A few months ago I was contacted by Lauren Begue, a social psychologist who is a professor at the University of Grenoble in France. He had read my book “Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life” and made reference to the following passage:
"In the summer of 1992, I traveled through Europe with my delightful son Dave, my close friend Rich Keefe, his fun-loving son Richie, and my good-humored second wife Melanie. Ahh, intimate friends, Belgian beer on the market square in Leuven, eating French baguettes by the Seine in Paris, biking beneath the snow-covered Swiss Alps, bubbly vino and fresh pasta on the quaint piazzas of Padova, Italy -- it seemed hard to imagine a more joyous adventure. Before boarding the plane, we’d imagined a script for our travelogue that was Sound of Music meets Cinema Paradiso.
But it didn’t work out quite that way. In fact, by the time we arrived in Paris at the end of the first week, it was closer to Lord of the Flies meets National Lampoon’s European Vacation. The two teenage boys had teamed up against the adults, registering a stream of complaints about our various failings, including what they perceived as an authoritarian reluctance buy them McDonald’s hamburgers whilst forcing them to eat weirdly flavored French crap. Between bouts of complaining, the lads were inclined to sleep till noon most days, so my wife took to leaving for museums on her own in the late morning (often in a huff). When we arrived in Paris, the rooms Rich had booked were gone. Hotels were packed, so we were forced to stand on a very long line in a very hot and crowded train station trying desperately to make alternative accommodations, speaking over the phone in broken French (understanding very little of the responses except “non”), and trying to guard our luggage and wallets against the abundant thieves (several of whom were arrested right before our eyes). We finally squeezed into a couple of overpriced, undersized, and underventilated rooms in a run-down hotel with a grouchy Arab at the desk.
During our short stay in the ever-welcoming Eiffel city, my threshold for annoyance grew so low that I growled at a clerk in a bakery: “We should have left you bastards to the Germans!” This embarrassed my friend Rich, who got to be tainted by association when I stormed out of her shop. The bakerwoman’s offense was to be disdainfully snotty, and although Rich pointed out that this was hardly grounds for resurrecting the Gestapo, her one slight was, in the context of an otherwise unpleasant string of experiences, enough to inspire me to wish ill fortune on her and all her countrymen."
view from Grenoble street
Laurent proposed that I come visit the University of Grenoble, in hopes of changing my representation of French people. After my earlier trip, several people I know insisted that the French were actually quite warm and friendly (especially outside of Paris in the summertime). And when I looked on the map, I saw that Grenoble was situated a long way from Paris. Indeed, it is snug up against the Swiss and Italian Alps. So I thought: Why not?
Well, today I was sitting in the lovely Brasserie 1904 in downtown Grenoble, drinking a glass of viognier, eating a superb dinner of veal in morel sauce, and listening to the delightful children at the next table laughingly exchanging pleasantries in French. From the street in front of the restaurant, one can see snow-covered Alpine peaks in every direction, or stroll across the bridge to a lovely old Italian neighborhood with a church that was first built in the 5th century. If you have been to France, it will not surprise you to hear that any remaining traces of francophobia have been quickly and easily erased by actual experience here. Indeed, they have been replaced by a strong desire to return here at the first opportunity. Heck, I was even contemplating the pros and cons of retiring here.
people on streets in France
In a recent essay called “The Plot Against France,” the economist Paul Krugman pointed out that, despite the fact that France has had its national credit score downgraded, the country seemed to be doing quite well (Krugman argued that the international financial establishment is annoyed at the French government’s refusal to embrace fiscal conservatism, and dismantle their social security system). In my close up view, completely uneducated by any careful analysis of economic conditions, it appears that the overall quality of life here is, dare I say it, somewhat better than the one back in the good ole’ US of A. Besides the fabulous cuisine, the delicious wines, and the lovely scenery, there is a joyful vitality to life on the street. I had observed similarly smiling crowds on the streets of Spain during a visit there last year, but it was a lot warmer there. Despite the fact that the temperatures are hovering near freezing in December, the downtown area of Grenoble is still bustling with crowds of people, many sitting outside with their friends on the town squares. And whenever I have spoken to anyone, or asked for directions, they are warm, friendly, and helpful, nothing like the Parisienne bakerwoman I encountered two decades ago.
Open-minds versus Closed Mental Modules
But as Arlo Guthrie said in his classic song, I didn’t really come here to talk about Alice’s Brasserie, or to convince my fellow French-fry-banning Americans to come try the pommes de terre gratinée instead.
I came to complain about the American educational system, in which we typically do not expose children to a foreign language until they reach their teenage years. My 9-year-old son goes to a great school near the university, with fellow students from several countries, many of whom speak two languages at home. We are also a few hours from the Mexican border, and a few minutes from a neighborhood where Spanish is spoken on the streets. Yet the amount of exposure my son has had to foreign languages at school is approximately zero.
I myself grew up in New York, at a time when there were still neighborhoods where the predominant language was Italian, and others where everyone spoke Spanish. Yet my first language course was not until I reached high school (and it was Latin, which sounds very fancy, but I did not run to a lot of ancient Romans on the street). It was not until college that I took a couple of courses in a currently spoken language -- Spanish.
I am not a psycholinguist, but from my reading of introductory psychology textbooks, I have learned that human beings absorb languages best during the first decade of their lives.
Since my college days, I have listened to countless hours of Spanish tapes and CDs, and even spent what amounts to several months in Spain, Mexico, and Ecuador. I have also listened to hour after hour of Italian recordings, and spent a month or two in Italy. And for the last couple of months, I have listened, and relistened, to French recordings -- every time I took a bike ride, prepared breakfast, washed the dishes, or got into bed at night. As a result of all this, I have learned a lot. I can recognize a lot of similarities between French, Italian, and Spanish. Indeed, there are very few words in French that don’t have a cognate in Italian, Spanish, or English. The French word “cheval,” is nothing like “horse,” but I can immediately connect it to “caballo” (the word for horse in Spanish and Italian), and I can solidify the memory by connecting it with the English word “cavalry.” The French word “juste” is not like the Spanish or Italian equivalents, but even better, it is “just” one step from English.
But despite all these years of studying Latin-based tongues, with its concomitant appreciation of all those linguistic connections, I find myself absolutely unable to understand spoken French (or Italian, or Spanish). Indeed, I am flabbergasted to see 3-year-old children blabbing away with their parents in fluent French, when all I can say is “parlez plus lentement, s’il vous plait!” That means “slow down,” and I must say it to anyone who attempts to respond to any one of the questions I spent 5 minutes carefully constructing in my mind.
Thinking back to my experience with French bakerwoman, she got exasperated with me because I could not even tell her “I’d like that strawberry tarte,” but instead tried to point wildly, whilst repeating loudly the word framboise (which I think turns out to be the word for raspberry).
So, today I bought a book for my 9-year-old called “Journal d’un dégonflé.” From the cover I can tell it is a translation of Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a wimpy kid.” When I return I am hoping to use it to inspire my son to start learning French tout suite, before he reaches high school, when the language acquisition module in his brain is scheduled to atrophy, probably to be replaced by that annoying post-pubertal desire to neurotically conform to whatever the local teeny-boppers regard as cool (usually not speaking a foreign tongue). Hopefully, decades from now, when he is himself an elderly fellow sitting in a French café speaking fluently in the local patoir, he will thank me.
Kenrick, D.T. (2011). Sex, murder, and the meaning of life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. New York: Basic Books.