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Burgeoning Language Skills

The past two weeks have been a bit of a blur. On the school front, many a frustrating hour on the devoirs (homework) particularly when the lessons are hard and there is so much vocabulary to track. Lessons included topics like climate change, building health habits, and renting an apartment. Lots of new words and grammar lessons, drills and memorization required, no shortcuts. The flip side is the excitement and thrill of seeing how words in one language connect to another and putting words together to express an idea that’s actually understood by another person.

A handout related to nature and flora/fauna is distributed. I know most words, but I don’t know what le bourgeon is. “Pas de téléphone,” the teacher says, just do your best to complete the blanks. I’m familiar with the word burgeoning, so that the word bourgeon must be the bud of the tree. Voilà, it is correct, my guess paid off.

“How many words are you learning a day?” my spouse asks.

I have no clue, and every time my eyes see an object, I search for whether it’s a word I already know, or maybe one I’ve seen before but don’t really know. The questions then come up: do I look it up, will I need it again, do I care to know it? And more often than I care to recount, I do look up a word, write it down so that I can remember it, and then I find myself looking it up . . . again and again. Endless possibilities on how to spend time. Imagine the fortitude and strength it takes for people to uproot themselves and move to another country.

Even making a phone call can be a challenge. Unlike us, the French give their número de téléphone in pairs, so that 415-212-2386, would be said as 41-52-12-23-86, quarante-et-un (41), cinquante-deux (52), douze (12), vingt-trois (23), quatre-vingt-six (86). For me, French numbers have been difficult to learn and remember. Counting above 80 is overwhelming (still is) because the number for 80 is quatre-vingt (4 x 20) and 99 is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (which is literally 4 x 20 + 19). As soon as I hear numbers beyond 60, I break into a cold sweat. I can’t write the words fast enough to be able to do the math and figure the number out. “You’ll learn,” the teacher assures me. “It just takes practice.”

"Why do the French count this way?" a student asks. Well, they just do. Use of twenty, score, as a unit of measure has been around a long time. Although rarely used now in the United States, we are familiar with the term thanks to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago . . . “ These opening lines make note that the United States was founded eighty-seven years earlier (20 x 4 + 7). Click here and here to get the score in these two article about the origin and use of this word.

Perhaps what most stresses me is when I see that a student struggling with the material in class. When paired up with one such student for team exercises, I do my best to explain what we are doing; beyond that there is nothing I can do except feel empathy. I was a teaching assistant in the Department of Modern Languages University of Notre Dame (during law school) and I have taught several college level courses, so I have been on both sides of this equation. Mostly I enjoy the hard thinking that it takes to tackle another language.

One day we were asked to draft ten questions. Things you would ask someone you are meeting for the first time, and then half of our class of 12 was exchanged with another classroom of students at the same level. The two people I got to speak with were 1) a nun originally from Chennai, India who is now living in Paris. Her prior postings have been in her own country and in Rome. She is a professor of Philosophy and Religion with a PhD from Catholic University in DC. After 15 minutes we were each paired with another person – sort of like speed-dating, I guess. Second person was an accountant from Chile, with children living in Europe. At some point each student was given a piece of paper with a destination written on it (a metro station, park, store, school) and without revealing the location we were to give directions (in French) to our companion as we made our way to the destination. Proceed on this street, make a left at rue thus and such, go two blocks then “traverse la rue blah blah blah” and so on. Once we got to our destination, our assignment was to take a selfie, and when done with both destinations return to the class. It was both educational and a fun activity. It turned out another team of students was also assigned Lycee Saint Suplice, so they took our picture, and vice versa. Better than a selfie.

Beyond school there has been lots of socializing with Bay Area friends who either live in Paris part-time or who are visiting for various reasons (the Women’s World Cup, International Conferences -- one in Southern France on Energy, another on Democracy and Academic Freedom in Strasbourg). Great to see old friends and to make new ones. Mark and I are very lucky to know such interesting people.

And if all this isn’t enough to have kept me busy, last weekend I also went to a fête in support of the handicapped community of France at Place de la Republique, which was a wonderful festive evening made only more exciting by the presence of yellow vests and many police at the same square. Fortunately, there was no or disruption of any kind, save for a few minutes of a major street being blocked by the Yellow Vests. No violence, no tear gas. Seems like at least every other day I come across some demonstration with a heavy presence of police.

Last weekend, I also had the great fortune of seeing a one-woman show, Noire, the story of African-American Claudette Colvin, a 15-year old girl who refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama several months before Rosa Parks and the famous Montgomery strike. Colvin was arrested and she and four other plaintiffs brought the suit that led to the US Supreme Court case finding that segregation in public transport was unconstitutional. It was in French but I was able to follow (for the most past), because it had wonderful visual cues, video of American movies, images, music. Even if you don’t know a word of French, have a look at this brief video by clicking here. I will be writing more about this in future blogs.

Earlier this week had a walking tour of Paris Noir, learning about ties to Paris of great writers, philosophers, musicians, performers, and academics with African backgrounds, including African-Americans such as James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, and Miles Davis, to name just a few. I learned that the grandmother of one of THE greatest French writers, Alexandre Dumas (Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Cristo), was a black slave named Marie-Cessette from the island of Saint Domingue (present day Haiti). Dumas’ paternal grandfather was a white French nobleman, who owned Marie-Cessette. Much interesting history in France about race and racism. I am certainly going to be undertaking further research. If your travels bring you to Paris be sure to check out Le Paris Noir tours, click here.

C’est tout for now., and because one of my faithful readers asked for pictures of Église Saint Germain des Prés, here they are. It is undergoing major restoration. My friend's email recalled fondly the summers in Paris when she was a young school teacher with summers off.

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