When I first came to Harvard in the fall of 1992, I knew nothing whatsoever about French, except that I wanted to learn it. In high school I had studied Latin, an alternative allowed by my Jesuit school in Chicago. Now, finally, I was going to learn a language spoken by the living. French A was designed for those with little or no experience in the language. I couldn't attempt to pronounce the French r without laughing or choking, or both; in the pronunciation of the ubiquitous c'est I would certainly have found room for two s sounds and one t.
Last year, on vacation in Boston from my travels in France, I called my very first French teacher. She and I have remained in regular contact for some six years, but until this particular telephone conversation, we had spoken and written to each other in English. All who speak a foreign language know that friendship is easier to begin and maintain when both friends are able to speak exactly what is on their minds. So it was no wonder that we naturally fell into communicating in English--she who had a better command of it than the majority of native speakers, and I who was just embarking on a long study of her native tongue.
Now, after seven semesters of French at Harvard and about a year and a half of working and traveling in France, I decided that I had made sufficient progress in the language to avoid embarrassment, speak naturally, and maybe even make her proud of her sometime student. She was astounded by my abilities, and I was elated by her astonishment. "I can't believe it, John," she said to me in French. "Your accent...c'est parfait. I feel like I'm talking to a Frenchman. It's incredible. How did you do it?"
I left for France on a Fulbright fellowship in September following my graduation from Harvard, to teach English in a public secondary school in Marseilles. But I decided to stay in order to learn "to speak French like a Frenchman," as I told myself upon making the decision to exhaust nearly all of my personal savings to do so. My French teacher, like most people I meet, tells me I now have a neutral, essentially Northern accent, and that's exactly what I want to hear: it's the accent that, before learning the language well, made French seem like delicate music to my untrained ears, and the accent that checks people from telling me where exactly I'm from.
In most situations, I pass for a native speaker, though, much like Cinderella, I lose my graces after midnight and occasionally have to search for an unfamiliar word. But when I am alert and at ease, I might as well have been born and bred in the Hexagon. Writing French correctly is in some respects a simpler matter. To the surprise of French friends generous enough to read what I write in their language, I don't make spelling mistakes, but I do not yet have the rhetorical control that I have in English. More important to me than the appearances of having mastered French, however, is the confidence I have and the downright pleasure I take in speaking French. The once mysterious-sounding nasal vowels and gag-provoking r's are now natural to me, and the most quotidian of transactions have finally become just that: I no longer dread buying stamps and review what I'm going to say to the postal clerk before saying it.
So how exactly did I do it? I am asked the question by nearly every new French acquaintance I make, and they are often kind enough to answer it for me: I must be talented in foreign languages. I confess that I don't like this answer at all. In fact, I am rather vexed when my amiable acquaintances supply it. It's not that I think they are wrong, but rather that I find their answer woefully incomplete. For with or without talent, learning a foreign language is a lot of hard work.
As an entering freshman, I was ready to tackle French. To the confusion of newfound friends who, having failed Harvard's proficiency tests, found themselves conscripted into foreign-language classes, I was beginning my college career with a year-long elective. I had no intention of concentrating in French. (My field was government.) No, my study was to be a delightfully unmixed indulgence.
As I headed over to Memorial Hall to choose my section, I gave no second thought to what I was about to do. I had definite reasons for choosing French, all formed and processed in the space of no more than 10 minutes during a twelfth-grade English literature class. We were studying a poem whose first stanza was written in French, a language to which, until that point, I hadn't paid any particular attention. While our school's top French student was preparing to read the text aloud to the rest of us, I had a few seconds to try to make the thing out, pressing into service four years of Latin and 17 years of English. I can't remember deciphering much, but I do remember being struck by the preponderance of quaint accent marks and by the very strong representation of consonants relatively sparse in English, such as q's and x's. And what charming alphabetic neighbors they had! X was found with eu, ou, or ieu, and q with a u and an e for good measure.
And then my classmate began reading. I had serious trouble following her. Was I even on the right page? Why was I hearing very few n's, t's, and r's when there were so many of them before me? In less time than seemed necessary, she was finished, while my accusatory finger remained riveted to an -ent that I didn't hear pronounced at all. No English speaker is foreign to silent letters, of course, but this was preposterous. This language was flirting with my eyes. And I was seduced.
