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To Fall In Love With Another Language

Montmartre festival, October 2012 [1]

Montmartre festival, October 2012

A lovely meditation by Ta-Nehisi Coates on studying French abroad [2]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?)

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "To Fall In Love With Another Language"

#1 Comment By Charles Cosimano On May 24, 2013 @ 1:04 am

No it isn’t too late. I’ve been learning Russian and at my age it is slow going but not impossible.

#2 Comment By J On May 24, 2013 @ 2:31 am

Oh, go for it. Get a used Rosetta Stone set for cheap from someone who gave up and just dive in. Language learning is cumulative so skipping some harder point or two or three is fine so long as you double back within a reasonable time.

Make very sure you’re pronouncing the phonemes English doesn’t have (like the vowel in tu and the one at the end of voudrais, and rhotic r (je ne regrette rien) correctly, though, and practice them a lot. (Which is fun. And what friends and Skype are for.) If you’ve got the phonology down and a reasonable vocabulary people will let you fudge a lot of morphology and grammar.

Bonne chance!

#3 Comment By EG On May 24, 2013 @ 2:47 am

Dear Rod:

I really love the last sentence of the quote, “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 have often felt the same, and sometimes still do, after over twenty years living abroad!

The photo looks just like the “Faulkner in Paris” ones I have seen! What a time-thought shifting shot!

#4 Comment By Darth Thulhu On May 24, 2013 @ 2:56 am

“Is it too late?” only has one answer: “in relation to what goal?”

Coates was pretty clear that he was staggeringly far from fluent, and he’s been putting in solid study time for a year now. But he’s better than he was. A year ago he would have been purely and utterly uncomprehending.

Coates may well never be fluent in French speech; he may just not have that much time and money to devote to immersion. But regardless of that, he can still read better, and speak better, and interact better, if he prioritizes that in the coming years. If it is a priority, he will prioritize it, and he will improve, however slowly.

No less is true for any of us.

#5 Comment By Andrew JohnsonDemocrat On May 24, 2013 @ 5:40 am

The difference at our age is between reading and speaking. At least that’s my observation. I can still read French pretty well but struggled with the spoken language whether in France or Quebec in my 40s. I don’t know if I’ll ever be in France again. Then again the French seem to go out of their way to blur past old ears. Which is why classic Greek is a good language to learn or re-learn now because no one really knows what it’s supposed to sound like and it’s as fun as reading old chess books. God, I sound lonely.

#6 Comment By JonF On May 24, 2013 @ 5:58 am

I would love to learn another language. I can read several (all European languages), but I have no chance to speak any of them. Something non-European and unusual would be interesting: say, Japanese or Malay, Swahili or some Native American language.
Alas, I just don’t have time any more.

#7 Comment By Rambler88 On May 24, 2013 @ 6:04 am

Don’t be discouraged by not advancing much during your month in Paris. I think one needs more than a rudimentary knowledge to profit from local immersion, even if you’re not shepherding a family.

I learned German at about your age–basic speaking, but fair reading, which was my main goal. Judging from my experience with French (which I learned to speak quite well, by means of very episodic study over a very long time), I can say that despite some conventional wisdom, pursuing a reading knowledge will be a big help with speaking as well, as long as you learn pronunciation too. And in French, you’ll get to read some particularly fine writing. It’s reading that teaches vocabulary for real, interesting conversation, beyond “when does the next train leave?”.

As for fitting language study into a hectic life–languages have been a lifelong hobby for me, but I’ve rarely been able to count on time for extended courses of study, and I think that lots of rote work (which is something you can do effectively when you’re burned out or distracted, or half asleep), along with attention to formal grammar, do much to imprint a language in my brain, so that what I’ve learned is not lost over long interruptions in my studies. These things will also help you learn better, and the time spent on them will be repaid with quicker and surer progress.

#8 Comment By James On May 24, 2013 @ 6:05 am

Rod, it is never too late to start learning a new language. If you are monolingual (are you?) at 46, you’ll find it harder than you would if you already had three or four languages under your belt, and it’s true that your brain is less plastic than it was decades ago. Learning will take more time than it would if you were twelve, and it will be harder work. But it can still be done, and is always worth it.

