Weekend Wanderer: Learning a Second Language


My husband was on an excursion in the Canadian wilderness. Trips like that reduce communication routes to satellite phone, for contacting the trip outfitter, and a GPS device he uses to text me or to alert emergency rescuers of bear attacks.

When the satellite phone died, I became the sole link to civilization. An urgent text flashed across my phone on day seven of the trip. Could I contact the outfitter?

Don’t worry. He wasn’t attacked by a bear. This isn’t that kind of story.

I called the outfitter. I sat, frustrated, as I listened to the outgoing message on their voicemail.

It was in French.

Between high school and college, I’ve had seven years of French. I used to read entire books in French. The last one I read was Sartre’s No Exit. In French, it’s Huis Clos.

I lost much of that fluency in the years since college. Three years ago, I launched a quest to reclaim my linguistic skills.

Don’t be impressed. Both of my parents have cognitive decline. I feel like my memory has an expiration date. If Timbuk 3 wrote a song about my future, they’d call it “The Future’s So Gloomy, Even Bifocals Can’t Help Me.”

Research suggests some simple moves can forestall cognitive decline. Exercise, for example. Spinach too.

Eh. I already exercise. And I wasn’t exactly looking for reasons to add more spinach to my life. But another way to protect cognition is to stimulate it. Is there anything more stimulating than the French tongue?

I mean really. You can’t expect me to write 800 words about French and not slip in a little tongue joke.

To salvage my French, I started reading French newspapers. This helped me recall words I’d forgotten. Ciel, for example, which means “sky.”

It also helped me justify eating bread because ciel came back into my vocabulary through a French newspaper describing the sky as “gray as a day without bread.”

In short order, enough of my French came back that I could both accurately interpret what I read and do so without translating it first. I was really impressed with myself.

But then I heard that outgoing message from the Canadian outfitter.

I understood exactly one word. It was zero, which I don’t think you need seven years of French classes and three years of French newspapers to interpret.

Zero was nearly how much of the message I understood.

That got me thinking. Why is Sartre’s “exit” clos but the exit sign I saw in a Parisian train station sortie? Why aren’t they the same thing?

And why, if I can read French so well, can I not understand when it’s spoken?

Annoyed, I turned to idolatry. I admire a writer, in part because she’s an American living in Paris. Is she fluent in French? Did she become proficient by steeping herself in the culture, like wine aging in a barrel? Or was it more proactive, like the measured care one takes with a soufflé?

The answer was disappointing. Her French, she explains, is roughly equivalent to mine. Upon investigation, she discovers the older we get, the longer it takes to become fluent in a language not our own.

We are about the same age. I watched my fantasy of deftly navigating the French countryside fall like a bad soufflé.

Then I reconsidered. What is my goal here? To be fluent? Or to remember doctor’s appointments when I’m 80? Because my parents are eighty and can neither speak French nor remember doctor’s appointments.

If trying to learn French preserves my cognition as well as fluency in French does, isn’t remembering doctor’s appointments a great consolation prize?

Enter my local community college. Here in Southampton, I’m a bucolic, 20-minute drive from Bucks County Community College. I checked their website et voilà! They offer a French class.

I began French II in early April. As I walked through the parking lot, I passed a sign that read “No Exit.”

Huis Clos.

The class opened with a vocabulary quiz. One question asked how the phone is answered in France, which I knew to be allô not from seven years of French class but from the Sweet Valley High book where the Wakefield twins were French exchange students.

We are in week three. Three French grammatical rules have been restored to my skill set. Sunday, I was able to tell my family — entirely in French — that I baked them a cake using a recipe from a French bakery.

They didn’t understand. But they liked the cake.

Last night, I was delighted when an episode of Star Trek: Picard featured the Borg Queen conversing in French. I closed my eyes, to avoid the English subtitles. I listened.

Nope. I understood slightly more than zero.

I am not the type of person to console myself with, “You’ve only had two classes!” Anyone who needs a simile from a French newspaper to encourage her to eat bread is likely quick to condemn her failures, no matter how small.

I did, however, tell myself I’m preserving my cognition.

Until today. I arrived at my ten o’clock hair appointment only to discover I was early.

By an entire week.

Well. At least I got to make a French tongue joke.