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
Standard classes run for three hours Monday through Friday, and I added a conversation-heavy intensive class to my schedule for an additional two and a half hours on Tuesday through Thursday.
Entre nous, the mélange of emotions I felt in the classroom surprised me—and not because, even when they were drowsy or hungover after a long night of pub crawling, these college-age colleagues (most of whom were enrolled for three to eight weeks) could skip lightly through grammatical obstacle courses that had me stumbling like a toddler. Two reports sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education comparing the acquisition of a second language by adults and children concluded that mature students can master a foreign language just as successfully as younger students, but only if taught with techniques appropriate to the processes of adult learning. And we don't do as well with lightning drills. So I was prepared to blunder during the grammar-intense stretches of our daily lessons, when Sandrine moved around the room challenging each of us to the on-the-spot construction of verbal headbangers such as “I would have visited her on the weekend if I had known that her brother was visiting from Paris for three days.” Lightning drills, the memorization of verb tenses and this woman's mature synapses don't mix.
No, what moved me was the ghost of my own high school and university-age self, who seemed to hover somewhere in the doorway to the Montpellier street below, whispering, “Where did the time go?” What kind of young woman was I when I was the same age as Rikke from Denmark, or Merel from the Netherlands, or 16-year-old Laura from Spain, with dreams of teaching French herself someday? Meanwhile, as ghostly young Lisa haunted me with memories of life paths not taken (let alone conjugations of the verb to be left unmastered), the present-day me who is at home in the world reveled in my own hard-won confidence and curiosity, grateful for the ability and means to explore my surroundings with an open-mindedness not taught in textbooks.
Each day I understood a little more about the world around me. I read newspapers in French. I ordered meals in French—sometimes dining by myself, sometimes with Jackie from Australia. A management-level accountant (and the only other class member over the age of 30), she was a welcome companion—one who could also afford to spend some euros for a tasty meal of local fish and a good bottle or two of cool rosé. I took myself to French art house movies, ridiculously pleased with my ability to follow the French subtitles of an Iranian-language drama that packed a small theater on a Sunday afternoon. (Confession: I understood about 35 percent of a French-language drama about teenage first love. Fortunately, the plot involved a lot of wordless sex.) To keep the sound and rhythm of my chosen language in my ears, I watched French television news each morning and prime-time shows each night—particularly on channel M6, which specializes in reality TV and a parade of competition formats, from chefs mincing garlic to women learning to love their imperfect bodies under the tutelage of a skinny, dramatique man who used to be designer Tom Ford's assistant. (That show, Belle Toute Nue, “Beautiful Naked”: so appalling. And so addictive. Who knew there were Frenchwomen insecure about their imperfect bodies?)
Some days I was acutely lonely for adult company and the conversation of someone from home, someone with whom to share the fascination and horror of Belle Toute Nue; other times I felt tremendously intrepid and free and proud to be a New Yorker–American woman traveler among my fellow humans. For magical stretches of time I instinctively understood every word around me; other times I felt like Patty Duke playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, reaching out, eager to know, What's the word for this, and this, and this? I never did master the subjunctive, but I did learn that the local greeting is a triple cheek kiss, left-right-left—between women, between men, between men and women, doesn't matter.

First Published November 23, 2011

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