The lesser-valued foreign language skills, and maybe rightly so: A list

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Because it is not always about the grand moments, the flourishes, the ecstasies. It is not even the culminations, necessarily, the closing of good books after a prolonged period of study, that characterize our knowledge of a foreign language. We may use them to define our ability and ease–I have asked for a seat on a bus–I have read Balzac–I have made a friend–but these are just benchmarks. If, in life, there are a few simple, uncomplicated rules that govern the new heights and depths, the few important moments of our lives, there are countless complicated rules that govern everything else. And I wonder if getting to know another language, like getting to know another person, resides mostly in the expansive matrix of everything else.

When I was studying abroad in France, I convinced myself to ride my bike from where I was staying in Tours to the nearby town of Ambroise, a popular route, one that followed a river, clung perilously to a highway, took me over a bridge to avoid a railway, and then deposited me in a forest of dark green leaves where I discovered a network of mountain bike trails. Not having a mountain bike, I stuck to the safest-looking paths, but what little I did of the twists and bumps and rises and falls was exhilarating enough to make me dream of coming back someday to take the trails more adventurously.

When we learn a language, we we follow the wide-ranging paths, laid by wide-stepping people who have crossed in both directions and in every direction (can I just add that the word for direction in French translates to “sense?”) we experience the same movements that we undergo when we meet a new “other”–the same awkwardness, the same formality, the foul and fair territory, the shifting between the poles. And whatever our capacity for familiarity or intimacy may be–will she be a friend, a regretted companion, a counselor to me (a judge, an executioner, a priest)?–few would argue that they knew the precise moment their love for each other became something different. Few could say that the warmth of their companionship consisted in the outline of cold hard facts of desires recorded, laughs counted, and tears measured. No one who is in love can keep track of the hours spent together. Time flies from this. So it is with the languages we learn to love, to hate, to reject, and sometimes to forget, but ultimately, I hope, to cherish.

These have never made my list of defining moments. We don’t get to learn them in class. No one thinks of these skills when they applaud your ability. But they are the kinds of things we do–and often half to do–when we choose a path and step into the matrix. And though we were following a clear, well-established thoroughfare, before we realize it and after several steps and missteps, we find ourselves cycling in the afternoon shadows on a woods-rutted path somewhere outside of Ambroise, rushing through the bushes down a sudden incline at full speed.

1. That one word.

For decades scientists, moralists, and middle school teachers everywhere have debated how often the human mind thinks about sex. I can’t speak for everybody, but I can say that at the very least, I think about it every time someone uses the reflexive verb “s’exprimer:” to express oneself. This has been a source of untold giggling, and please tell me I not alone. We all need that one word that keeps our 11-year-old self within reach, that keeps his unparalleled mind-unraveling wonder at the transgressive beauty of language–its curious new forms, its inexplicable forces, its bodies of work–in fresh supply. We keep him just around the corner. Because we have entered a new room: We are twenty-two. One of our classmates is applying Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction to a novel by Émile Zola that we did not take the time to read. We cannot concentrate. Our mind buzzes with white noise. If there is cultural capital to be gleaned, we are on the wrong field. We want to look out the window, but this classroom has none. We are enveloped in darkness with nothing but the gently intoned words of our classmate dripping like pieces of melted silver onto the blank pages of our notebook. And then we hear him first, the 11-year-old’s clinking footsteps on the hallway tile. He peers in the doorway, and at that moment, like a thunderclap, the word is used. Bourdieu sexpresses himself. We sexpress ourselves. The individual suffering the blight of a post-industrialist existence sexpresses himself. Words cannot sexplain the vistas, the curtains raised, shuttered windows flung open, and, in less than a second, if we can respect our classmate who is still presenting, our 11-year-old self disappears, he has run down the hallway, he is basking in the morning sunshine, he is doing somersaults in the quad grass. And, invigorated, we are listening to our classmate’s lecture and, finally, taking notes.

2. We still need to know how to do things

I didn’t want to get political, but I discussed Sarah Palin’s possible candidacy once in 2011 with an older French woman. She said, “Dans la politique, il faut savoir. In politics, you have to know things.” And I would agree wholeheartedly, except that I had just been stopped when walking by the cathedral. A woman had noticed the watch on my arm, and she asked me what time it was. This is among the first things we learn in language class. Don’t ask me why I still wear an analog watch. Don’t ask me why I am twenty-seven and I still cannot tell time. This is among the first things we learn in kindergarten class. Don’t ask me why a French woman was asking me for the time like she didn’t already know it. (Telling time and complaining about the presidents all the way back to Henry IV are France’s national obsessions.) I looked at my watch. I looked at my wrist. I fumbled awkwardly in my pocket, opened my phone, and translated to one minus fourth in my head before brashly proclaiming it to the woman who, miraculously, was still standing there. When she heard my accent, she apologized. I’m sorry too, I wanted to say. I’m sorry for being a foreigner. Every time I look at a clock, I murmur an apology to this woman who accosted me at the cathedral. In politics and in life, you have to know things.

