Learn a Language? Moi?

Her school days were far behind her, but Lisa Schwarzbaum was determined to improve her French abroad. Could a woman of un certain âge learn to speak with élan (and in the subjunctive)?

by Lisa Schwarzbaum
Montpellier image
The port of Sète, 17 miles southwest of Montpellier, lies on a ribbon of land between France's second-largest lake and the Mediterranean.
Photograph: Joao Canziani

At 8 am on a Mediterranean-hot July Monday in Montpellier, men buzz their motor scooters through the Place de la Comédie, the city's grand central plaza. Workers in reflective safety vests sweep the streets with witchy brooms. Early-bird tourists order their first cups of café au lait at outdoor bistros. Me? I mean, moi? I sit with nine other students in a bare, square, uncertainly air-conditioned room on the second floor of a nondescript commercial building just blocks from the Montpellier train station, all of us with notebooks open and dictionaries at hand for our first day of school. I've come to speak French and nothing but French in a classroom setting for two weeks—the realization of a long-held dream of improving language skills left untended since high school. And this morning I'm in a situation that might fill a Frenchwoman with horreur: Our teacher, Sandrine—animated, bird slim and, yes, wearing a scarf with French panache—is asking us to introduce ourselves by telling where we're from and how old we are. That's fine for the nine others at the table, from Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Germany and Australia; their average age appears to be 20. I am decidedly not 20. I have decidedly not been 20 for some time. Surely that's all the information I need to share for the purposes of reviewing the use of the subjunctive? Scrounging up the remnants of my high school French, I tell the class a story instead.

First Published November 23, 2011

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