Any language class sinks to the level of the slowest student. Mine also brought out a recurrence of unfortunate character traits.
Still, we were all of us pretty bad in that initial course I’d enrolled in at the Alliance Française in Paris – a course in conversational French. The word “conversation” is too grand for what were essentially exercises in badly spoken verbal interaction. And even that was beyond many of us at that point.
I knew I was only a beginner myself, but my insufferable side quickly surfaced. I was like Lisa Simpson: “pick me, pick me,” so overeager was I to share my skimpy knowledge. And when someone who was particularly befuddled stumbled interminably in searching to respond, I started saying aloud what I believed to be the right answer, to keep things moving. Occasionally the teacher would interrupt my interruptions (“C’est bon; ça suffit, Robert, merci, ça va”), suggesting that other students needed to answer so that they could practice and progress (she once added that they had also paid to take the course). I’d paid too, but not to hear other people speak as badly as I did.
Each of us introduced ourselves at the start of a class, both to give everyone an idea of who we were, or who we claimed we were, and also so that we could become accustomed to fashioning a précis of our lives in a way that could serve us beyond the classroom. If any of us met French people, that is, who might be interested in who we were (or who we claimed we were).
The students – 80% women, 20% men – were children of diplomats, wives or husbands of diplomats, spouses of people doing business in France, tourists deluded into thinking they could acquire a new language in a couple of weeks and tourists who were brushing up on the French of their long-ago schooldays. And people like me who were there to figure out whatever we were trying to figure out for ourselves while learning a new language.
In that first conversation class, my fellow students included Valentina, a beautiful young woman from Chile whose father worked at the embassy, and who was there with her family for a year. She was at my level of French – basic or worse – but her English was excellent.
And there was Miko, a quiet Japanese. The wife of a businessman, Miko enrolled to get better at French during the two years she and her husband were stationed in Paris. She continually looked up French words in an electronic dictionary – something I noticed that many of the Japanese students there carried, as if it were the latest purse – but she rarely pronounced what she’d discovered.
In fact, Miko spoke only when pressed. She must have considered my overeager hand-raising to be the height of American vulgarity. When she and I worked together on one of those irritating group exercises that the teacher would assign us, where you and one or two others created lame dialogue using certain words for an imagined scenario, I resorted to being bossy Lisa Simpson again and at Miko’s every hesitation would sigh and tell her what to write, just so that she’d actually say something when it came time for us to perform our own exasperatingly rudimentary little routine. We didn’t become friends.
Thérèse Le was a young woman from Vietnam whose written French was a bit better than her spoken, at least as far as I could tell at that point. Her accent – despite her French surname – was indecipherable to me, as mine must have been to her. She was friendly but a bit misguided, or misinformed, or simply in the strange world of her vocation. At one point I suggested we get coffee after class, since she’d expressed an interest in furthering our acquaintance, at which she said, “Mais Robert, je suis une religieuse,” which I took to mean that she was studying to be a nun. Apparently, in her version of Catholicism my unenthusiastic suggestion of sharing a reluctant coffee, almost at her urging, was tantamount to a proposition.
This class had three other “religieuses,” novices, nuns – or “bonnes sœurs.” One from the Philippines spoke with some competence, and was quite determined to progress. Another, a Brazilian nun, well… With shame now but perhaps out of frustration then, I mentally referred to her as Sister Dum-Dum. She could not reply to a single question from the teacher without giggling and shaking her head and refusing to utter anything. I don’t think I ever heard her voice. She was to be sent to work somewhere in the French-speaking world but I couldn’t tell if she were in general too mortified or shy to open her mouth in any language at all. Neither could I understand why she was put in a class with idiots like me who were quick to judge others who were less quick to utter or comprehend one or two inexact phrases.
There was also a Korean nun who was going to be doing missionary work in the south of France (which puzzled me, unless she was proselytizing among the expatriate English who’d bought second homes in Provence). Then there was an Italian woman who spoke well, as far as I could tell, and who took classes while staying for a month with her daughter, who worked near the Alliance Française. And I met a Bulgarian woman whose husband’s company had transferred him and his family to Paris. I mentioned to her in my bad French that she should practice French with her school-age daughters who were getting good at it, but she said it was too difficult for her (which I came to realize was understandable – of course she’d speak at home to her children in her own langue maternelle).
Despite my tendency to be pushy with responses and judgmental with impressions, I realized my own French was far from a level that you could even call inadequate, but I resolved to try to make conversation with my fellow students before class regardless of how obnoxious I might come across to them during lessons. Everything to me was an opportunity for practicing. I tried to engage with the students, and looked for topics of interest that might draw them out. For instance, I asked the Bulgarian student one morning if there were any Roman ruins in Bulgaria – des ruines gallo-romaines – but she couldn’t make out what I’d said. I had to spell it out on a piece of paper. She still didn’t get it. Her mind was elsewhere, perhaps. Conjugating.
I didn’t even try to befriend the sulky American teenager who spent classes texting her girlfriends and not paying attention to anything the teacher said. When directly asked something, however, she’d respond correctly, almost automatically, and then she’d cast a contemptuous look at us linguistic dolts before returning to her texting.
Of course, I thought: She’d probably end up fluent by the end of the summer.