How to Learn French, Swedish, Spanish
July 20, 2019
“How about Italy?” she said.
I was lying on my friend’s couch. It was 2010. Los Angeles. I was 20, visiting from University in Boston.
That year I had stopped playing competitive tennis. I had a spinal injury. I was depressed.
“You love food,” she said.
2007. High school. End-of-the-year evaluations. My Spanish teacher sat me at a desk in the back of the room, away from the other students. She opened a manila folder with my final course grade, and then closed it.
“You have great tenacity,” she said.
“But you’ll never learn a foreign language.”
“It’s just a small application,” she said. “You’ll finish it by the afternoon!”
On the plane to Italy I sat next to a girl my age, knees shaking, scratching her wrist. She was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My father died on September 11th,” she said.
We held hands. And we took Italian together.
That summer we practiced Florence.
Fast forward to 2012. I studied more Italian at the Middlebury Language School. A couple teachers there helped me with my application to be a high school teacher abroad. I moved to Crema, Italy. The town is now known for the Oscar-winning movie “Call Me By Your Name.” Some days I’m jealous. If only the director had spotted me years ago! Seeking male 18-24 American, speaks French and Italian.
I speak French because I moved to Bordeaux.
Because why not?
My roommate was a grandmother. I still remember her first email to me:
“Malgré my advanced age it’ll be a pleasure to pick you up from the airport.” What does malgré mean?!
Despite. She was 74.
She stewed the best fig jam. Little dotlets of confitture and hot yellow butter, glistening against a crisp o’clock baguette.
My new grandmother got sick. She had to stay in the hospital for several weeks. She couldn’t swallow properly. I should’ve noticed. All the little yogurt spoons in the dishwasher.
I had to leave France when she was still in the hospital. She held my hand.
“Go, go, adventure!” she said.
I left for Los Angeles, a Master’s program. When I finished, I thought I was moving to Sweden, a fellowship I was applying for, a project between Portugal, Sweden and the United States.
I had to learn Portuguese and Swedish, enough so that I could pass the speaking portion of the B1 proficiency exams in both languages.
I touched every word I could find, working with online teachers, making sure I made that girl on the plane, and my French grandmother proud. Go, go, adventure!
If I listed to you the languages I now speak, it would sound arrogant. But to recount the sequence of events that make me feel like any language is possible, I turn to the territory of the heart.
It’s quite random, who opens us. It would be easy to say that my high school teacher’s ignorance was what fueled me to learn many languages. Perhaps a little fuel. It’s a more profound idea to say that the ultimate compassion of friends, teachers, and strangers transform us. It’s not one individual who lets us learn. It’s the fragile edges of connection, from a sofa to a girl on a plane to a malgré grandmother, all who expressed self-love and towards-love simultaneously. Not romantic love, but a spiritual love, surfaced through the language of kindness.
Kindness is not about the expectation of others. I was a New England kid who expected to stay in Boston my entire life. I was expected to never learn a language. Ignore the preconditions. Start listening to the language of kindness – “how about…?”, a child’s cry, the goodbye wave – as open acts to start a conversation. Language then becomes living – the courage to sit with others, which is a bodily language, a language of our senses, which I’d argue is the easiest way for us to learn a language, to be an expat.
Resistance to foreign culture isn’t necessary when we’re close to the senses of others. Spoons in a dishwasher aren’t just spoons. It’s a physical memory I can recall. A relationship tied to a breakfast table. Jam is sweeter, adventure more of a quest than an itinerary. More words absorbed than “do you speak French?”
I speak what needs to be held, with hands, with my eyes, with my stomach. That’s real multilingualism. In fountains, gardens, kitchens, courts, alleyways, with the falling leaves, and flowers blooming. That’s real learning.
Go, go, adventure.
Joshua Kent Bookman is a writer and artist. Like the characters of his book, “close to elsewhere,” he calls several places home, and has worked in France as an agricultural laborer, as a high school teacher in Italy, and tennis instructor in the United States. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1990.
“close to elsewhere” was released this summer by the Swedish publisher LYS. This is Bookman’s first novel.