative intent, that speaker can draw on any number of innate cognitive tools to figure out what the person who’s speaking to him wants to express.
This is apparently part of our linguistic evolution. For those of us attacking a new language – or for me grappling with beginner French – this educated guesswork from people with whom you’re speaking seems also to be a way of moving things along. It’s frustrating to wait, and wait, for your verbally clodhopping new acquaintance to search his faulty memory banks for the appropriate word. Or any word. So you jump in and help him out.
People helped me out. One woman, Kathleen – a Frenchwoman with a non-French name whom I’d met at the housewarming my friend Daniel had given at his new apartment, took me under her wing. She hoped I’d return the favor at some point by working with her in English.
She’d meet me once or twice a week after my classes at Alliance Française. Her apartment on the Rue du Cherche-Midi wasn’t far from the Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail. We’d spend an hour or so at one of the little round tables, either on the sidewalk outside of or just inside Le Rousseau, a small brasserie a few steps from Kathleen’s studio apartment.
I’d recount my lesson to her, or what I’d attempted to learn that day, along with brief character sketches of some of the students, as best I could with my limited descriptive powers. Kathleen would see where I hesitated in trying to create a French phrase out of an English one (since my knowledge of colloquial French was rough, to say the least), and write down phrases for me. She understood my ostensive conversational efforts.
I still have those notebooks in which she thoughtfully wrote out for me examples of vocabulary, phrases and her corrections. It’s funny how little I knew and yet how I pushed ahead regardless. Words that seem so natural to me now were entirely strange, and phrases that are part of my conversational toolbox today were completely unknown to me then.
Kathleen would also correct my emails to her – she encouraged me to drop her a line every day or so that I could practice writing outside of class. And looking over those now, too, with her red or violet edits of my email texts, I see how my considerable linguistic ignorance didn’t prevent me from writing to her, or to anyone, badly. If it had, I’d never have come so far. I’ve met several non-French-speaking Americans in Paris who rarely speak to the locals because they’re terrified of looking stupid in another language. But the stupid thing is to remain silent, because speaking or writing stupidly helps you make progress. If you have someone who can take you by the hand in the real world.
Sometimes, though, because I was so grateful for the language help of some of the people I met those first months, I didn’t immediately understand their character. In my eagerness to become conversant in French, I ignored certain personality traits that would later reveal themselves. My ostensive-inferential tools were nonexistent when it came to comprehending people at a certain level.
But I at least I could begin to make chitchat.
Understanding the person behind the chitchat would come later.