By Yining Su
(Editor intro: In her essay about struggling with the French lagnuage as an English-speaking Canadian, Yining Su tells of the shortcomings of her early education and shows us that sometimes, even when standardized tests are wildly inaccurate, they may know us better than we know ourselves.)
How did I end up here? How did I get myself so deep into this? Those were the thoughts that went through my mind as I sat in front of my midterm French exam. During the following hour and a half, I was expected to read a poem by Charles Baudelaire and write a five hundred-word analysis on it. In French. So, how did I end up there?
Five months before that midterm, I had gone to my college gymnasium and taken a little test that would determine my level of French. The test contained relatively easy and not so easy grammar questions as well as questions about my education in French. I had been to French schools from kindergarten up to the sixth grade, before attending an English school until my graduation from high school. I answered as much in the questionnaire and I suppose from that, I was assumed to have a superior level of French; after all, I lived in Montreal, a francophone city, and had French as the language of instruction in my education up to age of twelve. In those five years at English school, I doubtlessly took an advanced French class, right?
The truth was that whoever went over those tests generously overestimated my high school’s facilities. There was only one French class at my high school, and it was dangerously easy. In fact, it was designed for students who did not speak a word of French and who barely spoke any English. The most basic grammar was being taught to students who, after three years, still could not conjugate être and avoir in the present tense. In such an environment, I languished for five years. At the same time, I was busy forgetting my French in other aspects of my life. I watched no French television and no French movies, listened to no French musicians, read no French books. I had no francophone friends, and I spoke to clerks in stores in English only. My French became rusty with disuse.
After a while, I could no longer deny that my command of the French language was deteriorating. My friend from elementary school told me, after I spoke to her in French, that I had an (horror!) anglo accent. People I spoke to in French would change to English for my benefit. One day, I realised that I didn’t know how to say the letter “K” in French. It was pathetic.
And yet, first semester of college, there I was in the really hard French class. How did I get here?! Well, it might have something to do with the fact that everyone else I know who could speak French fluently purposefully botched his or her placement test to avoid taking the really hard French class.
On the first day of class, our teacher, the youthful and flamboyant M. Duval handed out a poem by Baudelaire and asked us to write a short analysis. Panic overcame me as I read it. Something about an albatross getting mocked? So this is what being terrible in a language class feels like. I’d forgotten. I wrote some gibberish and handed it in, sure that come next class, I’d be sent out and down a level.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t. On the second class, my teacher told me that I was weaker than the others, but that I could stay. I’d have to work hard, though.
Those sixteen weeks of class were quite an experience. I learned plenty of things, such as the plainly ridiculous rules of French verse and the general characteristics of major literary movements like Romanticism, Surrealism, Naturalism, Realism, Existentialism and Dadaism. Somehow, during that term, we managed to read three plays, one novel, at least ten poems, we watched one play and one movie and we listened to three songs. I read writers I never dared tackle before, like Dumas fils, Jean Cocteau, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, as well as many others. Best of all, I read them in French.
It wasn’t easy for me. There were plenty of times where I felt like the stupidest person in the room. I nearly failed that midterm. Often, I couldn’t string two words together to form a question to say to the teacher, not to mention write a coherent argument on paper.
Ultimately, though, I was glad I stayed in the really hard class. It brought me to the classics of French literature. Sartre and Camus no longer seem so impossibly remote and difficult to understand. I now speak French with much more ease and confidence. And the only cost was the worst mark I’ve had in French since the sixth grade.