French Lessons: Bad Days

Jackie DesForges Petit PalaisYou will have bad days where you can’t remember the right word for anything.

I’ve never had to tell myself something like this before. I’ve always been able to find a word — or, more likely, thirty words and several commas — for whatever it is I’m trying to express.

When you’re normally pretty great at words and you’re trying to learn a new language, the good days feel normal and the bad days feel BAD. The good days feel normal because you expect to be good at it — you go into class with confidence and maybe even (dare I say it?) excitement. Class! Homework! You are great at these!

But when you have a bad day, you’re almost indignant about it. You thought you knew that rule. You never mess up that type of conjugation. The rule must be wrong, not you. ALTERNATIVE FACTS!

I had a bad day last week. I’d been so proud of myself before I arrived at class that day because I’d been taking the initiative to do some exercises in my workbook BEYOND what had already been assigned, because I am forever the annoying kid in class who does things like that, and because I find the workbook exercises very soothing. I think maybe they are my version of sudoku.

But when I got to class, I couldn’t remember the word for anything. Every time I tried to guess the gender of a noun, I was wrong. Every time I was sure I had just said a sentence correctly, it turns out I’d used the completely wrong article after the verb, and these are errors that tourists commonly make, so I knew I sounded completely like a tourist. My pronunciation was off, I was forgetting conjugations I already knew. It was 90 minutes of straight mistakes.

I’m usually fairly gentle with myself when I’m trying to learn something new. This is because I’m not a fast learner — I was one of the last on my volleyball team to learn how to overhand serve after what seemed like countless hours of swatting volleyballs at the garage door night after night; I often pre-studied for study groups in high school and college because it takes longer for me to memorize dates or get the hang of certain concepts.

But language has always come so easily to me. I got straight A’s in Spanish in elementary school and straight A’s in French in high school. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a bad grade in an English class because if I had, I might have thrown myself off a bridge — I’ve also always been quite adept at melodrama, which I guess is its own language in a way.

But now, on my bad days, a French toddler could better express to you my weekend plans than I could.

It’s humbling and frustrating at best; it’s reduced me to tears in the bathroom once, at worst. On my bad days, it feels like I’m never going to reach a point where I can call myself fluent in French. On my good days, it’s comforting to remind myself that I probably already know much more than I think I do.

And anyway, on my bad days, these feelings of frustration allow me to rage-eat these coconut cookies I recently found at the grocery store near my apartment, so at least there’s always that.

(Speaking of coconut and mistakes: once I tried to say coconut in French, which is noix de coco, but I accidentally said nuit de coco, which means night of coco, and so now if I ever become famous and make a terrible celebrity perfume, you’d better believe I’m calling it Night of Coco)