3. We still need know things, like really basic things.

Students who travel abroad are counseled to let moments sink in, to cultivate a sense of presence, to catalogue their sights and joys and then, in the angled sunlight of a different terroir, to let the pages ruffle open, and for several precious seconds, to practice breathing. I did this for a half hour once in an outdoor café in Montmartre. Actually, it may even have been longer. And I did it because I could not figure out how to pay for my coffee. Do I go up to the front? Do I keep looking around for a server? No one is coming. Do I just keep practicing breathing cigarette smoke and staring at a man reading a newspaper? The coffee was less than four ounces and took fewer than four seconds to drink. Do I just keep watching all the schoolchildren walking home from school? Do I wait for the next presidential election so that maybe the man will look up and I can say something witty I thought of myself about Sarah Palin? Is the person who served me invisible now? Is she a ghost? Are there ghosts all around us? Is this how the world ends? Is there even a man behind this newspaper? Finally, I just walked back inside, found the nearest human being–not even sure if she worked there–and said, of all things, “I need to pay.” And then I whimpered, “Where…” This is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. She told me to wait, disappeared–(French servers are great at this)–and then came back to receive my payment. On the counter was a toilet paper-looking roll of receipt paper, the kind that the machine keeps printing but that is never torn, the mythical snake not even looking for its tail that keeps growing. It was on this ledger that she recorded my payment. Ghosts don’t keep short accounts.

4. Culture

There might be a lot that I do not know, but there are a number of things I know how to do. One time I was so interested to know how the French internet interpreted Adele’s “Send My Love,” that I looked it up and went line by line, ultimately agreeing that on the whole it worked as a translation. I don’t even like that song.

5. More culture

One time I stood at the edge of a glacier field during a family trip to British Columbia reading the wonderfully informative description on a placard of Earth’s unchanging forces that have joined to create this icy marvel of eternally advancing ephemera. Because the placard was also wonderfully succinct, I read the same description in French. I still had time to watch the wind blow and think about my heart and wonder how many more minutes it would take until we were all back in the car if indeed the glacier could outlast the length of the line at the visitor’s center restroom.

6. Social media capital

Sometimes I make French posts on Facebook and then wonder why know one likes them. In these times, I need a friend to talk me through this–it could even be my 11-year-old self. He could say to me, “John, no one speaks French. No one knows who Marguerite Duras is. And look at what you wrote, ‘Tu as le droit to sangloter.’ You have the right to sob? No one is going to like, love, laugh, or be thankful for this. Even if Facebook had a baguette button no one would use it. Your posts would make Charles de Gualle himself quit the presidency again.”

I just want to add that the photo at the top of this page, which I took in Paris, received only one like. This is the kind of thing that happens in our world.

But thank you, small John, for your advice. I will take it to heart.

7. Trial but mostly error

Except I didn’t, because this was a conversation that I tried to have with my English-speaking family.

Mom: Who wants a slice of pie for dessert?
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Daniel, would you like a slice of pie?
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Daniel: Yes, please.
Mom: Here you go.
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Catherine, would you like a slice of pie?
Catherine: Yes, please. Thank you.
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Anyone else? Any last takers?
John: WHY IS NOBODY LISTENING TO ME?
[Silence.]
11-year-old self: Because you need to speak in English for your family to understand you when you say, “I, I want of the that.”

8. I would have liked to see…

Sometimes I feel frustrated that people who don’t speak French don’t quite know the thrill of starting a sentence with the words, “J’aurais…” Perhaps some of the most interesting sentences–in any language–begin with the words, “I would have…”

9. More “J’aurais”

And though there are many times I regret having spent years learning a language that has only served to help me judge the translations of Adele songs and glacier placards in Canada, I feel the regret the strongest when I think of all the Gabriel García Márquez novels I could have been reading (“J’aurais pu lire?”) in Spanish all these years. My 11-year-old self tells me there is still time. That’s actually a lie. Those books leave him alone in his room crying.

10. The modern conversation

But of course, nothing can compare–even if nothing can prepare us–to the everyday conversation with a familiar speaker of the foreign language into which we have invested our hearts across years of trial and error, classrooms full of inspirational messages and blank stares, and embarrassing encounters with the authorities in airport security lines. I was playing basketball with an uncle who speaks French. Another family member asked him to do something, and though my uncle is never given to complaining, I could tell that he wanted to keep beating me at horse rather than fulfill this request. Seasoned with a semester’s worth of the vibrant literary culture of 17th-century France, I turned to him and said, “Le devoir est beau. Duty is beautiful.” He shrugged and said, “What?,” sunk a basket, and then went inside to do his beautiful duty leaving me alone in the driveway to practice my breathing.

But the beauty of basketball is that one can still shoot hoops with oneself, even if one’s self is 11 years old. His defense is no good, but he knows how to s’exprimer once he gets you in the key.