The Textile of Language

(The River Maine at sunset)

Angers has welcomed me with open arms.  The beautiful small city has been filled with activity over the past few weeks, with Les Accroche-Cœurs (an arts festival that took over the entire city for a weekend), the European Heritage Days, where all museums and monuments in Europe were free to the public, and, of course, the Rentrée – the beginning of the academic year in this city of over 20,000 students.  The 50 or so that I have become friends with hail from across the globe, Argentina, Chile, Madagascar, China, Honduras, Bulgaria, France, Mexico, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, and Russia to name a very select few.  My ‘official’ program has yet to begin, but for now my days are filled with French courses all shapes and sizes – French as a foreign language, methodology of written and oral French, French textual grammar, etc.  Though anxious to dive into the wine-related course work, I am extracting great enjoyment out of these classes – particularly out of the progress they hopefully represent – and am truly beginning to gain an appreciation for the importance of those nitty-gritty little grammar rules we all love to hate.

          At its crudest level, where communication of basic needs can be realized, language is like a quilt.  Even with a relatively elementary grasp of a foreign language, we are capable of picking and choosing the swatches we need and piecing them together in a patchwork that, while it may not look pretty, serves a utilitarian purpose.  You could say that I spent the past year, while I was in France and in Chile, wrapped up in a quilt.  But now, I am back in classes and realizing that those grammatical particulars are exactly what gives you a tighter and tighter weave.  Mastering the differences between the imperfect and passé compose gives you a crudely woven burlap, but when you add the correct use of the subjunctive your weave becomes a little tighter and suddenly you have a nice tweed.  But language can become something more.  A mastery of grammar gives us access to the subtlest signals and cues embedded in the language, working together to create the most delicately woven silk.  In language, so much is communicated through subtlety.   It is not only the choice of vocabulary, but the construction of phrases, of sentences, the use of tenses, pronouns, moods, all of these things that we never even think about in our mother tongue but weave together a subtext so fine, so lustrous and smooth that we don’t even recognize its existence.  But when you are learning a foreign language this subtext is often lost, unattainable, because of an inadequate grasp of the seemingly trite and pedantic grammar rules.  But this is the dream.  The dream, the motivation, to study, is to be able to weave a silken conversation that glimmers with the subtlest of connotation.  All things in time. 

(First in-class wine tasting!… so I guess it hasn’t ALL been about the grammar…)

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