This week I completed my first semester of french at the L’Institut Francais; one of life’s little lessons in humility wrapped up in the adorable French Embassy on Old Town Square. My favorite part of class was walking to and from the square thru a beautiful part of Bratislava. This is where I have most of my “I can’t believe I live here” moments. What happened in between was fodder for tears on my pillow. It’s going to take years of counselling to get me to talk about some of it. A 50 something parading as a bi-lingual American in a class of 20 something tri-lingual Slovaks is not pretty. But to quote Gloria Gaynor ( a wonderful American singer I rode all the way to a karaoke championship) “I will survive“. Our final exam was Tuesday – and I get the results tonight. The results don’t really matter. I learned a lot – and not all of it French. In the United States, class ends with a party – wine and cheese – it doesn’t get more French than that. We sit around and eat, drink, and converse in English. No test. The price of admission is a willingness to pay the tuition. We Americans have fairly low bi-lingual expectations. It’s one of the things I miss about the United States.
The exam was illuminating. There were four parts; reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Gesh, what a stupid test. Where’s the grammar, the vocabulary, the spelling? How can they be completely sure I understand the difference between the various past tense verb forms? I spent a lot of time studying those things, and the test trivialized my efforts. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking – where do they come up with this stuff?
I have a Hungarian friend who is aware of my French aspirations. Once, he asked me if I was “fluent”. “No, of course not, I’m not very good”. He wasn’t going to let this go – “Can you speak with French people?”. What kind of question is that? Of course I can. I’ve taken six years of French spread over decades. He must think I’m stupid. But he was nonchalant – “Well then, you’re fluent.”. I flopped this around in my brain a bit. At its core, language is about the ability to communicate, to express ideas, to ask where the bathroom is. His definition of “fluent” was far different from mine. It gave me something to think about.
I tend to be a bit of perfectionist – in a raving lunatic endearing kind of way. If I’m going to speak a language, I want to do it with a perfect accent and grammar. If I’m going to take a test, I want the highest grade ever scored. I don’t consider “the chocolate mousse was good” a compliment. I’m searching for “that was the best chocolate mouse I have ever eaten in my life”. Even then, I’m not sure… I have doubts. I never considered the essence of a language – the ability to communicate…. reading, writing, listening, speaking. Perhaps everything doesn’t need to be perfect.
After the exam, I considered lighting my French books on fire. This was after discounting throwing myself out of our apartment window and before pouring myself a liberal glass of wine. Tonight, I’ll collect my score. I think I passed – and that will have to be enough. In September, I’ll sign up for the next semester. Over the summer, I will read French books and watch French movies. I’ll try to realize that learning a new language is a process – and one which may never end in perfection. I’ll grudgingly admit I’m not a twenty something with wrinkle free skin and an uncanny ability to memorize new words.
We’ve been to Paris twice since moving here. I can speak with the French . That’s not too shabby. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking – if I can nail those things, it’s a pretty good list. I miss wine and cheese and reminiscing in English, but a part of me realizes it’s not enough. Tonight, I’m going to drink – either drowning my sorrows or celebrating my success. And tomorrow, I’m heading to a karaoke bar.