I was already head over heels in love before I took my first French lesson. One of my older sisters had a t-shirt with Je t’aime boldly splashed across its chest. I knew the proper way to pronounce Paris. Paree. Like they did in the musical, Gigi, which was shown on TV at least once a month, and which I gorged on every time. All of the movies I had seen, Gigi included, presented Paris as the center of elegance and all things shiny and bright. The people were beautiful; the weather — even when it wasn’t good — was something magical. And everyone acknowledged that the accent was sexy. If there was ever anything I wanted so badly as a child, it was to be all grown up in Paree, perhaps under the Eiffel Tower, immersed in the glitz and glamour of the city, speaking to real French people in their language. I loved Paris first, but that love was so tied up with the language that they were one and the same. My elementary school did not offer French, as some of the fancier ones did. I could not wait to go off to secondary school and begin my lessons.
My first French teacher was a tall, striking woman who had studied French in the Republic of Benin (or was it Cameroon?). At my school, one of the top schools in Nigeria at the time, we did not have lessons in any Nigerian language for most of my six years there (and when we did, we were only taught numbers from 1 to 10 and a few stock phrases). But French — French was compulsory. I learned to count, learned the days of the week, learned to sing cocorico cocorico and to write short letters. Chère maman, tu me manques. I imitated the way my teacher enunciated each word when she spoke. I watched her intently as if I hoped to catch the words falling from her lips before they hit the ground and crashed. I envied her ease with it. Each French lesson brought me closer to this cosseted dream of one day being as fluent as she was and living a movie star life in Paris. I did not doubt once that it was a possibility.
In my second year of secondary school, I made a new best friend. She was a freshman whose father was a professor of French (and who had studied in Quebec, which was almost as good as the real thing as far as I was concerned). When he dropped her off at school on her first day, he had short conversations with as many of her prospective teachers as he could, including the French mistress. My friend reported to us that according to her father, our French mistress spoke the language with a “strange” accent. No French person would understand us if we spoke like her because it’d sound like we were hacking off dry yam rather than speaking their language. French was supposed to roll off the tongue smoothly, lightly. We were being taught to speak with an accent soaked in Nigerian undertones. I was devastated. I had invested so much emotionally and mentally, and for what?
Fortunately, midway through second year, we were assigned a different teacher. A slight, frail woman who had studied in France. Her lips barely moved when she spoke. It was as if she had trained as a ventriloquist. When my friend’s father spoke French to her on one of our visiting days, he approved of Mademoiselle Solomon.
My happiness at this new opportunity did not last long. Mademoiselle Solomon was a very strict and demanding teacher who completely put me — as well as a good number of my fellow classmates — off of learning French. She did not believe in making classes fun. Mais non ! French was serious business, not songs and games. In her hands, the joy was squeezed out of learning and classes became torturous. I entered each French class with trepidation. Mademoiselle Solomon was determined to sandpaper the roughness out of our accent. Each lesson was a reminder of what poor students we were and of everything we were doing wrong. I remember one day waiting for her to come to class and praying fervently that she would not turn up, that I would be spared 45 minutes of repeated Vous tous, répétez après moi. I hated that we were being forced to sit through the lessons, and I took my resentment out on French. I was not alone. Out of a class of almost 50 students, not a single one of us chose to take French after our third year, when it was no longer compulsory.
I did not attempt to learn French again until the year before I went to university. I no longer recall why — perhaps there was a strike — but we had a long break between the end of secondary school and the start of university. One day during that break, I was introduced to a friend’s friend who had an unusual “Igbo” name: Chiatu. I asked him what it meant because I couldn’t figure it out, and he proudly told me his name was not Igbo, but French. He had been named by the French nuns at the hospital in southern Nigeria where he was born, “and it means mansion in French.” I knew enough French to know he was mispronouncing château. The thrill I got from correcting him resurrected my desire to learn this language so steeped in sophistication that one could be proud of being called Château.
