To Learn French or Not to Learn French


Do you speak French?  I don’t, not really.

The few words I know have been extracted during hours spent pouring over French magazines, admiring French pastries and listening to French music.  They are the words I remember from grabbing the verb flash-cards my Francophile mother keeps by her desk.  None of my French knowledge comes from a classroom or a do-it-yourself language learning book.  I know the basic-of-the-basics, suitable only for a traveler who wants to order coffee and croissants.

I can’t decide whether or not I want to keep it that way.

I oscillate on whether or not I want to learn French, whether or not understanding what the French are saying will ruin just that foreign country magic.  There’s a magic to going somewhere and being able to paint your own image of the life in that country.  While I want to be able to engage fully with my croissant and noisette, perhaps knowing the words to get what I want are enough.

On the overnight train to Paris I began the debate that would last for my entire trip and continue even after my flight landed in Milan.  Should I learn French?  As I heard the first strains of it on the train I simply knew the answer was yes.  It sounded so cool!  French sounds so different from the hard, crashing sounds of English and the fierce musicality of Italian.  Obviously, I was going to take this trip as an opportunity to rev up my language learning muscles.

Then, only a few hours later, I was on the metro with my mom.  It was an ordinary day with ordinary Parisians talking amongst themselves about ordinary things.  The two women next to us were probably mentioning that carrot salad was on sale at monoprix and the guys standing by the door might have been whinging about how much work they had to get done at the office.  They were probably discussing the same things people all around the world discuss.  It just sounded enchanting to my uninitiated ears.

Speaking a foreign language comes with strings attached. Knowledge of a foreign language would be great if it just meant that you got to go to the country and communicate effortlessly, but that’s not the case.  Speaking a language forces you to interact with another culture on a deeper level and one that’s not always pleasant.  You can’t choose whether or not you understand what the people next to you are saying.  You don’t have a choice whether or not you participate in that rude advert.  With language knowledge you’re forced to accept the good and the bad of a country and that’s not always easy.

I don’t know if I want to accept and know everything bad that has to do with France.  I may be perfectly happy facing the proverbial back of the cave of French culture.  There isn’t much passion connecting me to Paris.  I just like the pastries, the clothes and magazines.  I enjoy the chocolate and the sounds.  Perhaps all I need to know is the joy of NOT understanding everything.

This isn’t a closed decision.  I’ll probably jump back and forth quite a bit more and I’m sure that as I go about my life I will pick up more bits of French.  But I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to speak French like I speak Italian.  And, for right now, I’m surprisingly okay with that.

Is there any language you really want to learn?  Or a language you DON’T want to learn?


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