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My Journey of Language Learning: French

(This guest post is by Alexandre Émile Brun, intern, European Reading Room)

Intern Alex Brun and staff member Erika Hope Spencer in the European Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Intern Alexandre Émile Brun and research specialist Erika Hope Spencer in the European Reading Room, Library of Congress, summer 2021.

It all started in the year 2012. I was in the middle of registering for my sixth-grade classes when my father recommended that I take French. At first, I was hesitant and adamant about pursuing Spanish—the most popular option. I reasoned that Spanish was more practical, especially in the Americas, and that all my friends took Spanish. After some more nudging by my parents, I finally relented. I had no idea that the moment I registered for French would be the beginning of a long journey.

Looking back, studying French has been one of the more significant decisions of my life. I am not surprised that I have stuck with the language for nearly nine years. French has allowed me to connect with my heritage. For example, being able to speak the language of my father has strengthened our relationship. French has become common ground for us. On a similar note, I am thankful for the many relationships I have forged by studying French—including my internship at the Library of Congress and an introduction to the Library’s impressive French collections.

"Le petit prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-44) with original artwork by author. San Diego: Harcourt, [2001?]., //lccn.loc.gov/00012999 .

Le petit prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Artwork by author.

Notably, the language has opened up doors to a new world of beautiful and diverse literature. French has allowed me to discover stories from countries across Western Europe, Africa and North America. Many French-language classics have been translated into English. However, I believe that the experience is not as intimate. A few months ago, I read “Le Petit Prince” (The Little Prince), a literary classic, in French. I appreciated being able to read the direct words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It was almost like the author and I were having a dialogue in French, more rewarding than reading the English translation in high school.

Knowing French has allowed me to communicate with more people from a variety of different backgrounds. Even though many people speak English, one usually hears different nuances in another language—whether one travels from Canada to Switzerland to Mauritius. Québec, the predominantly French-speaking province of Canada, is one of my favorite places to visit. Montréal and Québec City are arguably some of the most unique cities in North America with their French ambience from architecture to food.

When I started learning French, I had a slight advantage over my peers. Both of my parents speak the language. While I never grew up speaking French, they were helpful resources during my studies. However, I had to learn the language entirely from scratch. There have been numerous times when I have been utterly confused. For some reason, I had lots of difficulty with direct and indirect pronouns in eighth grade. There have also been moments where I’ve cruised through, mainly with vocabulary. A plethora of words in French have a similar spelling to many English words; so, it’s sometimes easy to guess.

To this day, French classes play a significant role in maintaining my French-speaking, reading and comprehension. Class discussions and daily readings have greatly improved my grasp of the language. I am fortunate to have read so many great French-language books. Here are some of my favorites, with a brief description and suggested reading level.

“Demain j’aurai vingt ans” (Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty) by Alain Mabanckou. Paris: Gallimard, c2010, //lccn.loc.gov/2010553561?loclr=blogint. Book cover.

Demain j’aurai vingt ans” by Alain Mabanckou.

Demain j’aurai vingt ans” (Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty) by Alain Mabanckou takes place in Pointe-Noire, a seaside city in the Republic of Congo. The book recounts the childhood of a boy named Michel during the 1970s. Presented from his perspective, the story is infused with comedic anecdotes, insights into the adults around him, and references to the national and international political environment. Reading Level: Upper Intermediate.

“Aya de Yopougon.” Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie. Paris: Éditions Gallimard BD, 2013. (Aya: Life in Yop City, //lccn.loc.gov/2018297461?loclr=blogint).

“Aya de Yopougon.” Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie.

“Aya de Yopougon” (Aya: Life in Yop City): You have probably heard of the archetypal bandes dessinées (comics) like “Les Aventures de Tintin,” (The Adventures of Tintin), Astérix le Gaulois, (Asterix the Gaul) and Lucky Luke. However, there are other titles such as “Aya de Yopougon.” Partially based upon Abouet’s childhood in the Ivory Coast, this comic book series explores the life of Aya and her peers. Reading Level: Upper Beginner.

“L’opoponax” by Monique Wittig. Paris: Editions de Minuit, [1983], c1964, //lccn.loc.gov/84167591?loclr=blogint.

L’opoponax” by Monique Wittig.

L’opoponax” (The Opoponax) by Monique Wittig follows the day-to-day experiences of Catherine Legrand, a primary school student in France. Wittig uses a stream-of-consciousness, one-paragraph-chapter format. I was surprised by how often I related to the text; it’s almost like we lived the same life. Reading Level: Low Intermediate

When reading these books, I’ve realized that one doesn’t need to know every single word on the page. At first, it is more important to get the gist of the plot and look up some key words in the dictionary. Besides, you may not even need the dictionary because of the context. In any case, I recommend using a compact dictionary. I also suggest perusing the Library’s research guide on learning French through literature, “Reading in French: A Student’s Guide to Francophone Literature & Language Learning.”

If possible, make sure to mix things up with French-language films, music, and engaging with native speakers. Even watching videos in French or changing your phone’s language are great ways to immerse yourself. There is no doubt that French is challenging to learn, but I have found the process to be enriching and rewarding. In some ways, language learning never ends—you are always learning about new vocabulary, grammar, and cultural norms.

Rising junior Alexandre Émile Brun.

Rising junior Alexandre Émile Brun.

French opens many different doors and connects you better with the larger world. English may be considered the current “global” language, but that doesn’t make studying a foreign language less desirable. In fact, in our globalized society, foreign languages are ever more important. Above all, be patient and enjoy the process—both the ups and the downs.

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