When I arrived at Memorial Hall some five or six months later to sign up for my first French class, I was determined to choose the nine o'clock section. Morning people are motivated people, I thought, and I wasn't about to get stuck with my angry conscript friends who, insofar as their labors were not going to be elective, were not quite as excited about this pesky language thing as I. That section head had a little bit of a scowl on her face, but as she was young and quite attractive--a little scowl on an attractive person being anything but deterring--I directed myself to her jealously guarded part of the table. I proffered a simple hello and asked the only question that could be asked. Could I sign my name on the paper she was patrolling?
Had I given this matter serious thought? Did I realize what I was committing myself to? Did I understand that I would have to be in class at nine o'clock five days a week, and that only three absences would be tolerated for the entire term? Wouldn't a later section with Mademoiselle's amiable colleagues suit me better, or maybe even another language altogether? Surely, I thought, a fusillade of off-putting questions was of good omen: she was serious. I responded in kind: I too was serious; I was an early riser; I was not going to be skipping classes I was paying thousands of dollars for; and, with all due respect to all the other languages of the world, I was going to study French. After a few seconds of mutual and unflinching staring, she produced a thin slip of paper indicating where I was to report the following morning for our first lesson.
I always went to class on time as an undergraduate, but as a beginning and very conscientious freshman, still not quite prepared to believe that nine o'clock meant 9:07 in Cambridge, I routinely arrived even earlier. I made my way up to the second floor of Sever Hall on the morning of my first French class, thrilled by the prospects of my soon-to-begin adventure: I would learn to make new sounds, discover new words, read new books--and maybe, one day, even meet new people. Entering the classroom (and it couldn't have been later than 8:55), I was surprised to find a dozen other students already in their seats, notebooks out, anxiously waiting for this patrolwoman-teacher to carry out the other responsibilities of her job description.
I sat down and looked up at the board: Je m'appelle Marlyse. Comment vous appelez-vous? Beneath the French text, also written in a curious penmanship I had never seen the likes of before, were literal English translations of our first exercise: "I call myself Marlyse. How do you call yourself?" Connecting these exotic-looking words were pairs of intersecting arrows, indicating that the m of m'appelle meant "myself" and that the appelle meant "call". This was a foreign language all right. Even though there were still no neat accent marks, things had changed: the word order of French was clearly different and I had pretty strong suspicions, judging from all this "apple" business, that verb conjugations were going to be a bit tricky.
In our first week, as we made our way through the nasty surprises that lie in wait for American students of French--gendered nouns, articles and adjectives that were supposed to agree with them, seemingly random pronunciation quirks known as liaisons, verb conjugations, and then the realization that we had not ventured out of the present tense, or into more than five or six verb conjugations--I sounded to myself like a tongueless baby. It took me about two weeks of class to be able to distinguish the sounds from each other, two weeks filled with daily visits of at least 30 minutes each to the language lab, accompanying workbook exercises, and textbook "préparations," as they were called. I noticed that some of my peers, having discovered that the workbook exercises were not going to be graded (at least for a while), picked up the worst habit anyone learning a foreign language could possibly pick up: they didn't do their homework. The workbook exercises themselves were not particularly difficult, but filling them out required listening to language lab tapes, or checking them out and bringing them back again. Omitting such chores was a great timesaver for an extracurricular-happy freshman, but would lead to a big, year-long waste of time for a first-year language student.
My incredulity at the sound of the nasals and of tight, round French vowels such as u and ou gradually wore off. And besides, I told myself, if diplomats--that most finicky race of talkers-- were once able to conduct their delicate business in French (and occasionally still did), I, too, could make something out of the language. If I had any lingering doubts about the viability of my exciting project--to make sense of French, chiefly in its oral but also in its written forms--I was now finally and fully rid of them. I was prepared to study French full-throttle, and I did.
Most harvard students are annoyed by professors who insist on holding class during reading period, but I was secretly delighted that French A would continue to meet, at the usual early hour, until examinations. Because of French, I entered that first reading period with a sense of accomplishment that I have never experienced since, nor likely will again. I had had a marathon fall term: I began with nothing and made my way through masculine, feminine, definite, indefinite, and partitive articles, many verbs regular and irregular, the present tense, the imperfect, le passé composé, and le futur immédiat. In the space of three months, we had probably learned as much as most high-school students learn in three years.
