The Atlantic: ‘How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination’

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  05.30.13 | 7:56 AM ET

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a lovely short essay about traveling to Switzerland to study French, and the wonder of being immersed in the foreign:

I started studying French in the summer of 2011, in the throes of a mid-30s crisis. I wanted to be young again. Once, imagination was crucial to me. The books filled with trains, the toy tracks and trestles—they were among my few escapes from a world bounded by my parents’ will. In those days, I could look at a map of some foreign place and tell you a story about how the people there looked, how they lived, what they ate for dinner, and the exotic beauty of the neighborhood girls.

When you have your own money, your own wheels, and the full ownership of your legs, your need for such imagination, or maybe your opportunity to exercise it, is reduced.

And then I came to a foreign language, where so much can’t be immediately known, and to a small town where English feels like the fourth language. The signs were a mystery to me. The words I overheard were only the music of the human voice. A kind of silence came over me. I would hear snatches of conversation, or witness some strange way of behaving—the bartender’s reply, in French, of “Service” after you thank him for a drink—and wonder would take over.

I studied four hours every day at the school. Class began promptly at 8:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. back in New York). I nursed a nasty bit of jet lag, but wonder drove me. Hearing a foreign language is like seeing a postcard from some other land, even when you are actually in that other land. I experienced my ignorance of words and grammar as a physical distance, as a longing for something that was mere inches away. In that gap, there was all the magic of childhood.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

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