What does it feel like to fall out of love? Could it be happening to me?
French is supposed to be the “language of love,” is it not? We had a sweet, sweet honeymoon phase, French and I. Every day we seemed to know each other twice as well as we did the day before. I was blissfully unaware of my relational faux pas, and everyone else just thought they were cute. Every little sentence was a triumph. Every lesson brought new possibilities. And the grammar… Oh, the grammar! What passion we shared, those participles and I. The verb tenses! The day I first learned passé composé, and could finally talk about things that had already happened… Stories started sprouting everywhere!
It’s true, French and I did take a little break at one point. I spent two months sequestered among Anglophones over the summer, but I never stopped longing for the langue de l’amour. I signed out workbooks from the library and continued the relationship in a one-sided, long-distance kind of way. When I returned to the Moroccan Promised Land of language acquisition, I was disappointed to find that both my teachers had deserted me (as if I didn’t already have an abandonment complex). “I miss you! I love you! I want you back!” I wailed into my sorry little unilingual void.
Nevertheless, I persisted, with the help of my dashing little prince. Eventually I found another two teachers, both of whom have travailed valiantly on my behalf to restore me to my one true love. But now I fear it is too late, and that our romance has at last gone sour.
You see, I am no longer blissfully unconcerned about my many errors. Rather, with every lesson, I learn new ways that I have been embarrassing myself all along. I learn new exceptions to rules I couldn’t remember in the first place. I learn that the verb tenses I don’t know yet are actually kind of important. I learn that there are subtleties and nuances to the language that had never troubled me before, but that now infuriate me. And I learn that despite all of these vexations (which you would think would be indicators of progress, in some profane way) – I still cannot make an appointment on the telephone without the receptionist laughing and hanging up on me.
Oh French, you tyrant! You cruel bastard of a tongue! How you flirted with me! And how false you have turned out to be! You lied to me – or I lied to myself.
You see, I had a tidy, rosy little dream of leaving my home and native land, and returning precisely two years later with a second language in my pocket. “I want to be fluent in French in two years,” I wrote under the “Goals” heading of my job application. “That should be possible,” people said casually as we carpooled home from the beach. “Good for you!” said everyone. “You’re such a good student,” said every teacher I’ve ever had.
Yes. I always do my homework, and usually a little bit extra. I go to French movies and masses, and surround myself with Francophones. But it’s getting tiring. I’m growing weary of being the only one in the room who never knows what’s going on. The constant exertion, with so little return, seems a touch disproportionate. The reality is that I am not going to be bilingual when I return to Canada, even with an extra year of lessons and embarrassments. “It takes a lifetime to learn a language,” people say to me now. “You don’t learn to play an instrument overnight. It takes years and years of dedicated practice, and even then, few become masters.”
Masters. Yes, that is what I seek – what I’ve sought in everything, all my life. I will master this instrument. I will master this program of study. I will master this concept. I will master this job. I will get pieces of paper to prove it, with the official seals of conservatories and universities and employers. All of life, it seems, has been a string of conquests.
It’s funny, then, that in this one pursuit, I should lapse in my resolve, and that my ardour should direct itself elsewhere. You see, dear French, I’ve met somebody else.
I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but on a whim one day, I approached one of the kindliest Moroccans I know, and signed myself up for Arabic lessons.
Arabic? Why Arabic? Arabic will be of no use to me in Canada. The dialect spoken here will be of no use to me outside of Morocco. Even if it were, I will never master it. Arabic is notoriously difficult. Perhaps impossible. And that’s okay.
You see, with Arabic, my new true love, I don’t have to be a perfect human being. I am thrilled to just know half the alphabet. And my grinning teacher is thrilled to hear me make a single sound, or –God Almighty— read an entire word. “Bravo!” he says. “Wow!” Like I am some sort of prodigy. Like I am a little mini-master of a tongue that really only wants to be my friend.
Arabic, you see, makes no sense to me. None whatsoever. Vowels and consonants are useless distinctions. Letters are lunar or solar, joined or unjoined. Their families are oddly mismatched, and change their clothes every time I see them. Some letters are not letters at all, but rather, “curiosities,” and of those curiosities, one is, in fact, the “absence of a sound.” And, oh, the sounds, and the places from which they ought to emerge! The throat, the diaphragm, the soft palate, the uvula – all are happily jostling for a place in my new linguistic world.
I am in preschool again, it seems. Pre-preschool, in fact. I am babbling like an infant. I am forming characters with all the steadiness of a four-year-old. I am cheering when I get it right, and shrugging when I get it wrong. This language is play. It is hard. It is a workout. But it’s exhilarating. It is seducing me. I am smitten. I am alive.
French, I’m sorry to be two-timing you. Please don’t despair. I will be back – in fact, I’ve never left. I’ll keep plugging away at my devoirs, because I’m not the type of girl who would leave you high and dry. And goodness knows, you’ve had other flames than I. Don’t be lonely. Don’t be sad. But just this once, I have another flame I need to fan. Just a fling? Perhaps. But c’est l’amour, no? The unreasoning fluttering of the helpless, wandering heart?
You must court me again, dear French, if you would like me back. You must shower me with affection and applause, and coax to life that spark that we once shared. Until then, my love, you’ll find me in my other cahier, penning my graceful curves from right to left.