The next day, I walked down to the French center near my house to ask if they gave lessons. They did. My teenage heart, so easily prone to crushes, sang to discover that Monsieur le professeur looked exactly like I expected a French man to. He had a Roger Moore-esque look to him. Moore was the sole reason I endured every James Bond movie my older brothers played when they monopolized the family VCR. Great chin. Piercing eyes, the blue of a doll’s. Hair that had a buoyancy to it, like a live, cuddly pet. My crush on the French teacher had me turning up for class on time and intensified the desirability of the language. It deserved its spot at the top of the hierarchy of languages, which relegated my native one to the bottom. By the time universities reopened and I had to quit, I had gone through two teachers (the second of whom was a Nigerian woman whose French flowed like water), my French had improved and my love for the language had been rekindled. When we read Madame Bovary in one of my undergraduate classes, I imagined being able to read it in French.
Living in Belgium years later, within a year of moving to Flanders, I had learned enough Dutch to follow conversations and make myself understood. I could have taken French, too, seeing that it was one of the national languages of my new home, but the language had lost its shine.
In the years since I had my last French class, I had become critical of my internalized partialities towards this language and the role of cultural imperialism in my bias. Why did I think it was sexy? The only reason I did was because Hollywood told me it was. The French aspirated their h’s and swallowed their r’s the same way the Yoruba did, but no one thought that the Yoruba accent was sexy. I did not. In fact, I remember kids at my boarding school making fun of a schoolmate who pronounced “rice” with the guttural “r.”
To exacerbate matters, on my first visit to Paris, the city splintered my heart. J, my husband, and I drove down on a Sunday morning. I expected to recognize the city I knew from movies, but I saw none of the glitter, the shine, the glistening, dazzling beauty I had spent a lifetime anticipating. The cafes were jam-packed and overpriced. Its streets were littered with dirt. Its traffic was unbearable. I saw the Arc de Triomphe from the windscreen of our van. The one redeeming feature of that first trip was the Louvre, which stopped me from completely collapsing in disappointment. The residue of enchantment that had survived my critical questioning of my French infatuation did not make it past that trip. In the years I lived in Belgium, I returned several times to Paris, often with my overseas guests who wanted to take pictures under the Eiffel Tower and buy key ring souvenirs from the many vendors around the site to testify to their having been. I never learned to love it.
When J and I started having children, I began to yearn for a common language we could use that the children did not understand. French seemed the most logical. I complained often of feeling like a tourist in Brussels. I had many frustrating incidents on buses trying to get the drivers to tell me whether or not I was on the right bus to my destination and where I needed to drop off. And as it turned out, being able to read Madame Bovary in its original language was one of the few enduring dreams that had survived my disenchantment from the cultural imperialism that made certain colonial languages desirable. This was mostly because I had people around me, J included, who spoke multiple languages, and swore that “reading books in their original language” was a different experience from doing so in translation.
I registered for French classes. I dragged myself to the school five nights a week at the end of long days spent taking care of my other businesses. I dreamed of when I’d pick up Madame Bovary —which I’d reread in English several times since university — in French. In under a year, I gave up on the lessons. It was no longer sustainable. I was traveling a lot for work. And when I was home, I did not want to spend my evenings away from my family learning to conjugate French verbs so that I could fulfill my fantasy of reading a classic in its original form. So what if I never read Flaubert in French? I had read Dostoyevsky in English and never felt the experience lacking for not having been in Russian. J spoke of Marquez’s brilliance with the same enthusiasm I did, even though he’d read him in Spanish and I in his English translation.
These days, I find myself wishing I had persevered with French in secondary school. Or had persevered with learning it as a young mother, but not for the reasons I had wanted to learn it initially. Of course I no longer think the accent is desirable — certainly no more desirable than my Igbo accent, or Yoruba or Hausa accents. I’m not compelled by the narratives pushed by global culture, or because I harbor dreams of reading entire novels in French, but because I am an advocate of learning new languages. I am glad that my children are multilingual. There is an enrichment in every additional language one learns, a new window into a different world.
As a writer who speaks multiple languages, I know from experience how rewarding it is to be able to borrow images and metaphors from the different languages in my arsenal. I wish my school had expended as much energy on making Nigerian languages available to us as they did French. I wish they had given us options. I might have left school proficient in another Nigerian language other than mine. More than that, I wish that I had wanted to learn French for all the right reasons. I might have been able to respond with a confident oui to the question, Parlez-vous Français?
This article is part of a series commissioned and paid for by Babbel, but it represents the journalist’s views. It was edited by Michelle No and Steph Koyfman.