French Verbs: Onto the streets

Call it approach; call it method. It makes no difference because when it comes to the encounter with the unknown, with the unfamiliar and strange and unprecedented, we can afford to stumble, make a few mistakes here and there, but we cannot afford to make a loop of  stumbling.

At least that’s what my French teacher says, and he is speaking about learning the language.  Surely, at some point, we will have to put all that we learned of grammar aside and go out on the street, so to speak.

“When you practice, you practice.  But when you play, you play,” he says.  But up to that point, or concurrent with it perhaps, approach is all.  I call it approach; he calls it method. By method he means something very specific and instructive, whose extensions go beyond our classroom on this cold winter day, beyond our city.

When it comes to the maze of learning French, or any other language for that matter, method is all, according to my instructor.  More: when it comes to large chunks of material and long lists of rules and exceptions, method is all.  One should have a way, a path into the mess of verbs and tenses and moods and spellings, not to mention the pronouns and the gender and on and on. It boggles the mind, just like anything else that’s new and abundant and unfamiliar.  And what can be more bountiful and eerily strange than a new language?  His advice is to cast aside the vertical mode of learning by heart and instead think laterally.  More, think of rote learning in terms of associations and connections, in terms of navigating through the maze in such a way that your stumbles and errors will not become your habit.

My teacher has a specific method on which he bases his entire educational project. It is an elegant, clear approach, whose beneficiary  I have been for the last six months.  And it works.  Not only in learning French but almost anything else that is new and strange and exciting.  The temptation of impatience is to run through the material fast and furious, to crowd the brain and the mouth with words and more words and more words.

But method and approach imply a way into the maze, a certain coolness under which may boil the excitement of the new, a certain deliberateness of step about extensions and throwbacks and alliances and reversals and exceptions.  It implies that we may not “get it” for a while, that there is hard work to be done before we can take to the streets and speak.

In the past two weeks, nothing has been more exciting, more strange, more unknown (at least to most Americans) than what we have witnessed on the streets of Egyptian cities, which have rattled myths and brought down edifices and presumptions.  Suddenly (or so we thought), we have all been thrown in this maze of what is said officially and what is discussed behind closed doors, what is projected and what actually happens, what is policy and what is covert action, what is right and what is expedient, what is in the national interest and what is born of crushing necessity, what is ours and what is the other’s.  Overnight, it seems, another country has opened itself to the eyes and ears of the world, another language has entered our consciousness, another skin color has become illuminated.  Like the maze of my dear, poor French verbs and pronouns and gender, this new reality is as exciting as it is difficult to understand.  We’re trying, each in her own way.

The temptation is to use a lot of words, borrowed from this government official and that favorite pundit; to swim in platitudes about how this leader or that one makes decisions; to talk as if we know it all though we may know more or less than we think we do.  The challenge (that’s a word I use rarely) is to read the unknown keenly, slowly, carefully; to make associations, to see similarities but also huge differences; to banish the fear (which is another kind of excitement, distorted as it may be) born of ignorance and in its place find a path, as it were, to the streets.

We may all be wrong, and the cunning of time may reveal secrets and folds which will leave us exhausted and humbled.  But for now, approach is all in this new reading, new reality. Because, as in learning a new language, we must, if we can, avoid the loop of stumblings if we want to read the situation for all that it is, for all that it demands in solidarity.

Photo: Al Jazeera English


About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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