You Will Never Learn French
Tu n’apprendras jamais le Français
I enjoy the work of director Michel Gondry. Always have. I was recently watching his latest project, a television show called “Kidding.” It has all the hallmarks (the mise en scène, if you will — but you won’t) that make his work special — dynamic sets, bright colors, surrealism. Very neat stuff. I thought about talking to Michel. About how it would be cool to give him compliments and ask him about his creative process. Further, I thought, Wouldn’t it be even cooler to have that conversation with him in his native language, French?
I will never learn French. Shocking, I know. Many of us won’t. And I’m not just speaking of Americans, who seem much less inclined (or necessitated) to learn a language other than English. The vast majority of Australians and Poles and Chinese and Inuits will never learn French. I know a married couple whose child has been taking French lessons since he was three years old. He’s now five. He will never learn French. My roommate Emily has a Swiss mother who speaks French. Emily studied French in college and earned a degree in it. She has been to Switzerland and other French-speaking countries (like France) where she spoke French to French-speaking people. She considers herself “somewhat fluent.” Emily will never learn French.
What would be the point? I don’t mean to say that French is a useless language. Lots of people speak it. The French, for example. But even if I learned it, would I be able to communicate with the majority of speakers? Let me explain.
In the fall I spent some time in the British Isles. That’s the place where they keep Ireland and Scotland and England, the latter two being part of Great Britain, which Americans sometimes refer to as “England,” a misnomer that actually describes a country that may or may not be part of the European Union. It did not rain as much as people led me to believe it would. The heavy thing was the accent, or accents, to be more accurate. The people in these countries speak English, or so they say.
Londoners are easy to understand, especially if you’ve spent any time watching British television that isn’t “Mr. Bean.” And even if you haven’t (or if you’ve exclusively watched “Mr. Bean”), I imagine you’d get by just fine. The differences between our nations’ linguistics are less about how we say English words and more about which words we use. “Tube” instead of “subway.” “How are you getting on?” instead of “How are you doing?” “Cheers” instead of “Go fuck yourself.” And this makes sense. The British colonized America. Of course we sound similar and can easily understand each other. That is, of course — and I’m sure this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway — unless you’re from Boston. Americans have no explanation for that.
Speaking of Boston, there is a place called Liverpool. It’s where The Beatles and boats come from. I have a theory that posits Bostonians and Liverpudlians* never have a problem understanding one another. It’s like when you put two infants in a room and they seem to communicate flawlessly using an indecipherable pattern of yelps and squawks and spit bubbles. They speak no language — their language.
*The demonym “Liverpudlian” sort of implies that “pud” is the plural of “pool,” i.e. “The water park has two giant wave puds!” or, “The crime scene was pure carnage; puds of blood were everywhere.” I like this a lot and would encourage all of us to force “puds” into the lexicon.
Massachusettsans aside (Sure, that word needs another syllable), Liverpudlians were hard for me to understand. I am absolutely positive that every last one of them was speaking English, yet I found myself constantly responding to what I assume were very basic conversational phrases with platitudes such as “Oh, yeah” and “Sure, sure.” I was like a baby boomer Wisconsinite with a landline receiver pinched between his shoulder and cheek, listening to a sibling drone on-and-on about a bad knee that acts up when it rains. Oh, yeah? Sure. Sometimes, if the inflection tipped me off that the asker was posing a question, I’d scrunch my brow with deep introspection and respond, “I’ll try the lager.” This almost always worked, and rendered the serving of beers from bartenders and bus drivers and pedestrians alike. All this said, I did alright in Liverpool. But I also spent time in Ireland.
The Irish speak Gaelic. My first night in Dublin, I was cornered by an old-timer at a bar who spoke at least fifty full sentences to me, six words of which I understood. It was entirely downhill from there.
Here’s my point:
For all that we are capable of doing, there is always resistance. A language barrier. A dialect intercepting said overcome language barrier. I will never learn French, and that makes me feel small. So do the stars. And the universe. The infinite. Did you know that one of the fastest manmade objects in history was a half-ton manhole cover that blasted into the atmosphere from the force of a nuclear bomb test? It moved faster than all of the Voyager probes, which are currently gallivanting outside our solar system at roughly 35,000 miles per hour. That manhole cover might be out in space chasing them. We don’t know. We actually don’t know. Talk about that for smallness. A hunk of metal is hurdling through space at a speed only achievable by nuclear physics and if I learned French I might not even be able to speak it properly to the people in France. I mean, I sure as hell had a hard time speaking English to the English .
But then again, there’s the other side of that cosmos. The side where we are all made of stars, where any language is a human language and therefore shared. The Liverpudlians are Bostonians. I can understand Mr. Bean even though he doesn’t say a god damn word. And you know what? At least I understood six words that the old Dubliner spoke to me. That puts me a lot closer to Earth than the manhole cover, and if I ever get the chance to talk to Michel Gondry, I suppose I can just speak English. He learned it, after all, so how hard can it be?