They tell you that the only way to know a language once you’ve sat
down and conjugated all those verbs and browsed through the
picture-book textbooks is to speak it every day.
I took French in high school, and learned it well enough to survive a
week in Paris. But I never really got good at speaking it, never felt
comfortable enough to do it when I didn’t have to. So whatever I
learned, I mostly lost — and then when I was out meeting a girl for
coffee in college, it happened that her French professor came by right
as my cup was nearly empty, and they talked for five minutes entirely
in French — a long five minutes, an awkward five minutes. I had
almost no idea what they were saying. I mean, I could pick out little
bits of phrases, like lipreading in a smoke-filled bar, but the course
of the conversation was lost to me.
Maybe it was nothing — maybe he just asked what she was planning to
do that summer. It doesn’t really matter what they were saying — it
was that feeling of being lost. Of not knowing what to say, not even
knowing where to begin. And I thought: this is how I felt ever since I
sat down with this stranger, all through picking bits off my muffin to
eat and thinking of interesting things to say. This is exactly what it is.
Speaking a foreign language.
I’ve never completely shaken this feeling.
I rode home alone on the metro Saturday night. Not that I was
expecting otherwise, of course — but 1 am on public transportation is
a lonely time anywhere. I spent it staring at my reflection in the
window and listening to the couple behind me talk in this astounding
mixture of Spanish and English. They switched languages from sentence
to sentence so fluidly — sometimes they’d even interject little
English phrases in a stream of Spanish, or just a word.
I wondered how they chose which things to say in what language — maybe
they wanted to keep part of their conversation secret, or some things were
easier to say in one language. There are all kinds of possible reasons. And
then I realized they didn’t choose at all. They just knew. You learn to speak