Thursday, November 16, 2006

Romancing the Language:Sometimes, Ignorance is More Romantique

In Paris, one always has language – or, more accurately, its vocabulary, syntax and annoying exceptions – on the brain.

It all starts with one’s first wave of Francophilia: that first French class back in school, perhaps enrollment in a French immersion program or a course led by some cute Frenchman who left his homeland to do just what you, too will eventually wind up doing – crossing an ocean to apply all of the new communication skills you have under your belt, thanks to all of your studying and the subtitled Truffaut films you picked up at the library.

Of course, nothing prepares you for the level of concentration you will initially require after stepping off the plane at Charles de Gaulle and embarking on your dream. Specialized immersion programs and sexy, transplanted tutors may have provided you with the rudiments, but these can seem quite, well…rudimentary when you find yourself face-to-face with a cranky Parisian cabbie, a chatty saleswoman, or an amorous Frenchman who thrives on your linguistic limitations as he advances on you, his prey. When, you think, staring at the dictionaries, verb conjugation books and flashcards that litter your desk, will you finally be able to order a baguette without stumbling over your own words? When will you roam this city – touted as one of the most beautiful in the world – and actually be able to truly appreciate all of its Old World Charm and cultural subtleties with the breezy nonchalance that everyone else seems to?

And it comes, gradually, your ability to navigate through the sea of masculine and feminine nouns, verb tenses and even slang, and life couldn’t be grander. You find yourself not only following a conversation, but participating in it, and small talk – an activity you had grown to dread – becomes fun again. You identify peoples’ origins from their accents, and you even get their jokes. You pick up the phone, rather than typing out textos. Sure, you make mistakes – quite a few, in fact – but it doesn’t matter. People understand you, and your little errors in syntax – and your own foreign accent – are “chouette.” So, too, is your tendency (thanks to your ear, which has been trained to pick up new expressions and vocabulary in an effort to improve your mastery of this strange tongue) to pause in the middle of a heated political discussion to confirm, “Oh, so you’re supposed to use the subjunctive tense after that phrase? I must remember that!”

Then the romance starts to fade a little – and when you think about it, it’s all your fault. You realize that handsome couple sitting close to one another on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries isn’t in the midst of a sexy lover’s talk; they’re breaking up. The funky-looking guy walking ahead of you along a moonlit Seine isn’t engaging in playful banter over his cell phone; he just told the caller that they were breaking his balls. And, the two women pointing to the arch at Strasbourg Saint-Denis aren’t examining it out of admiration; they’re saying that they think it’s pretty shitty that there are so many pigeons perched upon it, because they produce so much “merde.”

You comfort yourself by reasoning that French is so beautiful, even “les gros mots” (or swear words) can sound like music to the ears. But your ears don’t agree; every language can be ugly, if the speaker chooses to render it so. Ah, how much rosier La Vie en Rose was back in the old days!

But, as is the case with human romance, when it comes to one’s love affair with a language, you can’t go back. You must accept it for all of its quirks – even the ones you find unattractive. And, if you really feel the need to be swept off your feet again, there are other fish in the sea, and other languages to try.

After all, they say that after learning French, Spanish is a snap.