The many fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates, longtime Atlantic correspondent and author of books like The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me (not to mention his more recent role as a writer of Black Panther comics), know a thing or two about the trials and tribulations he went through to become one of America’s best-known public intellectuals, but fewer of them know how intense a battle he’s waged, over the past few years, on the side: that of mastering the French language in his 30s and 40s.
“I’m taking an hour a week to try to teach myself French,” Coates wrote on his blog at The Atlantic in the summer of 2011, explaining that his wife “went to Paris five years ago and loved it. She wants me to go back with her, and I want to go. But I refuse to do so until I have a rudimentary understanding of the language. This isn’t about impressing the French — I expect my accent to mocked — it’s about how I interpret the world. Language is a big part of it.” After starting to dig into the Foreign Service Institute’s French materials (available free in our language-learning collection), he crossed out the word week in “an hour a week” to replace it with day, already sensing, no doubt, the unexpected demands this particular language would make on him.
“ ‘Et alors’ is similar to our ‘So what?’ But ‘Et Alors’ doesn’t simply sound different, it feels different, it carries another connotation, another music,” he wrote in an early 2012 follow-up. “I don’t know if that means anything to people who don’t write professionally, but for me it means a ton.” It seems only right, he concluded, “that a writer should explore languages and try to spend time with as many as he or she can. That I should arrive at such an obvious conclusion at this late date is humbling.” And so he pressed steadfastly on, memorizing French vocabulary words and grammatical structures, taking classes, meeting with a tutor, and after receiving his first passport at the age of 37, studying and practicing in real Francophone places like Paris and Switzerland.
Coates stepped up to a higher level of French skill — and a much higher level of French challenge — when he signed up for Middlebury College’s seven-week French immersion program, throwing himself into an environment of much younger and “fiercer” classmates without the possibility of leaning on his native language. When he sat down for the four-minute video interview at the top of the post before shipping out to Middlebury, he later revealed, “there were several moments when I didn’t even understand the question.” No such problems when he sat for another short conversation after the seven weeks, captured in the video just above: “What changed most at Middlebury, for me, was not in how I talked, but how I heard.”
Though Middlebury clearly helped push him forward, Coates doesn’t seem to consider participation in such a program a requirement for even the ambitious French learner. Maintaining the right attitude, however, is non-negotiable: “I expect to suck for awhile. Then I expect to slowly get better. The point is neither mastery, nor fluency. The point is hard study — the repeated application of a principle until the eyes and ears bleed a little.” Grappling with French has taught him, among other life lessons he’s written about, “that it is much better to focus on process, than outcomes. The question isn’t ‘When will I master the subjunctive?’ It’s ‘Did I put in my hour of study today?’ ”
How you feel about your process of study, Coates emphasizes, “it is as important as any objective reality. Hopelessness feeds the fatigue that leads the student to quit. It is not the study of language that is hard, so much as the ‘feeling’ that your present level is who you are and who you will always be. I remember returning from France at the end of the summer of 2013, and being convinced that I had some kind of brain injury which prevented me from hearing French vowel sounds. But the real enemy was not any injury so much as the ‘feeling’ of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about children and their language advantage. I don’t want to hear it. I just don’t care.”
After less than a year of studying French, Coates found, his brain had begun to “hunger for that feeling of stupidity” that comes from less-than-satisfactory comprehension. “There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it,” he wrote in a more recent reflection on his ongoing (and now surely lifelong) engagement with French. “Everyone should do it every ten years or so.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.