Today, as promised, I’m going to introduce you to a friend from Six Sundays long ago, Mira. You met her when I posted a snippet of her desire for discipline and then a snippet of the aftermath of her first discipline from her tutor.
I posted the blurb yesterday with the book release announcement, and so today it’s time to start with a little confession.
It’s all my mother’s fault that I can’t speak French.
From the time that I knew there was such a thing as a foreign language, I wanted to learn it. Them. All. Everything. I grew up in a decidedly monolingual town in a decidedly monolingual state, and my decidedly monolingual parents never learned a foreign language.
(Listen carefully. Can you hear the sound of a child’s heart cracking?)
I begged to join the after-school French club in elementary school, only to be told no. I consoled myself by poring over A Little Princess, asking for a French-English dictionary as a gift, and teaching myself what every French word meant. Frances Burnett was quite nice about putting the French words in context so I could guess even without a dictionary. Then there was Ballet Shoes with its lovely French teacher, Madame Moulin. I learned my first French sentence when she admonished twelve-year-old acting student Pauline that an actress can learn until her last hour. N’oubliez jamais qu’une actrice continue a apprendre jusque’a son dernier jour. (Sorry for the lack of accents. Ballet Shoes is also responsible for my love of Citroen cars, but that’s a story for another day!)
Then in junior high, I got to take a Foreign Language Survey class. Bliss! One semester of Latin, French, German, and Spanish taught in four separate units so we could get an idea of which language we wanted to take the next year.
I despised Spanish because it was popular. Three-fourths of the students chose Spanish because they thought it would be easy. I have come to appreciate the beauty of Spanish as an adult, but at the time I was horrified at the thought of doing something that everyone else was doing. (I am sure you are shocked that I wanted to do my own thing.) German was fun, but I shied away from the harsh guttural sounds.
Latin, however, was an instant soul mate. Even better, only a few students wanted to take it. Latin and I had five years of a love affair before I got to college and realized that the professors only wanted me to translate endless accounts of Caesar’s battles.
I knew I would take Latin.
I knew, also, that I would take French.
Every other student chose one foreign language plus home ec or shop. (Yes, it was that kind of school.) I had my heart set on my two foreign languages, though, and I even got the blessing of both teachers. I was the kid who never took her nose out of a book. Of course they wanted me in their class.
Every student had to get class registration forms signed by parents. It went something like this:
“Mom! Mom! I’m going to take French and Latin next year!”
“I can’t wait! Mr. Latin teacher and Mrs. French teacher said Latin is more about the written and French is more about the verbal, so it’s okay to take both at the same time!”
“What about home ec?”
“I’m not going to take home ec!”
Guess who ended up taking home ec?
I’m still bitter.
To add insult to injury, our homework consisted of things such as, “Make a beverage consisting of at least two ingredients. Make a sandwich consisting of at least two fillings.”
Did I mention that I am still bitter?
By the time I got old enough to qualify for the high-school beginner-level French classes, the class had been dropped due to lack of interest. By the time I got to college, my schedule was too crammed with major and general education classes to make room for French.
I could have been great. I could have been a translator, interpreter, a diplomat or…
Mira, on the other hand, in Desire in Any Language, goes after her dream. She shares my disdain of an upbringing that has left her ill-equipped to pick up a foreign language, and she struggles to catch up. Here is a snippet of Mira in class:
Annoyed, I doodle in the margin of my textbook. The grammar of each lesson is easy and the reading comprehension easier, but the rapid-fire conversation is hard to follow. Most of the other students grew up at least hearing other languages in their home. I grew up with English only. Stupid Americans.
Although Mira is a party girl at heart, enjoying the wildness of night clubs and the various alcoholic drinks available, she also yearns to become a translator. This is a small scene once she has decided to buckle down and study:
Ah-ee is annoyed when I reject each offer to go out at night. “You used to be fun,” she complains. She doesn’t understand that she can learn reading a lot faster than I can learn listening comprehension. All she has to do is memorize some vocabulary and correct her spelling. Growing up in a multi-lingual home gave her a fantastic ear for both content and pitch. She sounds like a native speaker when she opens her mouth, and even if she can’t spell half of the words correctly she can figure out the meaning of reading passages if she concentrates very hard on context. I’m not top of my class in reading no matter how hard I work, but it’s the one subject I am sure I will pass. It’s the devilishly difficult listening class that I can’t comprehend.
I stay in the media lab after class every day struggling to match the garbled gobbledygook coming through my headset to the printed transcriptions in my textbook. When each question is designed to deliberately trick us, how can I ever get it right? I memorize the transcripts in a vain attempt to make sense of the words, but the recordings blitz by even when I know the words. I am the first student in the media lab after class and the last to leave. At first the room monitor checks my desk every few minutes to make sure I am not sleeping or messing around, but by the end of the week I arrive to find that she has my usual cubicle ready with my class CD in the player.
“Thank you!” I beam in surprise, and she pats my shoulder.
Tune in for more posts about “Getting to Know Mira”. I’ll be running a series of snippets and thoughts about her story in the days before Blushing Books releases Desire in Any Language on January 18th.
It’s all my mother’s fault that I can’t speak French.
Mira, on the other hand, overcame her monolingual background. Good for you, Mira. 🙂