I’ve been busting up on my French for awhile now, trying to get in at least a few pages or lessons or some kind of exposure to it at least once a day. It’s been a goal of mine to be able to get around in French for some time now, but it was one of those things I just never made the time for. Some of that was because I assumed I’d need to take a another community college course, and I never had enough time or money to fit that into my crazy Chicago life.
I’m not sure at what point I realized I was passable enough to stop buying the “intro to French” refresher books and to move on to the French verb conjugation books, but it happened sometime after I got to Dayton.
Learning another language is a lot like learning to read your mother tongue for the first time. It’s a lot of frustration and banging your head against the desk and trying to figure out why it seems to be so *easy* for other people, and then, almost like magic, after persistent head banging, something clicks in your head. It’s like this whole time, you’ve been wearing out this groove in your brain, and one day you realize it’s there, and the words start to click together. And then once you have those words, you can guess many of the others based on context.
I remember thinking that reading was a really magical process, this idea that you could set down words and thoughts for other people to see and understand, and then *you* could learn to see and understand the words and thoughts of others. And learning another language is a lot like that for me. I mean, sure, I took my two years of high school French like anybody else, and my grandmother’s from France, so I can “la lalaala la” with the best of them, but the minute they asked me to start doing past tense, it was like my brain hit a huge, hard wall. And everything stuck. It got hard, I balked, and the idea of pushing past that wall hurt my head just to think of it.
Now it’s a matter of wearing down the wall. It’s not like I’m taking a sledge hammer to it. It’s like I have this hammer and pick, and sometimes these big blocks come out, but mainly it’s just me chipping away.
When things are slow at work, I used to cruise Wikipedia or write, but the last few weeks, I’ve replaced English-language Wikipedia with French Wikipedia, just to get me some more exposure.
And what put me in mind, again, of this whole process was reading the beginning of the entry on “Impression à la demande.” And I’m sitting here reading “La principale caractéristique de l’impression à la demande est dans la possibilité d’imprimer un seul exemplaire à la fois, contrairement à l’impression traditionnelle (Offset) qui oblige un tirage minumum de centaines d’exemplaires à la fois.” and thinking:
“OK, it’s about books. Making one example. “Seul exemplaire.” Is this about first editions? No, it’s “one example” something… one example…. “à la fois.”
One example at a time…
And I realized I was reading about print-on-demand publishing (which I would have learned anyway by the end of the article regardless because they use the English terms, but bear with me). But it was funny, because it was that one phrase that did it, that made the whole article click for me and threw light on what the rest of the passage meant (with help from a handy French dictionary as well, of course). It’s like finding a linch pin, sliding it into place, and things start to go click click click.
I remember being very frustrated when I first learned to read. I learned in the first grade, and I felt like I was learning oh so slowly, far more slowly than everyone else in class. My mom says some of my frustration likely came from the fact that I was ready to read long before I actually learned how; it’s just that nobody taught me and I didn’t think to try and teach myself. Once I started picking away at it, all it did was make me frustrated and angry.
I grew up being told that I was smart, and so believing that I was smart, but for some reason, I believed that being smart meant that things came easily and naturally to you. You would be like my friend Matt, who was reading fourth-grade level books in kindergarten and skipped a grade because he was so smart. This was what smart was. Because of that, I started to believe, in school, that I just wasn’t smart enough. That there were only so many things I was good at, so I should try to concentrate on those and not do the hard stuff, since if it was hard, it meant I wasn’t good at it. Those things made me feel so stupid, and who wants to be stupid?
This is really dangerous thinking for a kid to have, and I’m not sure where we get this impression, since I can’t remember my parents or teachers saying “smart people don’t have to work hard.” I think it’s more along the lines of an assumption we get, as kids, when we’re told, “Oh, you did well! You must be really good at this.” Instead of, “Oh, you did well! You must have worked really hard on this.”
To some extent, I started to learn the problem inherent in this belief with writing. Sure, I had a natural affinity for it, but natural affinity only takes you so far. You’ll be the best kid in class up until you break out of your local highschool and/or community college classes, and then all the sudden, what you’ve got doesn’t cut it (and if you start subbing stories early, as I did, you realize really quickly that you’re competing against a huge number of people who work far harder and are way better than you are). So when I subbed stuff at 15 and it all came back in rejections, I realized I was going to have to work a lot harder, everyday, and it’s that concerted practice that’s gotten me to this point, not raw talent. Part of my experience of growing up, of becoming an adult, has been learning how to have the guts to branch off into areas where I’m not so good, where I don’t have a “natural” affinity, where things are hard. I’m always picking apart parts of my writing that I’m not good at. GW was about learning how to write good dialogue. I’m not focusing on plotting. I find the thing I’m worst at, and pound my head against it for awhile, until something starts to stick.
At some point I realized that there were a lot of things I wanted out of my life that I wasn’t magically good at. I was going to have to work harder.
I find it baffling that it took me so long to figure this out.