At my friend Daniel’s 50th-birthday party, almost two months after my arrival in Paris, and perhaps six weeks after I’d first begun to meet Parisians who would become friends, I was able to converse with other people who took part in his celebration. At least I no longer paused to search for the proper response to their questions and could even pose some of my own.
This for me was a little victory. I charted my progress in the language by such small but significant breakthroughs.
My friend Steve, a professional pianist and vocal coach, doesn’t remember a time before he could read music or think in terms of it. A native tongue is like that, too. You know without a second thought the expressions, flow and mood of what you hear, read and say. But unlike someone who grew up in the French language, I can remember that distinct time before I could speak French. Although I’d studied French in high school, I didn’t start to approach learning it seriously until almost 40 years later, and it took a little while before I could speak without hesitation, and even without being aware that I was expressing myself in a foreign tongue.
So I have a pre-French existence. This didn’t matter much living in New York: French was over there. But in France, the gradual dawning of language also awakened me to a bigger life. Which is why those milestones in French have meant so much.
At first it was a simple progression. Words would become distinct, sentences comprehensible, little by little. It was no longer a rush of sibilance and suspended vowels. It was speech. My studies helped with this too. At Alliance Française, we were given classroom assignments that generations of French schoolchildren have dreaded: la dictée, or transcribing a spoken text. This is a necessary exercise in a language such as French, when so many of its sounds are similar that the sense of individual words depends on their context.
Although our teachers would read to us slowly selected sentences and paragraphs, often repeating them as we scribbled in frustration in our notebooks, I still had trouble making out exactly what was being dictated. Part of this was unfamiliarity with vocabulary, part was unfamiliarity with the spoken word. From time to time, we’d also have quizzes that included recordings we were to transcribe, and in these the French speakers seemed to race ahead regardless of whether anyone other than themselves could make out what they were saying. But this is normal to foreign ears: everyone speaking another language sounds as if he’s making sure you don’t have a clue what he’s talking about.
Some of my French friends whose English is weak feel that we Anglophones – American or British – mash all of our words together. But a foreign language sounds like mush to foreign ears. Until that language gradually concretizes into comprehensibility as you acquire fluency. Hearing some of those dictées now, from recordings I’ve kept from my first French language books, the people are speaking in a normal voice at a normal pace. It’s my ear that’s sped up.
All of this comprehension came in pleasurable jolts. I still remember a bright hot morning at my apartment on the Rue Brézin during my first summer in Paris, listening to the television weather report. I was in another room making coffee but on hearing the weathercaster I stopped with a start: I understood what she had just said. I wanted to call a French friend and share my achievement, but that would have meant trying to speak to him on the telephone, and I wasn’t quite up to that yet.
But shortly after this, at Daniel’s 50th-birthday party, I encountered people whom I hadn’t met at his housewarming, and with whom I could converse – not even eight weeks after my immersion in French had begun. This filled me with joy: I could begin not only to express myself in some fashion, but to get a sense of what others wanted to say about themselves. We weren’t having deep discussions (though perhaps any depth escaped me at the time), but we were feeling a way toward that superficial but still-rewarding state of sharing an actual thought, however banal the expression of it.
I remember meeting Svetlana there, the Franco-Russian wife of Daniel’s former psychologist, who had learned French as an adult. She told me, in all seriousness, that while she didn’t attend a French-language school as I was doing she had nevertheless taught herself French by taking a Russian novel (I think she actually said “War and Peace,” which has a good deal of French in it) and translating it into French, a Russian-French dictionary at hand. After six months of working on that and only that, Svetlana said, she had become fluent in French.
This sounded a bit rich to me, the equivalent of your grandfather telling you he walked 20 miles in the snow each morning to get to school. But she was serious, though to me her memory of translating a 1,000-page Russian novel into whatever passed for her French at the time still seemed more a fanciful recollection than a fact. But I admired Svetlana’s tenacity. And that’s what it takes to learn a language you’re not born into: a stubbornness bordering on obsession. And a recognition of progress along the way. Maybe she’d only translated a couple of Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches and over the years that had morphed into her having tackled his sweeping saga of the Napeolonic Wars. Still, her French was really good.
And her milestone certainly outdid any of mine. I mean, what was my suddenly understanding that it was going to be sunny with a chance of thunderstorms, compared to someone who had used Tolstoy as her Rosetta Stone? But my victory was still my victory: I understood what Svetlana was saying in French, even if I didn’t wholly believe it.