copyright 2015 by Raunig-Graham
French. That’s what today’s post is about. Sort of.
Long time friends, those who knew me as a girl, or as a teenager, or as a journalism student in college know that French was always a part of me. Of course, I would head for Paris when I finished school. It was more than a desire; it was my expectation. (In fact, I didn’t. I stayed in Seattle, and then ended up in Salt Lake City for a time.)
Friends I acquired later and who remain in my current life, however, have on occasion, for some reason, been puzzled by my passion for French and asked me why I’m so intrigued by French. After all, I’m not of French heritage. Nor did I major in French as an undergraduate. The implication being, I suppose, that one doesn’t develop a strong interest unless there is some kind of requirement involved. Such a question always puzzles me because it seems so obvious. Didn’t everyone my age fall in love with France through films and fiction and food? And fashion? Didn’t we all expect to head there after college? Language and culture are intertwined.
Undoubtedly, Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor had a profound impact on me, when I saw “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” I can’t have been more than six or seven years old when I first saw it. Then, a few years later, I fell in love with the exquisite little book “Mrs. “Arris Goes to Paris,” and I was hooked.
I began studying le francais in about 1963 because I already loved the language: the sound of it, the cadence, the vocabulary, the spelling, even the punctuation. In those days, high school students generally had a choice of just one or two languages, usually French, maybe German, or Spanish (In my high school we could also study Latin and I did.). My interest in French though was about more than a language — it was also about travel, and inhabiting a world different from my own. To make friends with people from other countries. Not unlike a wide swath of my generation, my expectation was to see a lot of the world. Hopes were high and it really seemed possible to experience different cultures. People. cuisine, architecture, geography. The Peace Corps had become a reality.
Without verbalizing it, I’m quite sure I recognized that French could be my calling card, my entré into a wider world. French was still the lingua franca then and the language used at the United Nations. Naturally, I expected to make friends with people who spoke French, native speakers or not.
Studying any language can be a humbling experience because unless you happen to be one of those rare language geniuses, you know that you will probably never sound like a native speaker. There’s also the recognition that the more you study, the more you realize how much more you have to learn. Yet you can feel rewarded when a native speaker’s face lights up when you attempt to converse in his or her language. You can feel further rewarded when you realize that you are reading in another language and understanding what was written. Or you attend a film festival and understand the dialogue and the humor.
Now, all these years later, I think that people are attracted to certain languages and cultures for different reasons. I also believe that some individuals have an affinity for a certain language, but not for others. It’s a mystery. Current thinking is that learning another language is especially healthy for aging brains. (As if I ever needed an excuse to study .) Am I fluent in French at this point in my life? No, not yet, but I have certainly improved. Through the years, I have been fortunate to meet some wonderful French people and Francophones who have been kind and patient in helping me to speak their language. We have shared laughter and much more — friendship.
An early childhood interest can become a life-long adventure.