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To Fall In Love With Another Language

Montmartre festival, October 2012
Montmartre festival, October 2012

A lovely meditation by Ta-Nehisi Coates on studying French abroad as a man in early middle age. Excerpt:

I stayed with a host family and took my dinners with them. These were awesome affairs—wine, cheese, meat, chocolate. They took no pity on me. They bombarded me with French, and from snatches of body language, from a smile or a frown, I deduced what I could. I went through entire dinners—and even engaged in conversations—during which I understood only snatches.

We spent those evenings talking, our gestures making up for a paucity of shared words. But I knew, in some unnameable way, that they were good people. And from that, I could tell how two people with no shared language could fall easily and deeply in love; how the way a man expresses longing, or a woman expresses possibility, could be like discovery; how an entire person could be, to another, a long, dark country.

The Internet is overrun with advertisements meant for those who feel the longing for another language, who hope to attain understanding without the fear, the pain of mocking or rejection. There is a symmetry in language ads that promise fluency in three weeks and weight-loss ads that promise a new body in roughly the same mere days. But the older I get, the more I treasure the sprawling periods of incomprehension, the not knowing, the lands beyond Google, the places in which you must be immersed to comprehend.

I love this. I wonder if it’s too late for me, at 46, to learn French. I have rudimentary French, but was hoping that being in Paris for a month last fall would help me progress. It didn’t. Part of it, I think, was that so much of my focus and energy rested on managing the children that I didn’t have time to go much beyond the basic French I needed to get along in daily life, having conversations with shopkeepers. But I have to concede that my brain simply feels far less plastic than it once did. I sometimes think that when the kids are older, I’ll have the time to devote to a more formal study of French, but that’s probably not true. By then my brain will be too old to bend itself around those beautiful words.

I hope this isn’t true. I fear it is true.

(By the way, I shot that photo above with my iPhone, and processed it with the Camera+ app. Swell, ain’t it?)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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