French: Describing a Language

File:Paris arc.jpg

There is only one way to describe a language, and that is to live it. The analysis of a language into its vocabulary and grammar is of course essential to understanding the words we’re speaking, but the movement from awkward first attempts at communicating to fluent mastery is paralleled by a movement from instruction to self-expression. At first we attempt to be correct (or as correct as our teacher can make us), but gradually a realization emerges: dammit, this isn’t about rules; it’s about me! At that point, we stop worrying about how we’re saying something and start using the language to express our thoughts and feelings. The language censor disappears into a place deep in the mind.

This journey takes place somewhere and under a certain set of circumstances. RT was 14 when he arrived in Paris with his family. Exposed to three previous languages–Brazilian Portuguese, Trinidadian patois, and Spanish (as spoken in Costa Rica), I can say that learning French at first seemed somewhat facile to me; wasn’t it supposed to be a lot like Spanish? And in my first lessons with a tutor, I found myself slipping back into Spanish often (as the “foreign” language my mind had already made considerable space for). This experience quickly disabused me of any notion that French corresponds closely to Spanish, pointing out the puzzling and sometimes beautiful differences between the languages.

& then there was the formal instruction in school, which we students all derided as a waste of time–if you want to learn French, go out and speak it! We didn’t see the truth: that the grammar and vocabulary we were learning didn’t stay in our conscious mind, but slowly worked their way down into our brain, emending the way we processed language in the same way that soil is enriched with compost. Our minds were becoming more fertile, a change accelerated by our constant exposure to the spoken language and Paris itself.

Imagine this happening on top of my native English and exposure to Portuguese and patois; each of the earlier layers was being compacted under the new lessons and immersion into the French-language community.

And finally the most subtle consideration of all: this learning French was a part of my life. The experience of speaking and understanding French can’t be separated from the memories of Paris, its old and ancient buildings, it wonderful food, its great formal beauty, its cool and damp weather, its joie de vivre. So much had happened in the streets and buildings I moved through–the past reached up to give the French I was learning a special beauty.

And all of this was taking place as my life and family changed and we finally returned to America. My teenage years were, well, teenage years, full of exploration and anxiety. These things I have taken forward with me, so that decades later I am a poet with a love of history and art. There is no professional title or career that can be made out of such things here, but these are the gifts of language, and most recently of a particular language and an important time in my life.


PhotographView of the city of Paris taken from the top of Arc de Triomphe. (We can see the Champs-Elysées, the dark Montparnasse tower near the center and the Eiffel Tower.) Jean-Pierre Lavoie using a Canon Digital Rebel XT. (2005). WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.


  1. poetjena
    April 15, 2013 at 9:58 am

    “our soil-enriched minds” – lovely metaphor.

    I have very much enjoyed reading this lovely, thought provoking post.
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. April 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    pj: thanks for your praise–it always helps! RT

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