To Have and to Be: The bedrock verbs of French. That’s what A.B., who pumps gas to make a living, said a while back in May when I was merely entertaining the idea of achieving fluency in French, (See the post, “The First Verbs” on this blog.) Learn the various forms of these two verbs, he said, and you will be fine. He did not mention, of course, that there are 14 tenses in French, and 14 multiplied by six (I, you, he/she; we, you, they) is sure to give you a headache before you finish the multiplication. It comes to 84 forms, actually, and that’s for one verb.
That was at the end of April. Now, after three months and a two-week+ stay in Paris, what was merely a jest, something interesting to contemplate, a fiction in a minor key, has taken hold of my day, imposing its regimen of index cards (no, I am half-serious about these little white fiends), the transport of the cumbersome 501 French Verbs around the house, and the daily recitation of the loop of my French verbs. Not to mention, watching French movies, listening to the news on TV5 with the seemingly interminable Bettancourt scandal (Ah, you don’t know about it!), and mulling over beautiful-sounding words (such as brûle) which require the toil and trouble of the throat muscles but which produce the most evocative, expressive and cadenced sentence.
Why French? Why now? friends ask me. On the metro in Paris at the end of May, talking it over with A.G., who disclosed in the course of our conversation that she had begun learning modern Greek which she half-knew from Greek songs she loved and a Greek friend, I had a rather quick, perhaps even glib, answer: To give fluency and life to something incomplete, to make it see the light of speech and conversation, to gain mastery over something which has gnawed at me all these years, since that Mademoiselle Betty banged the pink book onto my seven-year-old skull. (See the post “Mademoiselle at the Balcony” on this blog.) A.G. is a linguist by training, and masters some half dozen languages.
That’s what I had said, and in that moment, as we spoke (in our common ancestral language of Western Armenian), we seemed to be saying something else as well, something not entirely known to us as we had made our way to the Stalingrad metro stop and then a crisp walk to the Canal: that we wanted, the two of us–not so young anymore, the bittersweet taste of second chances in our mouths–to do something for the sheer and utter pleasure of it, casting utility to the wind, not calculating the advantages of one more language under our belt, so to speak. For listening to our own raspy words, at once strange and exciting, the fluency its own reward.
For all its grime and sweat and claustrophobia, the French subway system is conducive to such quasi-intellectual ruminations. Or so I thought until I returned to Boston, that bittersweet, burning taste clinging on. A fickle desire, I thought. One which will pass.
I was vigilant, too, about the allure of good intentions. There are a lot of beautiful sounding words that go with learning a new language, with the intention of learning a new language. Intention, intention, intention—it has such a way of seducing us into believing that we’ve actually carried out what we talk about, that merely by talking about it, we think we’ve done it. And we’re talking about French, and all the saccharine sentiments that it arouses and the towers and churches and cemeteries it brings to mind, not to mention the good food, the conversational staple for the perpetually hungry. Would one be as wide-eyed if the language of choice was Finnish, for instance, or Korean?
In the person of my new tutor, A.P., here in Boston, all these temptations and hesitations have disappeared, or perhaps been put in their place. A. is a jazz musician who supports his great love for music by teaching French. He has the most visible, audible attribute that a great teacher possesses—immense enthusiasm that sometimes borders on the sense that he is possessed by the language rather than the other way around. Call it contagiousness, call it osmosis, this is a teacher’s greatest asset. It cements relationships; it enhances the uphill battles; it makes teaching and learning a reciprocal activity.
Great passions have a way of imposing their discipline on us, of warning us that squandering this accumulation is the worst kind of betrayal. Get 510 French Verbs and learn them by heart. That’s what A. has recommended for me, for my level, which falls somewhere between rudimentary grammar and highly developed vocabulary and “expressivity.” And so we’re back to the discipline of the verbs, which for A. is akin to the musician’s practice, day in and day out, over and over again.
His prescription is the other side of my linguist friend’s insistence that language acquisition engages all the senses; it creates an integrated environment of body and mind and heart–all things I agree with wholeheartedly. And more: It is telling that we both want to learn languages which, for us, have a strong musical dimension. We’ve listened to a lot of Greek and French songs; we’ve been in the company of people who spoke these language fluently, sometimes with great intimacy, always with heightened intensity and eloquence.
After several weeks of recitations and scribbles; the pile of index card; the page curls at the edges of 501 Verbs, strange things are beginning to happen, even at this beginner’s level. The sounds of the language can have a hypnotic effect, but they also sharpen and refine the senses, alert the mind to deeply rooted patterns, so that after some days, the present participle is no longer an arbitrary construction confined to one orphaned verb, but has a logic whose workings are evident across a diversity of verbs.
Then, there’s the actual sounds of the words, of listening to one’s own breath trying to enunciate the word. At first awkwardly and then with more ease, the whirling itself is no more a drone, the sorry by-product of rote learning and memorization (which in our education-is-also-fun society is the mother of all pedagogical plagues that destroys its poor, innocent victims!) It is a wave of meanings, of snippets of memories, fragments of conversations, all emerging as if out of that subsoil which feeds our dreams and sparks our days’ desires, rousing us, asking us to join in the animated music, whispering to us the kind of ending–ais or ait or merely ai— the verb must have.
In this process which combines rigor with mystery, discipline with love, something else seems to be at work, something that is as unexpected as it is barely perceptible. This kind of concentration, this kind of coming-to-learning later in life, this kind of seizing second chances directly and without shame or coyness tells us that we know more than we think we do, even when it comes to something as structured as leaning a language. For the years between that trauma inflicted by Mademoiselle Betty and this July’s venture into French have been neither wasted nor inconsequential. All along, it seems, the language I did not know or knew partly, was taking root in me, nesting itself somewhere deep within, accumulating substance and velocity to make its appearance late in life, when I least expected, to extend the traveler’s hand, the two of us on this excursion into a strange and rather daunting territory, at first awkwardly, then with a little bit more ease, the turn and tumble of sounds and accents, the enunciation of words which seem to come from another country.
But, lest the seduction robs me of realism, of looking at the very center of things without flinching, I must add that all this talk about travel and excursion makes good copy, but the fact remains that there are 501 verbs in this wretched book of mine, and 14 forms for each verb. It boggles the mind, saps at my resources, steals the hours of my days, but it’s what has been chosen for me perhaps a long, long time ago, when my first French teacher (in both meanings of the word, mind you) first looked down from her perch.
To be and to have. All of it, all 14 times 501 verbs to burn–though one life may not be enough, especially if you’re a late beginner.