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Last year, in a restaurant in Congo, I asked a waiter for directions in what I thought was passable French.
“Sorry,” he said in response, “I don’t speak English.”
But as a journalist in Africa, home to most of the world’s Francophone countries, having hopeless French skills isn’t an option. So for seven weeks this summer, I swore off English and immersed myself in language school at Middlebury College.
Still, when my new classmates asked why I wanted to study French, I felt sheepish about learning a European language to talk to more Africans. Why wasn’t I studying Swahili or Wolof, I wondered, Zulu or Yoruba? Yes, French was more widely spoken in Africa than any of those languages. But it was also the language of colonialism, spread by violence and conquest.
But the longer I walked around inside the French language, the more I realized how narrow my perception of the language had been. If French is the language of Molière, Balzac, and Camus, it is also the language of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Mariama Bâ. French’s future, and much of the world’s, is in Africa.
That story had always been there. I just had to learn how to see it.
“So why are you studying French?”
During my early days at Middlebury College’s French immersion school this summer, I heard this question again and again. It was delivered in a wide variety of accents, with varying levels of grammatical acumen, by dozens of my classmates, who like me, had all taken a pledge to only speak French for the duration of our seven-week program.
I asked it too. Of opera singers and doctors. Of doctoral students and jazz musicians. And as I stumbled through these introductory conversations, I learned that there were the students who needed French, the students who loved it, and the students who merely tolerated its presence in their lives.
During my decadelong on-again, off-again relationship with the French language, I had mostly been part of the third category. The apathetic. I always liked the idea of speaking French, which seemed to me wispy and delicate, quieter than English even when spoken at the same volume.
But when it came to the actual speaking, I was hopeless, and I’d mostly given up on changing that. (Last year, in a restaurant in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, I asked a waiter for directions in what I thought was passable French. “Sorry,” he said in response, “I don’t speak English.”)
So why was I studying French, anyway?
When asked by my new classmates, I stuttered over my response, and not only because of my middling language skills. “Because I am a journalist who wants to work in all the countries of Africa,” I tried. “Because I want to write stories that are not a stereotype,” I ventured. “And because French is spoken by many Africans.”
As I said the words, I felt sheepish about them. Here I was, reciting my desire to learn a European language to talk to more Africans. Why wasn’t I studying Swahili or Wolof, I wondered, Zulu or Yoruba? Yes, French was more widely spoken in Africa than any of those languages. Yes, it was the official language of 21 African countries. But it was also the language of colonialism, spread by violence and conquest.
Even as I thought about this, I flung myself into the program. Each day was cluttered with four hours of class and as many of homework, plus two dozen extracurricular activities en français, from a student radio show to aqua aerobics. The primary effects, at least at first, were daily headaches, the result of hours feeling my way through conversations I’d only half understood. How do you dkzklgwe? Someone would ask. Yes? I’d reply.
French words, as anyone who’s studied the language knows well, aren’t crisp. They begin strong, and then frequently dissolve without warning in the center, leaving a string of unpronounced letters trailing behind them. At the same time, sounds seem to melt together, creating sentences that felt to me less like a string of individual words and more like water rushing from a tap, a continuous thing with no discernible beginning or end.
Il a mis le pied, a French person might say. ”He set foot.” Or had they said il a mille pieds, meaning ”He has a thousand feet”? Hard to say, because the pronunciation of those two sentences is identical.
Not to mention – there never seem to be enough consonants to go around. “Il a haï Haïti,” my phonetics CD prompted me to repeat one July afternoon. “He hated Haiti.” But even as I tried to repeat the phrase, I’d already made up my mind. I would never hate Haiti, or know anyone who did, because there was no way I’d get through a sentence that sounded like this: ee lah ah ee ah ee tee.
Still, I began to notice that with every passing week, the world was cracking open a little wider. One day, I learned the past conditional. In the days that followed, suddenly, the world was full of regret and reproach. You could have gone. I should have done it. Another week, I wrestled the subjonctif, which I was told was not a verb tense but a verb mood, meaning that it expressed not when an action was happening but what you thought about it. The subjonctif told you something was wanted, it was regretted, it was necessary. The subjonctif was the expression of desire, and of longing. Like so many things in French, it made no sense to me, and it made so much sense to me at the same time.
And the longer I walked around inside the French language, the more I realized how narrow my own perception of the language had been. If once it had been the language of the French, it now belonged as much – if not more – to its other speakers.
There are more francophones in Congo than in Belgium or Switzerland. There are far more African French speakers than European ones. If French is the language of Molière, Balzac, and Camus, it is also the language of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Mariama Bâ. In 2014, a study by a French investment bank claimed that by 2050, French could be the most spoken language in the world, largely because of demographic booms in francophone Africa. The study assumed that everyone in countries where French is an official language is a French speaker – far from the truth. But one point isn’t up for debate: French’s future, and much of the world’s, is in Africa.
Inside the French language, I realized by the end of the summer, is the same kind of story I like to tell more broadly: of resistance, rebellion, and reappropriation. Of people taking something forced upon them and making it their own. That story had always been there. I just had to learn how to see it.