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The Longest Language Journey Back

Je guéris encore (I’m still healing)

By The Dani WriterPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 7 min read
Top Story - May 2024
The Longest Language Journey Back
Photo by Joel Mwakasege on Unsplash

When you have a godawful experience for years (perhaps French lessons) and need to write about it as part of the healing process and already you feel parts of your cognitive machinery trying to “clean it up” (guess it’s French lessons) for public viewing by default since it’s likely to make some toes curl up (sorry, but definitively French lessons.)

*SIGH*

Common expression heard growing up back home:

“Tell it like it T-I-IS!”

Many experiences cannot and should not be “cleaned up.” They require telling “as is.” Respectfully, this is one of them.

I didn’t enter secondary school (US: high school) with preconceptions, but I did expect to learn Spanish like my brothers did. Spanish was ‘Sesame Street cool!’ But in all fairness, if Japanese was the go-to language on Sesame Street, that easily would have been my choice. It just so happened that…well…

Children weren’t given preferences back then.

And wows, YES! Consider me a dinosaur because I lived through the dark ages of education where you’d take what you were given and never ever even look like you’re gonna complain about it.

Not a problem.

Until the French teacher entered class for the first lesson.

He seemed completely irritated with us for simply existing as first-year students already and spoke not one word of English for the entire period. He expected us to follow his guidance. And how disappointing to him that many of us didn’t.

He wrote, “Bonjour ! Je m’appelle Monsieur…” on the blackboard.

Yeah, with actual chalk (it was all the rage back then) and we did what we had been taught since classroom conformity 'classed.' We wrote what he wrote. He didn’t like that one bit and embarrassed those whose exercise books he saw it in with red pen lines, loudly exclaiming in French, “Garbage !”

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels

In retrospect, it became clear that he wanted us to write our own names instead, thereby learning an introductory French sentence, but it probably wasn’t the best way to go about it for first-time students clueless about his teaching methods.

The rest of the year: Unsurprisingly, not memorable.

A thick flurry of vocabulary to master for tests and traversing basic conjugations to correctly place nouns and subject pronouns with verbs in sentences.

Repetition and writing. Fun, not a factor.

Second-year studies delivered more of the same, plus that irritating tactic teachers would use to call out students for answers in front of the whole class. Just so you felt even more pressure to be deemed ‘not stupid,’ because who were we at all if we didn’t behave intelligently and get good grades?

Repetition and loads more writing.

Rules on top of rules.

But why did it seem that many cool vocabulary words were masculine gender (e.g. un livre, le cheval, un plaisir/book, horse, pleasure) and the boring drab words feminine? (e.g. la haine, une chèvre, la pitié/hatred, goat, pity.)

I recently learned ‘la grossesse’ means ‘pregnancy.’ Gee, not even remotely heartwarming!

Photo courtesy of Ms.Vixen Magazine

And who made these decisions? Was there a vote? How many women were there? Is this what ‘democracy’ in language looks like?

Eww.

I was not impressed. Like, anywhere.

By our third year, we already had huge clunky workbooks, had been separated into academic groups of proficiency for ‘O’ Level examinations, and acquired a new teacher who grated on every single student nerve in every single lesson with a persistent ‘whiney-voice’ approach to teaching.

Pretty much nothing conversational French mind you.

A litany of tenses, conjugations, and vocabulary lists with required after-school classes since we were destined to take the exam.

(Did I mention the whining?)

A seemingly never-ending number of rules with sporadic obtuse exceptions and related grammar dwindled any English language instruction I’d ever had in life. Conditional tense. Imperfect tense. Pluperfect tense. Imperative. Past Perfect. Subjunctive. Conditional Perfect. Future Perfect. Unknown educational intellectuals somehow decided how vitally essential it was for 'by the skin-of-their-teeth' part-time French lesson 13-year-olds to be able to say something like "I think I would have wanted to do that yesterday." Arrrrrggh! Etc., etc.

Mind-numbing marathon sessions with dictée (dictation) thrown in. Sparse praise for correct answers. Tons of red-penned corrections to cement feelings of sufficient incompetence.

Eventually, in my fifth and last year, a bit of comprehension gelled and I could understand and passably express myself, but the damage had long been done. Seething silently for years and bullied into a language with heavy-handed instruction. I hated it.

Not once did teachers allude to the fact that there were populations outside France we could converse with, nor how the language might prove beneficial. No French films, music, or cuisine (pointless to even spring for croissants, I guess.) No mention of Créole. Or James Baldwin and Josephine Baker living in Paris for a glimmer of relatability towards us as children of the Afrikan Diaspora.

