I realized recently, after a conversation with a Frenchman that left me floating on air simply because it was an honest-to-goodness French conversation: my impetus for learning languages may be nothing but misguided FOMO.
I remember my frustration during visits to Israel, when 15 or 20 extended family members and friends of my cousins would pack themselves around my aunt and uncle’s long table and everyone, young and old – except for my brother and sister and me – would enjoy hours of boisterous conversation in rapid-fire Hebrew. I would tug desperately at my mother’s sleeve whenever anyone laughed or yelled, asking her again and again, “What did s/he say???” My mother would answer me maybe twenty percent of the time, and I can’t blame her, because I was like a broken record, demanding line by line interpretation services.
I think maybe that sense of missing all the fun has haunted me up to the present, because why else would I consecrate so much time to understanding strangers?
In related news, it occurred to me that I ascribe way more coolness to the French than they actually deserve, simply because I don’t fully understand them. (Also because they dress really well.) The other day this song came on the radio, and I noted that it perfectly encapsulates how I feel when I’m hanging out with a bunch of French people.
I hardly ever feel that way with the Senegalese, for several reasons: I’m used to their accents. They tend to speak more slowly and enunciate more clearly than the French. And they are usually more patient with me, probably because for most of them, French is their second language as well.
My goal during my month in Paris, more than finding a job or making it a home, is to relieve myself of the sense that the French are all having a party that I’m not invited to. I thought I had aged out of that less-than, outsider feeling – the one I used to have in college in New York and in my early 20’s in Los Angeles – but apparently I am not immune to the language barrier-induced variety. It’s ridiculous and I know it, so I’m hopeful that the mystique will fall away pretty quickly. My only fear is that the moment it does, my motivation to become fluent in French will disappear with it.