Pardon my French
The quest to learn a second language eludes me
By Patricia Baer
As I sat in the auditorium, mentally congratulating myself on finding a comfortable spot for this sold-out show, a woman a few seats down from me asked, “Do you speak French?” We were currently seated for a showing of “Girlhood,” a French film about a teen coming of age.
I panicked briefly at the woman’s question because while I do not shy away from subtitled movies, a non-English film without translation would be an impossible challenge for me, and for a minute I thought I was about to find out I had misread the presentation’s description. I took French in high school and college, which I shared with her, but I speak and comprehend conversations poorly, which I also explained just in case she had the urge to switch languages midchat.
It is a frustrating fact to which I have resigned myself. As much as I love words and have a desire to master one, it is a struggle for me to learn a second language. Some of my favorite memories of living in D.C. include riding the Metro and being surrounded by a variety of languages throughout each train ride. It was a tantalizing madness to hear this and not be able to partake in the experience.
I have retained random basics that stuck with me somehow. I often find myself muttering, “Où sont mes clés” (Where are my keys?). I can ask for directions to the library (Où est la bibliothèque), but I am not sure I will understand the instructions unless it is over on the left (a gauche). And because I know just enough Spanish to confuse similar sounding words, I once found myself in a hilariously horrifying conversation where I suggested mutilating a cat (gato) when I meant to recommend a slice of cake (gâteau) for dessert.
The worst regret caused by this inability of mine was “the guy on the Greyhound.” I once took a decidedly unglamorous roadtrip from D.C. to Stevens Point via Greyhound bus. In one leg of the journey, I sat next to a man who appeared more approachable—and less possibly serial killer—than the other passengers, but it felt awkward to engage in a discussion with so many other potential listeners. At the terminal as we waited in line for the next transfer, he dropped his bags and muttered “Je suis fatigué” (I am tired). I spent the final leg of my trip ruminating the possible discussions, cloaked in French, we could have had.
While I believe everyone has a talent, I am starting to feel the opposite may also be true and that we all have that one thing we will never master. It looks like a second language is that thing for me.