The full sinister history of France as a colonial power didn’t surface in either History or French lessons.

I successfully passed the exam, got rid of everything French, and never looked back.

Many years after school, one of the most life-changing books I read about an Afrikan shaman, detailed the painful instruction of his peer group into the French language. They were literally, beaten.

My first inkling of a possible pattern.

It took much longer for me to surmise that my first teacher probably taught that way because he had been taught that way.

Yuck and double-yuck.

I couldn’t yet locate sympathy, life had other plans. And those other plans involved relocation to a country that I’d never considered residing in, and then meeting people who ultimately didn’t become friends, but family.

Aaaand they spoke French.

I couldn’t avoid it.

Everything about them was yummy. But months turning into years of interactions brought a tangle of emotions when they lapsed into that “other language” I dared not name.

Separation of them from their communication wasn’t gonna happen.

At some point, I’d respond purely on reflex to a question 'en français' (in French) and astonish myself. But often, I also felt like screaming and crying whilst tearing my sensory organs out after I’d done it.

By Baptista Ime James on Unsplash

Walls decades thick and high in the making showed possibility of crumble.

More sensations I could not verbalize.

They spoke great English (and Créole.) Even when English wasn’t readily forthcoming or easy in its expression, they pushed through.

Could not I do that?

It was a “no-brainer boat” in a sea of “I just don’t want to think about it” resistance. Comprehensive disgust that I held for years had nothing to do with these people I now knew and cherished.

My fascination couldn’t help but grow when 'ma Maman adoptive' (my adopted Mom) informed me that Haitian Créole could be readily understood by herself and fellow nationals who'd never been to Haiti. This, of Afrikans scattered abroad via enslavement and stripped of their native tongues who find ways to communicate through an alien language and both came up with something similar in different geographical locations?

I freakin’ love it!

Long ago memories resurfaced of Haitian friends I met during my university time in Florida.

Gorgeous juicy memories!

I relish the sound and tone in spoken Créole. Full, thick, and rich. Like a low, steady, pulse drum beat of “Welcome, Dear One! Won’t you stay a while?”

Internal dialogue outta nowhere that “sweeted me” and made me laugh out loud:-

Inhabitants of a Newly Colonized French Territory: Sheesh! Your language…it’s pretty bland. Straitjacket-ish. Tasteless and needs seasoning. Let us help it out…*shake-shake-mix-mix-stir*...There! Bonzur, ki manyèr? (Hello, how are you?)

French Colonizers: ???

Inhabitants of a Newly Colonized French Territory: Ooh, my bad! Now you can’t understand what we said in the language you forced down our throats? Aww!!!

Healing arrived by the handful. And then…by the heartful.

Logic reminded me that I didn’t much care for English either, another colonial language enforcement courtesy of the transatlantic slave trade.

Science reminded me that language acquisition for young children comes in stages involving numerous factors. Progression in later years is built on consistent immersion over extended periods of listening, speaking, writing, and reading. Curriculum design, in retrospect, was decidedly inane and ineffective, primarily concerned with exam success.

As ‘like-attracts-like’ law would have it, I kept meeting French-speaking people (never happened before,) with many opportunities to practice. No horrified looks if/when I made a mistake. Approachable kind, generous souls who were empathetic and patient when speaking to me, as if sensitive to my backstory. Même en ligne (Even online.)

Biggest of shout-outs to my Vocal Peeps, “Coucou, Cendrine Marrouat !”

Positive changes also, as the rigid structure taught in my tender years, now amazingly held less formality.

Ouais ! (Yeah!)

I’ve always enjoyed learning new languages, but for known reasons, French had been blockaded due to previous traumas.

Holding trauma never benefits the holder.

So…I let it go.

This did not absolve France of its history as a colonial power and its unsatisfactory redress to date regarding my Ancestors and their descendants, nor the shitty experience I had learning it in school. I have complex feelings in these matters too extensive to articulate here.

I get minute twinges that are by and large infrequent.

However, I’m now actively re-learning a language (by no means fluent) I would have spat in the face of many moons ago, with my sights set on Créole. *Maniacal laugh*

And just wait until you hear about how much fun I had in Paris…

By David Lundgren on Unsplash

I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your taking this reading journey with me! This was a gargantuan writing step for me in sharing this journey as my experiences remain quite raw.

My wish for you is that this story can become applicable and/or impetus for any trauma you (or anyone you know) may wish to heal from because you have one gift of precious life, and you deserve to live it in joyous rapture.

