Beth at Cassandra Pages has posted an entry that does an excellent job of recounting the kinds of interactions that can defeat us when we’re trying to operate in a second language, and the way it makes us feel:

“It doesn’t matter how long I live here or how hard I try,” I said to myself, miserably, “I’ll never master this language completely, and I will never, ever fit in….”
As I thought about it more, I decided that it wasn’t so much an inability to make myself understood – for I’m pretty good at that, using language or not – as it was not being able to understand others, and how humiliated I feel when they instantly switch to English, or turn their backs – whether the gesture is real or only felt. The switching, I’ve found, is often Canadian politeness, and most people will continue in French if you tell them you’re trying to learn and improve. I recognized that discomfiture was also coming from a bruised ego. I am not only a word person, and someone who wants to communicate and know other people, but I’m an over-achiever, and I can’t stand feeling stupid or unaccomplished, especially in this sphere.

I know exactly how she feels, and there’s a certain relief mixed in with my chagrin that I’m no longer living in a city where I always had the opportunity to actually practice my languages. It’s so much easier just to read them.
Addendum. Compare La Coquette‘s adventures in French, courtesy of Tatyana in the comments below.


  1. I’m so much a language person (and an auditory learner)that it’s gotta be spoken language or it doesn’t count. Read it? No way. I want to hear it, follow its speakers around in the supermarket (if it’s Russian and there are now hoards to follow around, unlike a few years ago), jump into taxis when I travel just to speak it with a captive audience, go into stores and ask for stuff just to practice. Reading it is a poor substitute for the real thing. I won’t make any sexual illusions here, parce que je suis une fille bien élévée.

  2. Trying to master a new language as an adult can certainly be an infantalizing experience. The nuance, the play, the confidence of speaking in one’s mother tongue — these things are almost impossible to achieve. But I agree with Toby. The rewards are really good, in a different way, when things start to come together.
    By the way, La Coquette says there’s no subjunctive in English. Sure there is.

  3. Yes, couple of commenters pointed that out to her, and that’s what she says (in the comments to follow):
    …In other news, THE SUBJUNCTIVE EXISTS! I believe you! What I *meant* to say is that we have to conjugate all sorts of things using the special subjunctive endings in French, when you could just use the normal infinitive/other tense form in English. The ones I never mess up because they’re so frequently used: Faut que j’aille, faut que je fasse.

  4. Thanks. I guess I got tired of the pep rally before I reached those comments. What I had in mind was actually those verbs like suggest and demand which are quite common and essential to English and which are almost impossible to use without the subjunctive. I’m not making any comparisons between this and the French subjunctive, though. I’m sure La Coquette is quite justified in finding very little in English to help her improve her command of those forms in French.

  5. The subjunctive is increasingly optional in English, too.
    When I’m reading French the subjunctives can trip me up because some of them are very slightly differentiated from the expected form. “Fasse” and “aille” I would catch.

  6. Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t see what’s the big deal with the French subjunctive compared to the Spanish subjunctive. And for the record, I’m referring to contemporary, spoken standard Latin American Spanish (lo que yo hablo) and conversational French as used in the streets of Paris. Nothing literary or scholarly, so pleasae don’t tell me there’s really a past subjunctive in French, too. I never hear it.
    Yet the Spanish present and past subjunctive are part of anyone’s daily conversation. Both the present and past subjunctive must be acquired and used by anyone attempting fluency in español.
    The Spanish subjunctive is more inflected in the present than French subjunctive (que yo vaya, que tú vayas, que él vaya, etc.)
    An example of the past subjunctive (which seems to be acquired by native speaking children by around age six, is the following: Mi mamá me dijo que llegara temprano, or my mother told me to come early.
    Actually, when I realized that it was My mother told me that I should come early, or two clauses linked with that, nailing the subjunctive became easier in SPanish.

  7. I agree — the Spanish subjunctive is every bit as alive and well as the French.

  8. Ummm, I’m fascinated! Thank you for the link, too.
    “I got tired of the pep rally”–*cracking up* Yes, we personal bloggers do tend to rally around/support each others rants.
    But I do enjoy having an expert linguist’s comments on my site. (Especially as you put those purists in their place. Nicely done.) Merci mille fois, Language Hat.

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