I came to MIT to study math. Surprise. Modern math doctoral programs enforce the study of a foreign language. This is because there are significant intellectual contributions written in other languages, especially French, German, and Russian. In this regard, I am fortunate I chose MIT, since they only enforce the study of one foreign language while other schools like Berkeley and Princeton require two. To my Canuck counterparts from Québec, a French requirement is a welcome amusement. For me, French is a torment. Once a forgotten part of my past, this language has been awakened from the grave, seeking revenge from many moons ago.
Growing up in a bilingual county, French was a required class from grades four to nine. In practice, this really only required the knowledge of several key words such as “buts” (goals), “pénalisation” (penalty) or “rondelle” (puck) in the event that only the French CBC covered the Montréal Canadians (pronounced Mah-ree-al Can-eh-diens) hockey game. Such a situation arose during the 1993 playoffs when Montréal played the then Québec Nordiques. Since every movie case, cereal box, and government form came branded in English and French, I decided to be a good Canadian by adding grade 10 French in lieu of geography to my high school curriculum.
Shortly after completing French that year, I saw a poster reminding me of the verb “savoir.” I had a rush of joy, for I would never need “to know” that nauseating verb again. (Get it?) I was simply weary of French after having to write 100 words about an experience in my life. Maybe I just felt that passé composé could kiss my …
Well, that rush of joy has run its course, because I’m now attempting to convert “je savais français” into “je sais français.”
In anticipation for the MIT language requirement, I decided to sit in part time on an introductory French class. I attended the first day, planning to leave half way through to try and catch my (more important?) math class on time. Well, like everything else at MIT, even French classes are on steroids. In one hour, I didn’t hear a lick of English — every command, every word, was spoken in French. In addition, I was blocked off from the door by an interactive forum that forbade my escape. Instead, I sacrificed the first half hour of math to avoid the embarrassment of awkwardly easing out of my seat and catching the attention of ma professeure.
As the class dwindled to an end, we submitted a form revealing our personal background. While handing over the form, the professor casually asks me, “Ça va?”
Okay, this was one of the first French phrases we learned in grade four. In fact, we were taught to respond with one of four options: “Ça va très bien,” “ça va bien,” “comme ci comme ça,” or “ça va mal.” Instinctively, I coughed out a quick “ça va bien.” She looked at my sheet “Ooh, grade 9-10 French,” and immediately jumped to the conclusion, “Oh, this class is too easy for you.”
I felt queasy — are you kidding me? I haven’t taken French in seven years. This class is already injected with juice and you think it’s too easy? She continued to gaze over my sheet and read, “Why am I interested in this class: PhD requirement.” Her response: “C’est dommage.” She’s right; it is too bad. As I left the class, I saw two of my mathmates arriving for the 10 a.m. show. “Good luck,” I said. Walking down the hall, still shocked from the experience, I couldn’t help but smile and think that I’d probably learn the best French of my life here.
Now here’s the kicker. I spent a good portion of my time in grade 10 French doing math. Now years later, when I am supposed to be doing math, I must repay the time and learn some French. How did this happen?