A few years ago, I discovered my journal from Mr. Petty’s first grade class. It was buried deep inside a box labeled "My Memories. Don’t Throw Away!". The entries were hilariously simple, along the lines of:
Yesterday my grandma came to our house and she gave me a doll. It is pretty and it has a red dress and long brown hair. I want to bring her to show-and-tell at school but I can’t because Oscar chewed off her leg. My sister thinks it’s funny. She is mean. Oscar is my dog. He is so cute but now I am mad at him. Then my mom let us eat ice cream for dinner. Wippie hippie!
As I struggle through French class each and every morning, trying to comprehend verb tenses, pronouns, prepositions and sentence structure, I can’t help but envy that 6-year-old kid who had it so easy. As kids, we learn languages without even thinking about it, without realizing what the heck we are doing. We speak and write in the present tense, past tense, future tense, conditional. We use pronouns and possessives and prepositions, and we don’t even know we are doing it.
As an adult, it’s a whole different story. Learning a language is an exhausting process – one that can be humbling, painstaking, and at times, downright humiliating. As I try desperately to learn French, I feel like a child again. Only one with a severe learning disorder.
It’s hard enough trying to comprehend exactly where to place the pronoun or the preposition in a French sentence, but to make things worse, I am sitting there in class thinking... what exactly is a preposition, anyway? Mr. Petty never covered that. He didn’t have to, because we didn’t need to know. Well Mr. Petty, it may have been a GOOD IDEA to teach us kids these minor details, because I would really like to be able to speak French in a way that doesn’t get the response of blank, confused stares and questions that translate as "HUH?"
My homework assignment for the day: use the conditional tense to describe what I want out of the next 5 years of my life. This type of question came often as a kid, only less time-specific: "what do you want to be when you grow up?" But as an adult learning French, my immediate response is: um, excusez-moi, what exactly is the conditional tense?
Diary entry of a 6-year-old, learning to write in English:
What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I grow up I want to be a truck driver and drive all over and talk into the cb radio to other truck drivers. I would stop at truck stops and eat apple pie with ice cream every single night. I think it would be really fun. When we go on trips in the car my dad talks into the cb to other truck drivers and it’s really funny. They all have funny names. My sister is mean. She never lets me sit in the front seat. I hate her.
(Note the above use of future tense, conditional tense, present tense, and probably a whole bunch of prepositions and pronouns and other things I can’t identify in English.)
Homework assignment of a 36-year-old, learning to write in French:
Write a brief composition about what you would like to do in the next 5 years of your life, using the conditional tense.
In the next five years, I would like to do many things. I would like to learn to speak French perfectly. Also I would like to learn another language, maybe Portuguese or Arabic. I would like to spend some time living in Buenos Aires, and I would like to travel throughout all of Brazil. If I earned more money, I would buy two apartments, one in New York and one in Paris, because I want to live in both cities. Also, if found the time and motivation, I would write the history of my life so far and I would be a very famous writer.
Oh man, I am exhausted! Writing this brief paragraph (in French, mind you) takes serious mental exertion. I wonder if it was this hard when I was 6?
Well, lucky for me, I am not 6 anymore – nor am I about to get back on the road to drive my truck route tonight - which means I get to reward my hard work with a big ol' icy cocktail. In the present tense, not conditional on anything.