At the tail end of this Europe trip and thinking about talking French. Many of you, me included, have had spoken language mastery for the entirety of our remembered lives. Many of you, me included, have this just in one language. For basic communication, for many of us, I suspect this one language tends to come almost without thinking. It’s no wonder that trying to get by in another language can be such a shock: to find oneself worrying about being at all comprehensible, at being met with an unexpected response when we produce our rehearsed phrase. The German grocery store where I was asked if I wanted promotional stamps! I might as well have been asked to lecture on topological mathematics.
No wonder at this shock, too, given that we adults, for the most part, enjoy a self-consciousness and dignity that was, for the most part, appallingly absent from the much younger versions of ourselves. We worry about language, while kids worry about snacks. I suppose we worry about snacks too.
I’m inviting you to talk about how you got comfortable or more comfortable doing this, if this is the kind of thing you do. I suspect it’s harder with a language you can read more or less well (French in my case), because of the humiliating gap between our sophisticated vocabulary and our capacity to understand much conversationally. I suspect, too, that getting there is harder for men, because of the grotesque masculine fears of weakness, evidenced in mansplaining, in refusing to ask for directions, and speaking, as the French say, through one’s beard [barbouiller]. And I acknowledge that national origins, race, relation to the dominant language in one’s own country or country of residence, apart from other less obviously political issues, almost certainly factor into questions of comfort and feelings of safety.
All this is by way of saying that on this French trip, the French started to flow a bit. Not so much the give and take of conversation, but simply with more pleasantries, without the anxiety of figuring out how to ask the cheesemongress if I could have a little knife — I just asked, and I got the knife, and it was fine — or if I could refill my water bottle in the upstairs bathroom at the G Moreau museum — of course! — or even a quick explanation of my body of research on animals, which I deployed on a hapless waiter in Dijon. I’m still dreading the next time I visit Germany and try, say, to get my drycleaning done in former East Berlin, where English is rarer; even worse, maybe, will be trying to get by in Spanish, which I’ve also been ineffectively learning. But I hope to draw confidence and cheer from this French trip.
And more than that. For those of us, like me, who enjoy the pleasures and privileges of mastery of the dominant language of our country of residence, and who are generally supposed by the dominant culture to look like the kind of people who are expected to have such mastery: let’s remember, in particular, that our momentary experience of discomfort, of humiliation and fear even, should be experienced as being thrust, however minimally, into the world that so many others are compelled to inhabit. Let this be a cause for generosity, care, and practical, active empathy.
And hats off, particularly, to the white, anglo American sitting near me last night at a Parisian Thai restaurant. When the waiter asked her, in English, ‘how was your meal,’ she responded, without hesitation or reflection, ‘muy buen.’ Bless you!
And Bless Me, too, some 5 years back, for deploying my meager Turkish vocabulary on a customs agent in Istanbul to welcome him to his own country.