It’s a very strange thing to find oneself speaking like a four-year-old in mid-life.
daughter is four, and my son is only six, so this is all very familiar; I have
seen it from the outside. I stammer; I get frustrated searching for a word that
just won’t come to my mouth— I know that I’m using some words and phrases
incorrectly, and I’m embarrassed about it, but I can’t help it. When I’m
speaking and someone smiles, I’m not sure if they are smiling to encourage me,
or laughing at my pronunciation. When I’m speaking and I’m met with blank
looks, I can’t tell if it is my words or my ideas that are incomprehensible.
We came to Montréal for work. My husband is an academic, and he found a job here. The job came up unexpectedly, and we made the decision to move quickly. We were excited. Learning French and raising bilingual children was part of the appeal. Yet, I realize now that when I was thinking about our move from the U.S., I was thinking about learning French as a kind of decoration, a long-delayed finishing program, like learning to make lace or taking up oil painting.
Today I finished up my first month of French classes. This is not the first time I’ve studied French, but these are the first classes I’ve had since I was a teenager; I am 38 now, I will be 39 when you read this. I go every Thursday night to work on grammar, reading and writing. On Saturday mornings, I have my communication class, where we focus on listening and speaking.
That was my class today, Communication with Madame G. It was tough. As usual, I had most of my homework yet to do the night before class. I sat down to it after we came home from dinner with friends. My husband put the kids to bed, and I went to work. I studied until 11:00, but our printer was out of ink. I’d hoped to squeak out a few pages, but there wasn’t enough ink even for that, so I went to bed and slept badly because I was worried about the work I hadn’t finished, and the printing I still needed to do. I emailed several documents to myself (but I forgot a couple), and skipped breakfast and went to school early, equipped with my husband’s laptop and his instructions on how to use the public printers there. I did my printing (and found a rubbery muffin and indifferent cup of coffee to consume), but went to class feeling tired, ill prepared, and badly organized. When one of my classmates asked me, “Why do you laugh at me? Why do you always laugh at me?” I blushed heavily and almost started to cry. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t tell if she was offended, or only bemused. I shrugged, and said, “I don’t know. It’s not you.”
We’d been doing an exercise, imagining we were a committee charged with downsizing a company. We had to choose amongst several candidates for dismissal. We’d been discussing their qualities, and I had been laughing. I don’t know if I had been laughing at her more than at anyone else. When she asked why I was laughing, I didn’t know what to say. Her French is very good, and she is very smiley; I often think she is laughing at me. But in that moment, when she asked why I was laughing, it occurred to me that I have been giggling nonstop for the past four weeks.
I am laughing because I have the mind of a grown-up and the mouth and comprehension of a child.
My son goes to French school; his teacher speaks French, and all the letters home are in French. There was the time at the drug store when the cashier asked me if I didn’t have fourteen dollars, but I thought she said cents, and so spent several long moments earnestly searching through my coin purse, being careful to sort out the Canadian money from the American. When I finally handed the coins over, she gave them a look of disgust and pity, and returned them along with the change she’d already prepared. Another time, I took my kids on an unnecessary trip to a closed ballet studio because I misunderstood the registration instructions. I thought the website said, “Fill out the form and bring it to this address.” Actually, it said, “Fill out the form and send it to this address.” And there was the time I was using the elliptical at the gym, and a woman came to stand before me, looking wounded and reproachful, and I couldn’t even begin to guess what she was saying. I couldn’t make out her words, and I hadn’t understood the sign that said one was supposed to sign up for the machines, and therefore I certainly hadn’t looked at the sign-up sheet to see that the machine I wanted was already spoken for. I had to tell her, in English, “Sorry! Sorry, I don’t understand!”
I suspect this feeling of bafflement is healthy. Because my husband is an academic, our path to settling down has been long; it is only now, in our late thirties that we are living where we expect to live indefinitely. In this moment when we are settling down and settling in, I think it is good to be unsettled by language. It wakes us up and opens our eyes. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s funny too. I’m laughing in my life, not only in my classes, but everywhere I go, because it’s funny. And I experience my mind in a way I haven’t for a long time— I experience it as a thing that has a finite capacity, that can be filled, and also as a thing that can stretch. I feel my mind stretching. I feel it stretching in my classes and on the streets to accommodate new words and new sounds. And then at a certain point, usually in the last half hour of my class, I feel that my mind is completely saturated— anything else is runoff, overflow, lost to me. Then, somehow, my learning becomes part of the stuff of my mind— not something that fills it, but part of my mind itself— and somehow there is room for more.
Yesterday, on my way to pick up my son from school, I stopped at a boulangerie. I took my ticket, and understood perfectly when my number was called. I gave my order in fluid and plausible French, and the attendant understood me. He got my bread and asked me a follow-up question, which I understood. I answered appropriately, and he understood me. He told me the price. I gave him the money and took my change, all the while thinking, I’m doing it! I’m doing it!
is an American writer who lives in Montreal.