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Grasping French, a Word at a Time

BY MARY-LOU WEISMAN Published : October 24, 2004

We finally did it. Last September my husband Larry and I rented a house in Provence for the purpose of studying French. For decades, usually just after we'd returned from yet another tongue-tied trip to France, we'd been promising ourselves we'd improve upon what was left of our high school French. We'd get tapes, we'd take a Berlitz course, we'd join a conversational French group. But the moment would pass, usually by the time we were unpacked, and we'd never follow through. It was just like us to wait until we were 65 years old to try to learn French, when we were already forgetting English, our native tongue.
Even so, the opportunity practically had to hit us over the head. We were taking a walk in L'Isle sur la Sorgue, a particularly beautiful provencale town, known for its Sunday antiques market As usual, we were talking about how someday it would be fun to rent a house and study French, when a flyer, posted on a telephone pole, caught our attention: "Cours de Francais. Immersion Totale. Monique Desroziers. " Nearby a man with a rakish moustache, sat on a chair in the sunshine in front of a house, repairing an antique chest. Larry approached him.
"Avez vous un crayon, s'il vous plait?"
The man set down the drawer he was re-gluing, disappeared into the house, and returned with a pencil. When he saw us copying the email address, he stood up abruptly:
"Ne quittez pas, ne quittez pas, attendez un moment!" he said.
"He doesn't want us to quit, he wants us to attend," I said, proving, as if there were any doubt, that colloquial fluency was not my forte. The man hurried back into the house. This time he emerged with Monique Desroziers -- destiny in the form of a French teacher.
She invited us to visit her classroom, which was on the third floor of their home. It was here, she explained slowly, in French, that we would study in the mornings. Then, if we liked, for an additional fee, we could continue with conversation over lunch. Whenever we would interrupt her during this orientation because we didn't understand a word or phase she had used, she'd answer our question in French. Merde, I thought. The reason her course was called "totale immersion," was because she didn't, or wouldn't, speak a word of English.
We didn't dare give ourselves time to think. It was now or never. Maybe we wouldn't get fluent the way we would have if we'd had the sense to take our junior years abroad, we figured, but at least we wouldn't spend the rest of what was left of our lives circumlocuting the French language, feeling inept, and groping for nouns and idioms until les vaches came home.
We rented a house in nearby Saumane de Vaucluse, a tiny hill town of about 600 citizens and no commerce, except for a small café. Our huggable little 18th century shuttered house was near the top of the hill, on a narrow street intended for carriages, and a few steps away from a small Norman church. On top of the town was a partially restored 15th century chateau, the birthplace of the Marquis de Sade. (He only lived there for the first six years of his life, the realtor told us, not long enough to learn to pull the wings off flies or confer tourist status on the town.) L'Isle sur la Sorge, where Mme. Desroziers and Ange (the antique man) lived, was just 6 kilometers down a series of hair-raising switchbacks that would give Lance Armstrong pause.
I immediately began to have second thoughts. So what if I've wanted to do this for decades? Maybe all I wanted was to keep on wanting to learn French, not to actually learn it. This wouldn't be the first time I was the last person to discover that I'm a total fraud. Moreover, why would I submit myself to the humiliating experience of trying to learn a language in a country where everyone else, even small children, already speak it? I worried about being disoriented and inarticulate, conditions I had spent my entire adult life avoiding. Being in control was practically the whole point of being a grown up, wasn't it? Why would I purposely make myself stupid?
Because, so it turned out, by putting myself in the circumstances of a small child, I retrieved what I was sure I had lost forever - the unalloyed enthusiasm a child feels when exploring and mastering the world. The inordinate thrill of learning how to tie one's own shoes, or spell c-a-t can belong to grown-ups, but only if they are willing to start again in first grade. Youth is not always wasted on the young; it can be well spent on the old.
At 65, we were the same kind of students we had been at six - eager, hand-waving, eraser-clapping teacher's pets. From 10 AM to noon, four days a week we sing French songs, watch French film, listen to French tapes, decline verbs, write in our workbooks, and converse. Eager for more, we opt for the delicious dinner-sized lunch and accompanying wine in which we find if not veritas, at least uninhibited fluency. Is "environment" the same word French? We give it a shot. It is.
Contrary to the reputation of the French, strangers bloom into friends with the speed of flowers in a Disney documentary. This may be because these people are Provencales, not Parisians, but I'm inclined to think it's because Larry and I are a lot nicer in French than we are in English. We think carefully before we speak. We have to; we're at a constant, literal loss for words. We listen carefully. We can't afford to interrupt. And, because we don't have the adult vocabulary to be our usual cynical selves, we are as open and earnest as children. Besides, who could resist two old liberal Americans who love France, want to learn the language, and agree that Bush is "terrible."
Yet another unexpected advantage flows from our status as aging toddlers: We recapture our long lost capacity for play. Our favorite game is "Let's pretend we're French." When one of asks "Ou est la guerre (war) when we mean where is "la gare," (railroad station) we certainly aren't fooling any French people into thinking we were French, but we don't care. Like two small children at a tea party, pouring pretend tea into pretend cups, we are happy merely to be fooling ourselves.
Everything old is new again. At our local supermarket in suburban Connecticut, shopping is a bore; at the "Intermarche" in L'Isle sure la Sorgue, it's a scavenger hunt and a game of charades. We carry our list up and down the aisles, matching pictures to names, translating poischichons into chick peas, torchons into dish towels, and poubelles into garbage cans. When all else fails, as it often does, we take turns acting out sausages or Camembert.
Something as annoying as broken glass refrigerator shelf launches a literal odyssey: Look up the words for shelf (rayon) and glazier (vitrier) in the dictionary (dictionaire). Next, locate a vitrier in the annuaire (the French yellow pages) and then drive all over town asking "Ou est le vitrier?" until you find him. One mission, four new French words, and 24 hours later, we remember only "dictionaire."
Ay, there's the rub. When it comes to remembering, we are most definitely not like children. If we manage to cram 20 new words into our heads each day, at least 19 fly out. Fluency at this age, we now understandis an every receding grail. More and more we find ourselves identifying with the proverbial frog's nearly doomed, but nevertheless persistent effort to jump out of the well. Faux frogs that we are, we're not giving up either. We're going back to the same place this summer, to forget some more.

MARY-LOU WEISMAN is the author of "Traveling While Married" (Algonquin).