Thursday, November 28, 2013

Losing the Language Wars to a Five-Year-Old

“So, what did you do at school today?”
I know better than to ask this question.  There isn’t a child alive who has ever replied with actual facts when their mother asks about school.  But it was Indy’s first day at her new ├ęcole in Noumea, and I was hoping that she would throw me a crumb.  After all, she is a boat kid; she might not realize that it is her duty as a child is to withhold school-related news at all costs.
“Nothing,” she said.
Darn.  Someone must have tipped her off.
“Le poisson, le poisson, le poisson,” sang Indy as she skipped along the path.
I raised my eyebrows.  She picked up a word already!  We had been a little concerned that Indy would find the first few weeks of school difficult, being an anglophone in a francophone world, but she emerged from class unfazed by any communication difficulties she might have encountered.
“Le poisson,” I repeated.  “Fish.  That’s a good word.”
She stopped skipping.  “No, Mom.  Not like that.  You draw it out.  Le poiiiisssssson.”  She slowly drew her hands apart.
“Le poiiiisssson,”
"Listen: poisson."
"Le poisson," I said again.
She shook her head and resumed skipping.  Six hours of school, and Indy's French was already better than mine. Whose idea was it to send this kid to school, anyway?

Now that we are here for the season, it is time to put down roots.  Our days of tootling off to nearby islands and swimming with dugongs have become a "jam tomorrow, jam yesterday" endeavor.  This season, we are a family with a purpose: to learn French.  Only Erik is off the hook because, like the goody-two-shoes he is, he learned French back in school when he was supposed to, and then went one step further and actually solidified his skills by using the rotten stuff during his working life.  It makes me sick to think of him reaping the benefits of being such a dedicated keener.

Because I, of course, did not learn French when I should have.  I took it in school.  I even, for one golden year, had an exceptional teacher.  But for reasons murky at this distance, I decided early I was bad at French.  Inevitably, that opinion ensured that I was, indeed, bad at French.  And by the time I decided I didn't really want to be bad at French any longer, I had too big a mountain to climb to fix the problem before my formal education ended.
We all like crepes.  Does that give us francophone points?
But, hey, who needs foreign languages anyway?  Not me.  It isn't as though I moved to Germany when Erik got transferred there.  Or lived in Montreal for a year.  Or spent ages in Central America.  Or French Polynesia.  Yes, drop third period Spanish as soon as you can, kids.  Trust me: your future won't contain any surprises and you will never need it.  Oh, wait a minute...

I thought I was mentally prepared to start classes here.  After all, I've been down this road before auf Deutsch.  It took moving to Germany and living day after day in a bubble of incomprehension to really destroy my innate reluctance to speak if I couldn't do it perfectly.  Learning a language is all about trying and being wrong and wrong and wrong until finally you are right.

My German class was in the heart of Frankfurt's red light district, so learning French in a well-lit whitewashed basement already felt like a step up.  No more tripping over junkies crouched behind the dumpsters for this ├ętudiante!  But I've been attending classes in Noumea for a couple of weeks now, and I have to say it is getting me down.

I am so mad at myself for not doing this when it would have been relatively easy, ie. before my aged and sclerotic mental processes slowed my mastery of new concepts down to a crawl.  I know there is no point in blaming Young Amy for dropping the ball.  I managed to do a lot of things right back in high school - at least I didn't decide I was bad at Math or Science.  But I still long to throw off a poisson the way Indy does.  The best I can hope for now is for classroom topics to ring a distant bell, and for lessons long forgotten to slowly rise to the surface.  (Often, these memories are accompanied by a mental echo of: "a lemon peel floating down the Thames has a better grasp of basic grammar!", and I feel like I am back in high school again.)

My self-loathing isn't helped by the fact that I am, by far, the most advantaged person in my French course.  We are all foreigners, but, of the six of us, I am the only person who is a native speaker of a Latin script language. So not only do my colleagues speak much better French than I do, but they have learned to read an entirely new character set to get there.  And there is one woman present who has never been to school.  Ever, at all.  And while she speaks French, she is now grabbing the chance, in her adulthood, to learn to read and write.  I am humbled by these women.

Today, our teacher asked for a volunteer to take down dictation on the board.  I was suddenly sixteen again, hating this sort of exercise when Mr B would read to us, and I would write down a phonetic jumble of junk words on my page, wondering why none of it made sense.  This class was no different.  The typical shifty eyes began.  Papers were shuffled, bags were riffled without purpose.  No one met the teacher's eye.

And then the woman who wants to read and write stood up, walked to the board, picked up a whiteboard marker, and waited.

I'm not sure I can adequately convey the shame that washed over me in that moment.  I really was sixteen again, weaseling out of a difficult exercise because I knew I'd make mistakes.  As though this were about a grade instead of learning.

I have a limited French vocabulary, and my grammar is worse.  My pronunciation is so bad that my five-year-old anglophone daughter can call me out on it.  But maybe, if I listen to Indy, and my teacher, and my classmates, and everyone else in this town, maybe I'll actually learn something this time.  I might still be bad at it.  But, this time, I'm going to be smart enough to let myself try.


Second Star said...

Oh Amy, I felt every bit of that post. I can relate to EVERYTHING you said. Not wanting to expose yourself to possible ridicule. feeling like you did at sixteen. Good for you trying to rise above all that and do what you have to to learn what you want to know. I'll try (once again) to be inspired to do the same.
Hugs to all,

Anonymous said...

I am with you all the way on this one Amy. My stomach was doing flip flops. Hang in there-soon you will have Stylish to call you out too.

Kate said...

Bon chance mon amie.

Let me know if you want us to send the french DVD's Beth has from class. They learn plays - its been a good system.