(This is not me in the picture!)
Today I am celebrating language learning. In a previous lifetime I was in love with the French language. My first French teacher in junior high was an ex-Jesuit who was very “old school” and I loved him. I was an excellent French student throughout high school and for a year or two in college until I became an English major. My beloved French teacher had told my Mom that only by living in France for a while could I ever become a French teacher. That seemed an impossible hurdle since my father was supporting a family of 8 children and there was never money for extras. So early on I gave up my dream.
In my early 20s while trying to eke out living in California I was offered the opportunity to become a tutor to a French family living in Paris. I jumped on it. The two kids in the family were lovely; the promised job tutoring the mother never materialized, but she introduced me to an educational film distributor who liked me. She hired me on an hourly basis to translate correspondence for her into English and to translate for English-only clients who came to see her films.
When I first arrived in Paris I was in culture/language shock. After more than six years of studying French, I hardly understood what anyone was saying! Back in those days we were drilled intensively in grammar and vocabulary and spent almost no time actually speaking French. After about two or three months of suffering intensively, I suddenly caught on to the “sound” of French and all my previous knowledge finally kicked in. Then there was no stopping me from speaking French all the time.
Toward the end of the nine months I spent living in Paris and traveling to other countries, I met a young man who became my boyfriend for two years. That was when I really became fluent. The relationship didn’t last because we lived an ocean apart, but my fluency and my passion for French was stronger than ever.
I did manage to return to Paris a couple of times for brief visits, but I realized my fluency was fading as time passed. I became a mother of two children, worked full-time and eventually returned to graduate study to become an English as a Second Language teacher, a job I retired from two years ago. For several decades I rarely had an opportunity to speak French, but I had begun to pick up a limited amount of conversational Spanish from my ESL students. This helped to somewhat alleviate my sadness about losing my French fluency because I love the challenge of learning a new language.
More than ten years ago, my son spent his junior year abroad at Humboldt University in Berlin and lived during that time in the home of a German family. They embraced him like a son and became very good friends. My husband and I visited him in Berlin and we, too, became good friends with the family. I was beginning to remember some German I had heard spoken by my mother, a first -generation German-American and was beginning to become interested in learning more. Although I made some efforts to learn some conversational German online last year, because there was no one to practice with, my German was very limited when we visited during the Christmas holidays this past winter. I did pick up some words and phrases during our visit and was beginning to attempt to converse, but I was really still a true beginner.
I returned home determined to learn more German so I could converse more easily with some of my German relatives who do not speak English. During the spring, however, I practiced less and less, and then not at all.
This summer while swimming at a local beach, I met a woman who had just written an article in Newsday about a local French conversation group that held meetings at my local library. I decided to give it a try.
Last week, I attended my first meeting of the French conversation group and was delighted with the outcome. I met about fifteen people (some were absent that night), all of whom speak French to a greater or lesser degree and are very lovely, interesting people. Most of them are of retirement age and share the same passion for language and culture as me. That night, the leader of the group divided the group into two groups: advanced speakers and intermediate speakers. I was not invited to be in the advanced group; nonetheless, my group managed to have a very lively conversation about immigration, bilingualism, and educational policies. I felt a bit hesitant to speak at first, but soon I felt myself relaxing and was able to be quite conversant in French though I did need help with some vocabulary now and then.
At the end of the meeting, the group leader took me aside and said, “You speak French very well, and since that might inhibit those in the group who do not speak so well, I’d like you to join the more advanced group next time.” I couldn’t believe my ears. After so many years of not actively speaking or hearing French, it was all still there in my brain; I just needed to turn on the switch. I felt very proud of myself and happy to have discovered this group of Francophiles.
Then I thought about all my ESL students who struggled with English. I am hoping that wherever they are they remember the ESL teacher who did her best to teach them English so they could live a fulfilling life in America and experience the sense of joy and accomplishment I felt last week while speaking French with my new friends. And I still hope to learn enough German to be able to carry on a limited conversation with friends and family living in Germany. Pretty ambitious for an old geezer like me, don’t you think?