SecretsTeenage yearsSchoolChildhood

About the Creator

The Dani Writer

Explores words to create worlds with poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. Writes content that permeates then revises and edits the heck out of it. Interests: Freelance, consultations, networking, rulebook-ripping. UK-based

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  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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    The story invoked strong personal emotions

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Comments (21)

  • Novel Allen20 days ago

    Interesting way of relating to the topic. Caribbean me can relate. Congrats on your story.

  • Jenifer Nim23 days ago

    This was a fascinating story and I so enjoyed reading it. I also absolutely hated French lessons at school and I remember telling my friends that I absolutely couldn't wait to take my French GCSE exam and afterwards I would NEVER speak French again EVER. I then did a trip to France where I spent a week staying with a host family and loved it so much I changed my mind and carried on French to A-level and then university. Language is all about connecting with people. They're not meant to be learned, reluctantly, in a classroom. They are meant to be learned with the heart and soul.

  • angela hepworth24 days ago

    Absolutely beautiful storytelling.

  • Anna 30 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story! :)

  • Ameer Bibiabout a month ago

    And lots of heartiest congratulations on your top story.

  • Ameer Bibiabout a month ago

    You are excellent story teller, creating an environment where the reader is watching all the scenes occuring. No doubt it is god gifted skill and you nailed it, how students feel when they learn a new language from a teacher who teach in the same way as he learnt. Wonderful.

  • Manisha Dhalaniabout a month ago

    First of all, you have amazing knack for storytelling - simply brilliant writing. I was hooked from start to end. I could relate to the learning of a new language (I tried French for three months but wow did not have it as traumatic as you did). Congrats on top story - well deserved!

  • Andy Pottsabout a month ago

    I hear you on the language teaching. British schools don't do this at all well. The only way to make progress is to speak. Practice. Make mistakes. Laugh. Make different mistakes. Laugh some more. None of this works in a group of 30 kids whose enthusiasm ranges from zero to not much. It needs people who want to learn, matched with people who are happy to share knowledge. But until the anglophone world collectively gets over its assumption that everyone else speaks English, not much will change. The additional language I speak best isn't one I studied. Like your 'new' French, it's the one I found I had to use while living among people who speak it.

  • I wish I can write as lively as you do. Congratulation on your top story!

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    Back to say congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Babs Iversonabout a month ago

    Congratulations on Top Story!!!🥰🥰🥰

  • Rachel Deemingabout a month ago

    Most exciting thing that happened in my French class? When my teacher's bra went "twang!" mid sentence. We all heard it but it was the expression on her face which I can still see in my head now. Great piece!

  • Cathy holmesabout a month ago

    There it is. Congrats on the TS.

  • Melissa Ingoldsbyabout a month ago

    I love your way of describing certain things as yummy lol great work

  • Hannah Mooreabout a month ago

    I kept thinking "but you're peppering this with french..." And now I see why and I love it.

  • Donna Reneeabout a month ago

    I could feel the rage and frustration through the screen. 😬😬. This was really fascinating!

  • Christy Munsonabout a month ago

    Thank you for sharing. I'm pleased I could bear witness by reading your brave shared words. I know a fraction of what you're describing. My French teacher (first year French only--the rest were lovely) wanted nothing more than to humiliate students. He was an expert in French, his French reading, writing, speaking skills were très magnifique, so he was permitted by the university administration to treat us like dirt. Didn't matter that he was marde at teaching.

  • Rachel Robbinsabout a month ago

    Loved this - it was so playful.

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    "I recently learned ‘la grossesse’ means ‘pregnancy.’ " That made me laugh so much hahahahahahhahahaha. I mean, it makes sense to me because I find pregnancy gross and would never do that to myself. I also find babies and children gross. What are they called in French? Grossesy and grossestte? 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣 Gosh, I'm so sorry but I had wayyyyy too much fun there. I loved your sass and sarcasm throughout this piece. I immensely enjoyed reading it!

  • Cathy holmesabout a month ago

    Wonderful article. This right here "Curriculum design, in retrospect, was decidedly inane and ineffective, primarily concerned with exam success," is so relatable. French was mandatory for me from 3rd grade to the end of high school, and it was exactly how you describe. All but useless in my opinion, as there was no immersion and I never lived in french-speaking community. All these years later, I can read words and simple phrases but would never be able to hold a conversation.

  • Vicki Lawana Trusselli about a month ago

    I loved your story !

The Dani WriterWritten by The Dani Writer

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