#9 Comment By James On May 24, 2013 @ 6:10 am

Please don’t let your kids grow up monolingual. Becoming bilingual at as early an age as possible helps keep the brain plastic, and makes it a lot easier for folks to learn third, fourth, fifth, etc languages later in life. It doesn’t matter what language you have them learn. Whatever strikes their fancy will open up doors to a particular language and culture, but more importantly it will make it easier for them to open more and more and more doors in the future.

#10 Comment By weeplunn On May 24, 2013 @ 7:30 am


Sure, you can learn French — French is easy if you know English! Aren’t 40% of English words common to French? Or something like that. French is a breeze.

On the other hand, if the Charles Cosimanos of the world can learn Russian well at ANY age, hats off to them. Russian is HARD. An English-speaker can learn French, Spanish, and Italian well in less time than it takes to learn Russian pretty badly.

I write as someone quite fluent in Russian in every way, and quite stumbling in French.

#11 Comment By pilgrim On May 24, 2013 @ 7:33 am

An 80 year old man climbed Everest this week.

#12 Comment By KMT On May 24, 2013 @ 8:00 am

I am a language teacher. Some of my best students have been older people. Do NOT believe the lie that you can’t learn after a certain age. Right now, you have young children, and you have been sick and stressed for several years. Give yourself a break and just ENJOY what you can of French now. Watch movies, listen to music, read short snatches of poetry, etc. Don’t turn learning French into another task on the list.

#13 Comment By Hunsdon On May 24, 2013 @ 8:11 am

Charles Cosimano: ! I speak Russian fairly well, and I love it. I remember when I switched from thinking in English and translating to Russian, to thinking in Russian . . . what a trip. More than that, I remember the first time I dreamed in Russian. Talk about your basic “wow” moment.

When I started off (at DLI, in Monterey), I noticed that my mouth hurt. You use different muscles speaking Russian than you do speaking English, and I’ve been told my voice sounds different when I speak Russian.

#14 Comment By David B. On May 24, 2013 @ 8:42 am

Paul Tillich was 47 when he came to the United States and had to learn English. He learned the language well enough to write his later works of philosophy and theology in his it.

#15 Comment By Phil On May 24, 2013 @ 8:48 am

Mr. Dreher,

It’s not too late, although it’s not as easy as it was when we were teens, you’re right about that (I’m 43). What is really important is discovering what style of learning suits you best. Rosetta Stone has not worked well for me. I recently discovered [3] which has been far more effective for me in two months than a year of RS was. It’s also free!

Even better, they have a very good (and also free) iPhone app, so you can practice French whenever you have a few minutes of free time.

#16 Comment By Egypt Steve On May 24, 2013 @ 9:17 am

You don’t get there unless you dive in, and in a sense, cut yourself off from your own culture. I’ve seen this with international students I’ve taught, and had the experience myself. Years ago as a Fulbrighter in Germany, I made the decision to avoid Americans or English speakers as far as humanly possible, and to speak only German, no matter how difficult or painful it was … and it was at the beginning, but got better and better over time. Other Americans that I knew hung out only with Americans or other foreign students, speaking English all the time, and never progressed in their German beyond the rudiments … and these were students in their 20s .

As a university professor now, I recently ran into some difficulties with an Asian student, who was simply not functioning in class, and who was basically plagiarizing from the internet for all of his assignments. From his level of English, I assumed he was in his first year in the U.S. — but when I called him in to reprimand him for his cheating, I learned he’d been here for eight years! And this is a kid of about 22. Obviously he’d been just hanging around with his fellow countrymen, speaking his own language, and watching soccer on the internet for all those years.

So somehow I think it’s less about inherent plasticity of the brain than it is about having the opportunity and the inclination to just go native, as far as you possibly can, over as long a period as you can manage. So don’t give up!

#17 Comment By Franklin Evans On May 24, 2013 @ 9:59 am

There’s a nature-nurture argument to be had, and I have to be extra careful with that because of a natural advantage: My father was a natural polyglot, and while I don’t have nearly that facility with picking up language I do have an excellent ear for nuance and tone, and my children have similar facility with language. I worked nearly as hard as my classmates in French classes, but I mastered the accent almost immediately. I write “nearly” because I grew up in a multi-language family, something I see as a distinct advantage to succeeding in the academic approach to learning language. I had peers with similar backgrounds and similar ease in learning.