When I look back at that first term, I see what I did right as a student and what we did right as a class. For those who were interested enough in the subject matter to take advantage of it, there was a great deal of regularity--but not monotony--in the structure of the class and in the presentation of the material. We usually began by reading aloud a dialogue, learning vocabulary and working on pronunciation along the way. Then we would move on to grammar, which really isn't bad at all when verb conjugations and unfamiliar articles are placed in their rightful context of phrases and sentences. Finally we would simply converse, perhaps about a book (we started a simplified version of Les Misérables in the second week of class) or about an exposé that one of us had written and delivered and which our teacher had helped us rehearse. The mood of the classroom was excellent, and for this I remain indebted to our teacher, whose once concealed yet generous sense of humor and encouraging manner kept tension and frustration at bay.
I recently asked the head of French A, Marlies Mueller, Ph.D. '75, about her intentions and hopes for the course, which has an annual enrollment of about 100 students. Mueller, who has been a French language instructor at Harvard since 1971, coauthored our first-year textbook for French, A Propos. In talking to her, one realizes that the teaching staff has more homework than the students do. Mueller's text and course present grammar according to the principle
of "re-entries"--in which grammar points appear once and then appear again three or four lessons later--but this time, with more depth, and, given the nature of grammar, complexity. Students (and teachers) are thus able to attack tricky grammar points in easily digested doses. During the term, Mueller and section instructors meet weekly for no less than three hours to discuss, and then practice on each other, different ways of presenting the week's material. In the classroom, the environment is one of complete immersion, except, of course, when students are irretrievably lost. Mueller clearly intends that the atmosphere of the class be special, intimate, enjoyable, and intense. For those of us enrolled in French A, it was.
As rigorous and as regular as classroom and homework activities were, I was too impatient to learn French to be satisfied with doing only what was required of us. Early in the fall term, I innocently took my dinner at one of the French Tables offered by the undergraduate Houses. I sat dumbly through that first dinner, which must have taken place no more than three or four weeks into the term, reminding myself that, in the words of the poster hung in the dining-hall's entryway, speakers of all abilities were welcome. Confused and confusing as I was, I knew that the exercise was somehow good for me. Surely, I thought, all of my wide-eyed listening would accustom my ears to the language. As the year progressed, I was delighted to find that I had more and more things to say because I had more and more things I could say. (I remember announcing to my patient friends on a Tuesday night in late October that I had learned the futur immédiat that week, elated at the prospect of being liberated from talking only about the present.)
My first reading period had come and gone, and all too soon I found myself in the midst of the second. Now I was positively sad. French was by no means over for me, but French A was. I would miss starting my days with a lively class and an exciting teacher. I would miss my classmates. And I would miss learning new things every day. I had climbed the steepest part of the learning curve, and though I still had a lot to learn, the most thrilling part was over.
And the rest of the journey has never been boring. As a sophomore I would enroll in Dr. Mueller's full-year Foreign Cultures Core course taught entirely in French, La critique sociale à travers l'humour, and as a junior in the intense language and culture courses French F and French G, and finally in French Hb as a senior, a course devoted to writing. These five subsequent semesters of French sustained and expanded my interest in French language and literature, so that by senior year I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to spend my first year out of college: by hook or by crook, I was going to be in France.
Once I arrived, I quickly realized that the mere fact of immersion was no guarantee of my learning to "speak French like a Frenchman." I had a lot of work to do. I know that conventional wisdom on foreign-language instruction insists on the importance of age, but--while I do not doubt that learning a language as a child of 5 or 10 is quite different from the experience of a 20- or 25-year-old--I am persuaded that the old bromide about a strong will finding its own way is exactly on target here. I cannot imagine what my personality or my ideas would be like had I not registered for French A as a freshman, and then gone to France and made French friends. Nor can I fathom returning to the United States definitively. No, the work of French A has just begun.
John D. Heller '96 is now back at Harvard, teaching two sections of French A.