When I started learning French as a freshman in high school, I remember experiencing a deep sense of inadequacy, an abundance of self-doubt, and a general feeling of oafishness.
This lasted for about six months, causing me to question my intelligence, my worthiness, and my reasons for being there in the first place.
I was, in other words, exactly where many American language learners find themselves early on — wanting to throw their French (or German or Spanish) textbooks out the window and retreat into a safe, monolingual cocoon. French and I were decidedly not copains.
Granted, learning a new language at 14 is different from learning a new language at say, 25 or 30 or 50. Teenage self-consciousness, not to mention other extracurricular distractions, can be a constant deterrent. There’s an overwhelming desire to look cool and not make a fool of yourself — which can be fatal to language-learning.
During my first week in class, my anxiety reached critical levels when I was called upon to repeat René Descartes’ axiom je pense, donc je suis (“I think therefore I am”) as we learned the most fundamental of all French verbs — être (“to be”). My Southern California accent chewed up and spat out the beautiful European syllables. For months, I hopelessly struggled with the conjugations of avoir, aller, parler, and penser, and the unfamiliar realm of gendered nouns — a concept which to Americans is bizarre, possibly even suspect.
Indeed, my deep-rooted embarrassment was probably part of a larger cultural context. In the United States, multilingualism is viewed with acute suspicion — for reasons I don’t quite understand. Perhaps it goes back to our fear of communism; perhaps it’s a perversion of our egalitarian ideals — one language, one equal treatment under the law.
In any case, it probably explains why, in contrast to Europe and other parts of the world, there are so few American teenagers fluent in languages other than English. State-mandated educational standards require at least a few years of a foreign language in school, but it is treated as something to be gotten through quickly—“passed”—rather than savored, enjoyed, or utilized.
During my first few months in French class, I felt like I had moved to another planet, or that I had some inborn brain defect which prevented me from learning. I would find excuses to linger in the hallway before class, dreading the embarrassment of being called upon to practice conjugations, or sing sections of “Dites-Moi” from the musical South Pacific — one of our teacher’s favored methods of torture.
“Up to that point, French had seemed stuffy and obscure, but here was something French that was cool. Instantly, I fell in love.”
A turning point came for me one day about midway through my freshman year, however, when our instructor, “Madame K” decided to show us a French film with a title which to our American ears was full of innuendo: The 400 Blows. After the giggles ceased, Madame patiently explained that the title came from the French idiomatic expression faire les quatre-cents coups, or “to raise hell,” and not from a sexual act. The film was directed by one of the founders of French New Wave cinema, François Truffaut, she explained.
I will admit I had never heard of Truffaut or the French New Wave, and thoroughly expected a corny old movie. But I was mistaken. While the rest of the class was bored by this black-and-white film, I was transfixed by its gripping story of a French teenage boy’s rebellion against every possible institution: school, parents, the law — all set against the staggeringly beautiful backdrop of Paris in the 1950s.
To her credit, Madame was astute in showing us a movie in which the protagonist runs away from school, lies to parents and teachers, steals, and ends up in a reform school — from which he also escapes.
In fact, I credit this decision on Madame’s part as the turning point in my French education. Up to that point, French had seemed stuffy and obscure, but here was something French that was cool. Instantly, I fell in love.
Inspired by the film, I went out and rented the sequels: Stolen Kisses, Bed & Board, and Love on the Run, all of which follow Truffaut’s alter-ego, Antoine Doinel, as he journeys through young adulthood and a variety of adventures from the age of 14 to his mid-30s. I later bought the entire series on DVD, and watched them over and over with subtitles on, parsing French slang, and becoming enchanted with the Paris scenery.
“If you’re on the fence about it, I urge you: fight against indifference—become a rebel, find a new identity through a new language.”
In retrospect, something becomes quite obvious: for me — and probably many Americans – utility is not enough in learning a second language. We need it to be interesting or enticing or sexy. There needs to be a “hook” of some kind. Like the proverbial carrot at the end of a stick, we need something shiny to keep us absorbed. For me, it was The 400 Blows, and later, French music and literature.
It marked my transformation from reluctant teenage language learner to devoted student, and made the endless repetition, verb drills, and accent-practicing worth it.
I can’t say that I would have the same experience learning another language, but I’m quite sure that in every language there can be that one thing that grabs us, and provides motivation and momentum. The trick is to find it early and make it your guiding star.
“Madame,” to her great credit, exposed us to other French cultural touchstones as well: the music of Jacques Brel, the writings of Albert Camus, Charles Baudelaire, and Marcel Proust; and the films of Cédric Klapisch, Claude Berri, and Jean-Luc Godard. (Godard’s Weekend, in which French bourgeois society implodes in the midst of the world’s largest traffic jam, is still a particular favorite of mine.)
Four years later, I found myself wandering the streets of Paris on my first solo trip abroad at 18, beguiled by the sights I had only glimpsed in films and read about in books. I was able to communicate with hotel owners, waiters, and station agents. Only once did my accent betray my American roots. For me, it marked the passing of a great test — the ultimate surmounting of my limited American horizons.
Learning a foreign language can be difficult in the United States, but if you’re young and on the fence about it, I urge you: fight against indifference — become a rebel, find a new identity through a new language.
As I discovered, picking up a new language at this age can be transformative in a way few other things are. Yes, there will be alternating spells of apathy and eagerness, frustration and triumph. But once you become obsessed, the possibilities are endless.