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Friday, March 31, 2017

Les Aventures de Madame Beaubien: Le Dictionnaire

Sister Marie Phillippe encourages me in my French language skills.

Ahhh, the dictionary. It's my best friend when I'm at a loss for French words, which is a constant experience.

Taking a language is a long, hard slough and it takes two basic requirements: (1) you've really got to want it; and (2) you really need to be patient with it. The first requirement is easy for me. I have wanted to become fluent in French since high school. This spring I got my chance to learn the language--in France, no less. It's the second requirement that is so difficult: being patient. Learning a language is hard, disciplined work. It doesn't just come to you. You've got to practice, practice, practice.

Learning French is a constant barrage of rules, pronunciations, conjugations, and exceptions to the rules. At times I think I'll never learn. However, one of the sisters assured me that I AM learning; it's there somewhere in my head; and there IS a logic to the language. One day it will all come together. 

My image of this hallowed moment is the scene from "The Miracle Worker" where young Helen Keller finally understands the connection between objects she feels and the "finger game" that identifies and names them. "She knows!" the teacher says. 

Meanwhile, I will continue to make mistakes like confusing derriere (rear end) for dernier (the end). Not to worry, Pope John XXIII made the same mistake. Or when I wanted to say after a sumptuous dinner: J'ai eu assez (I've had enough) and said instead:  Je suis plein (I'm pregnant). Or when I was offered les pêches for dessert and wondered why it was sinful (le péché).

 And there it is: taking the risk of speaking when you haven't yet got it right yet. Learning a language takes a certain courage because nobody likes to look dumb when s/he is interacting with another. Yet, only by making mistakes do you learn the language.

During my month of language learning I met students from all over the world who also want to learn French. They came from Korea, Japan, Ukraine, Italy, Spain, Finland, Syria, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, USA. We were all there in the struggle of learning French. And, as we struggled, we learned together, which made it all worthwhile as we worked together toward our goal. (By the way, all of these students also spoke English, and we would sometimes get caught translating our French from English, which the school discouraged.)

Actually, there's nothing less encouraging than to have just heard a French recording about some subject only to discover that no one in class could follow it. This actually happened on my last day of class!

"Was the speaker speaking in French?" I asked the teacher. She gave up exasperated on that lesson and turned the page to another. Meanwhile, we all laughed, relieved the tension, and became a little closer as a learning community. We exchanged photos, Facebook addresses, and blogs. We were becoming friends. Isn't that the point of language: to allow people to communicate and thus bring the world together?

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