Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates Speak French Before & After Attending Middlebury’s Immersion Program

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free French Lessons

French in Action: Cult Clas­sic French Lessons from Yale (52 Episodes) Avail­able Online

A Map Show­ing How Much Time It Takes to Learn For­eign Lan­guages: From Eas­i­est to Hard­est

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

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.

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