Sans Bornes

I finished my book. The one that I boldly picked up while feeling an ambivalent combination of separation and comfort while in a French language book store. It’s easy to feign accomplishment when you’re carrying around literature that is written isn’t written in your maternal language—but it’s far more challenging to actually crack the book and find yourself lost (in the positive sense of the term). But I committed myself to doing it, and in some strange way, the timing of my undertaking became somewhat of a New Year’s Resolution. Do more stuff in French. The only problem now was whether I’d actually fall through with my goal or relegate the book to a stack of projects sitting just out of sight in my spare bedroom.

But I tore through Chanson Douce. I say “tore through”, but I kind of mean that in a relative sense. When you’re pausing to stop and look up every unfamiliar word, then it kind of makes for a challenging flow of action. Indeed, when I got to the last page of the story, there 265 words that I had to look up—and the book itself was 235 pages long.

I’ve been devouring books since I was a child, and accordingly I’m a pretty fast reader. But here I found that while the book was an absolute page turner, I experienced steady impatience each time I arrived at a speedbump that signaled un mot inconnu. Before I started I had told myself that I would not skip the word if it was even vaguely unfamiliar—I would look up each on and write it down. The frustration, therefore, was compounded as each time I opened the Word Reference website and discovered that I had already searched for a particular word about 20 pages back. Each lookup experience would serve as a quiet poke that reinforced the idea that knowledge acquisition is an incredibly slow process. At least that’s the case for me.

But I will say that by the end of the book, I was pretty well entrenched in the pace and sounds of the French language. Much like weight training or distance running, there are muscles that ultimately adapt if you subject them to something for long enough. I was almost sad to reach the end of the story. Indeed, I was finally at the stage where I wasn’t forcing myself to look past readworthy sources en anglais and instead turn to my roman, my pen, notebook and the online dictionary for at least a few pages of lecture. It just become another book to me, and one that I was dying to pick back up. It sounds silly, but it was kind of a moment of minor personal breakthrough.

Languages are hard. If I am being brutally honest with myself and everyone else, I really don’t profess to be anything more than a terminal student of intermediate-level French. It’s funny because I often think back to my first days of learning the language in the 7th grade. I marvel at the level of commitment I now give to my self-assigned homework. More significantly, as adults we have limited time in our busy lives, and here I am doing brainwork that I really disliked when I was young and had loads more free time than I knew what to do with. It is absolutely incredible how our desire to learn is almost inversely proportional to our age and proximity to a structured educational experience.

There was another reason why I decided to pick up a book not written in English. The fact is that every day I inhabit a multinational work environment and constantly interact with professionals for which English is not their primary language. These people read, create products and deliver presentations all in a level of English that leaves me feeling humbled. Of course, there are moments when a person will come up and ask for clarification. Yesterday, for example, a Romanian asked me what “BLUF” meant— but even that is not really a good example. That’s an acronym and even still a sign that his English is beyond, “Mary baked a cake.” But for the most part, I do recognize that colleagues sit at their desks and undoubtedly stop to find translations to the less common English words that pop up on their computer screen. Me and my activity of reading a French novel for pleasure—that’s really nothing at all. But it does help to provide me with a sense of empathy, and even better a large dose of admiration, too.

I remember that when I left Dakar, I was very concerned that I’d lose my French. Language, like I said before, is like a muscle. You have to use it. And this means that you have stay willing to struggle, to constantly feel far from accomplished, and to ultimately check your ego—all for a tradeoff that at least lets you know that you are still very much in the game. It’s a weird kind of masochistic undertaking, but there are so many of us who are doing it every day.Since it’s still only January, and I have managed to complete my non-New Year’s resolution, then I think it can’t hurt for me to dare and pick up another book written in French. Heck, I’ve got a copy of Les Bouts De Bois de Dieu that I’ve had since I left Senegal, and I’ve been meaning to read it.  Maybe now this is the best time for me to start it. Right now I am feeling a bit courageous.So I do resolve to continue reading in French, but I will say that for now, my brain deserves a bit of a reward. I received some other books as Christmas gifts, and those are begging to be read as well. The fact that they’re in English? That just means I’ll get through them rather quickly. Then I can get back to the French experiment, and with it a whole new list of words that I probably once knew and will be annoyed that I had forgotten. All of this keeps life infinitely new and interesting.

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