In my experience, Rod, it starts with the mindset. Our usual academic approach to learning languages other than the one we are born to is a one-size approach that will work for most people up to a certain point. Regardless of that, conversational fluency for most people comes from immersion. The rest is just a matter of how much time it takes each individual. My mother learned academic English in high school. She self-learned fluency in large part by forcing herself to do the NYT crossword puzzle every day, with a dictionary and a passion for learning, which built her vocabulary quickly and enabled her to learn usage without struggling with meaning at the same time. With all that, she never lost the habit of counting in Croatian. Just goes to show how this is a fascinating topic from every angle.

Your last stay was not one of immersion at all, as you have already acknowledged. Your next stay will help you test my assertively expressed theory (ahem). It will not come from a measurement of success, but from your own internal dialogue and your conscious awareness of how easily you come up with the correct words and usage. The less effort you make translating first, the closer you are to successful immersion. Learning to think in that language is, in my not-humble amateur linguist opinion, the benchmark of fluency. It is a gradual thing, not a destination.

#18 Comment By Joshua Holmes On May 24, 2013 @ 11:18 am

Learning one of humanity’s great languages is an endeavor worth failing at.

#19 Comment By cecelia On May 24, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

freshman year in college – french teacher – grad student – tight jeans, leather jackets, even a white silk scarf – also rode a motorcycle. C’est la vie!

I am fascinated by what languages tell us about culture – and history. Do you know that the so called Romance languages are not just from Latin but also have many many Gaellic words? Gaulish was the language of most of the common people of the west.

#20 Comment By Geoff Guth On May 24, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

Is there anything left of French-speaking culture in Louisiana? Or has it been acculturated and Disneyfied out of existence?

Maybe that’s something you could look into, as a means of seeking out this sort of experience that TNC had. Surely the Republic of West Florida needs an ambassador plenipotentiary to Louisiane…

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 24, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

I love the French language —-

a sensuous aroma of deep seductive persuasion . . .

I loved my times in France — there are times when celibacy has it drawbacks . . .

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 24, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

“Oh, go for it. Get a used Rosetta Stone set for cheap from someone who gave up and just dive in.”

Great course.

I guess Italian and Russian are a toss up . . .

Another neat language one that I love to listen to more in song than when spoken is swahili and mix of another African tongue — the name escapes me . . . but when sung . . . the smooth subtle rythms strike deep and long in ones being.

#23 Comment By mgregoire On May 24, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

Languages. Some are easier than others. Certain sounds become very difficult to hear, let alone pronounce properly if you start after 20 years old. Different people learn differently, and thus a language that one person finds nearly impossible may be straight-forward for another (e.g., the patterns in Latin). Ceteris paribus, going from one language to two is harder than two to three.

Still, I think at 46 it’s very feasible for a literate anglophone to learn to read French; and even conversational French is within reach with sufficient practice.

#24 Comment By David J. White On May 24, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

As teacher of Latin and Classical Greek, and as someone who, at various points in my life, has had varying degrees of fluency in several languages — in none of which I would say I was really fluent — I would say that this is one area where you really shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What I mean is that knowing that you will never learn another language well enough to be taken for a native should not hinder you from jumping in and learning what you can. In fact, letting go of the desire to be “hative”, and accepting that you will never be taken for one, can be liberating. Learning another language is one area where the journey really is as important as the destination, if not more so. As you learn about another culture and another way of conceptualizing the world, no time or effort is really wasted.

I would say the same about learning a musical instrument at any age. If a person wants to start studying the piano or violin, say, do it! Accept that you will never be the next Vladimir Horowitz or Yitzhak Perlman, and just enjoy learning for its own sake.

#25 Comment By srs On May 24, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

As someone born in the same year as Mr. Coates, I must ask you: since when is 37/38 “early middle age”? I swear, you forty-somethings need to get out more. Maybe catch the 5pm early dinner senior special at a local diner….

#26 Comment By JonF On May 27, 2013 @ 1:22 am

srs, 38 x 2 = 76. So yes, it is middle aged, about halfway between birth and (probable) death. Though to be sure most of us wait until we 40 to start thinking “over the hill”.