Tears for Fears
Updated: May 21, 2021
As a teacher, I’ve pushed my students to tears on several occasions. Lest this paint me as a tyrant, dear reader, I’ll specify that this is never my intention. No, while I am exacting and sometimes demanding, I also strive to be understanding and fundamentally human: Think stern but loving mother.
(Little Sophie models studiousness with her Méthode Boscher and the poster of Jean Vigo's 1933 short film Zéro de conduite.)
Which is also why I don’t mind when people begin to get frustrated and overwhelmed, nor am I particularly surprised. I know how easy it is to cry. I know it ultimately has little to do with me. I can usually see the signs in advance, and I attempt to change tacks, but sometimes the dam breaks. My students - intelligent and successful adults who have the drive and passion to take weekly (and sometimes daily) French classes to better communicate with their partner, dive into a culture they love or advance an international career - are usually aghast that they’ve let themselves get so worked up. They apologize, for their sudden surfeit of emotion, for the perceived failures that led to it.
How could I not understand? I’ve been driven to tears too many times in voice lessons to judge my students for their own frustration. (And let’s not pretend that only tackling the highs and lows of a virtuoso art form has the power to turn me into a puddle. I’m very happy to cry at the humiliation of being too slow to order at a counter, burning my breakfast toast, letting a hat fly off my head…)
Of course they want to cry. Most adults aren’t required to be students in their daily lives. Particularly, while they probably have to expand on and deepen their skills as part of their careers, they’re certainly not faced with the wretched vulnerability of being beginners. Suddenly, they’re transported back to their school days. (1) Even on a purely technical note, most professions don’t require learning how to move tiny, invisible facial muscles to make new sounds while memorizing slews of mysteriously spelled words.
Many American adults are saddled with a traumatized aversion to grammar. They tell me they don’t understand it, without really knowing what this thing they so fear really is (the best movie monsters are usually the unseen ones, after all). Setting aside reasons related to mediocre school systems or overly standardized teaching methods, there are also perfectly “good” reasons people don’t engage with grammar as an overall concept. English, for all its similarities to French, simply doesn’t rely on the same seemingly endless bouquet of endings and concordances. If you come from a language that has only one or two discrete forms per tense for most verbs (for example, to have: I/you/we/they have; he/she/it has), it’s understandably daunting to come across conjugation lists that look like they’ve metastasized (compare to avoir: j’ai, tu as, il/elle/on a, nous avons, vous avez, ils/elles ont). If you’re not used to grammatical gender, why would you have the instinct to learn an article with every new noun you encounter? (2)
If becoming fluent in French only demanded learning a different word for each piece of vocabulary in your mother tongue, the task would already be an onerous feat of recall. Unfortunately, however, it’s much more complicated than that, because translation isn’t a one-for-one replacement game. Aside from the demands of bulky, rote learning, the most vexing part is that some linguistic elements would require learning at all. Why is there gender, why verb moods? Students, especially if they previously knew only one language, have to dissect their assumptions of what language is and how it’s “meant” to work. So they do learn grammar, differently than they ever have, even if they previously had a “good” education. What was once a series of proscribed equations becomes something more conceptual and dynamic, a bone structure to language whose morphology has as many possibilities as there are people in space and time. Grammar, in my humble and admittedly biased opinion, becomes magical.
The difference between the imparfait - a continuous past tense - and the passé composé - a definite one - is a notorious source of relatively introductory frustration. Anglophones, while they themselves have tenses, must come to terms with the fact that they can’t simply follow the logic of pastness as they know it in English. That “I didn’t like oysters when I was a child” (Je n’aimais pas les huître quand j’étais enfant) isn’t the same as “I didn’t like the oysters last night” (Je n’ai pas aimé les huîtres hier soir).
Students want formulae: this English construction will translate to this French one; this expression means that. But the overlap is at best partial and temporary, a meeting place of two swatches of fabric. So I tell my students, from their earliest interactions with the language, to think in French as much as possible, to avoid the desire to make every phrase correspond word-for-word with English. This is another deep well of frustration: I’ve rendered their worlds simplistic and devoid of nuance. They’re now trapped within the confines of their linguistic prowess, when they have the desire and intelligence to say so much more! (No wonder small children so often throw tantrums.)
Believe it or not, my method doesn’t stem from some urge to torture those in my charge, even if I do regularly make that joke when encouraging “my next victim” to speak. Certainly, it’s a result of my background as a French person whose schooling was probably more structurally rigorous, as an avowed and passionate Latinist, as a good classical singer and a mediocre ballet dancer. All worlds that favor technique, precision and proper rudiments. It also reflects my particular personality and approach to learning: in orderly data sets conceptualized into larger theoretical applications - a way of thinking that doesn’t match everyone’s, and doesn’t need to.
It is, however, my hope that the frustration I sometimes unleash onto my students is a fundamentally useful one. More than feeding them practical phrases, I want to give them the tools with which to approach learning language in general and French in particular, with or without me. Above all, perhaps to express themselves from a different vantage and find their personalities in a different idiom, perhaps stripping away the accepted clichés of their current means.
It’s telling that most of my students, although typically around my age or older, imbue me with an authority I don’t quite deserve. They wonder if they should come to class when they haven’t done their homework. They ooze guilt when they haven’t prioritized French learning during a particularly busy week. I constantly find myself assuring them that, although I encourage or even entreat them to practice regularly, I have no desire to admonish or shame them for not finding the time.
These differences are hardly singular to French, but I argue that they’re particularly difficult to remember in a language where so many spellings sound identical. Italian grammar is in many ways identical, but it’s simply easier to remember endings and genders when you can tell them apart by ear (compare the Italian [tu] hai, [lei] ha to the Gallic tu as, elle a, which have exactly the same pronunciation. French grammar and orthography are head-achingly arcane and intertwined, and a source of great frustration for us native speakers, too, through years of childhood mistakes such as j’ai manger and je vais mangé, underlined in red pen with streamlined reproach.
(This is a copy of an essay I've published on my substack: subscribe to receive my pieces directly in your inbox.)