PARDON MY FRENCH, BUT AT LEAST I’M TRYING

As I write this, I am on a plane to France. On my lap are two books: “French Beyond The Basics” and “The Everything French Verb Book.” I purchased them last week at a U.S. bookstore, along with four French study CDs, none of which I have been able to listen to but all of which are in my bag, as if they might fly out and start playing themselves.

I am doing what I always seem to do when I go to a foreign country: trying to learn the language overnight.

On the one hand, I feel like an idiot (or, as the French say, an “idiot”). You can’t master anything on an airplane – even if you did study it for three years in high school and one year in college.

On the other hand, at least I am trying. I wonder if in 50 years, anyone even will bother.

Once upon a time – you know, like, our childhoods? – learning another language was deemed critical. You were forced into a class as soon as you started high school, sometimes even junior high school. They gave you a textbook with an illustration on the front – the Eiffel Tower, a bullfighter – and you began, for the first time in your life, to learn new, funny-sounding translations for the simplest words you knew.

Je m’appelle- My name is.

La table – The table.

Chapeau- Hat.

They showed you filmstrips and played tapes. You had a teacher who would call you “monsieur” or “mademoiselle.” The thinking was that this was important. It wasn’t that everyone in class had a plane ticket. It was just a sense that someday, somewhere, you might encounter foreigners, you might visit one of those faraway places you dreamed of, and you would need to communicate.

We were learning a survival skill.

Or it least it felt that way.

Perfect mix: Business and English

It doesn’t anymore. TV, movies and particularly the Internet have elevated English to a loftier status, while rendering other languages almost quaint: nice if you want to bother, but, then again, why bother?

Everyone speaks English now. Foreign businessmen coming to America have all mastered “business English.” With trade barriers lowering in Europe, one language became imperative, and you know which language that was. Young foreigners who like American culture have seen enough MTV videos to get by in our country – even if the words they know aren’t our most admirable contributions to the mother tongue.

And as tech services and telemarketing spread overseas, even people in more remote parts of the world are discovering they can get paid by American companies – at superior wages to their national employers – if they just learn the English language.

In short, there is motivation.

But where’s the motivation the other way?

Learning experience: Foreign concept

It is dwindling. And that’s a shame. There is something beautiful about every language in the world. There are phrases that only make sense in that language, sounds that roll off the tongue in a particular way, similes, metaphors, colloquialisms, odd expressions.

There is also something humbling about having to meet people on their terms, instead of expecting them always to meet us on ours. Food may be food, but ordering in a foreign restaurant and having to say, “Do you have mustard?” and only being able to say, “Do you have mustard?” and seeing the waiter say, “Eh?” and having to repeat, only much louder, “DO YOU HAVE MUSTARD?”- well, you can see where the ugly American image begins.

I suspect that in 50 years, people will be wearing devices that instantly translate their English into whatever language their geography requires. I also suspect that the people listening to them will say, “Don’t bother. I can speak English.”

Meanwhile, I am still trying to conjugate the verbs aller and jouer before I land, and trying to pronounce the phrase Quelle joie d’etre de nouveau a Paris. In English, that would be “It’s great to be back in Paris,” but the actual words translate to “What a joy to be new in Paris.”

What a joy to be new. I like that. I can’t pronounce it to save my life. But it’s worth a try, and it always should be worth a try.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign copies of his latest best-seller, “For One More Day,” at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Barnes & Noble, Bloomfield Hills; 8 p.m. Thursday, Barnes & Noble, East Lansing; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Borders, Toledo; 1 p.m. Saturday, Borders Express in Briarwood Mall, Ann Arbor; and 4 p.m. Saturday, Costco, Madison Heights.

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