Sometimes, a small action on the part of one can instill a lifetime of pursuit and passion on the part of another. The occasion may come about as ordinarily as is passing of the hours in a day and this transformation of grand measures may be as transparent as shining glass between the two people in question. Yet the powerful impact of this small action is undiminished. The small action on my mind is my grandfather’s last conversations with me in Turkey and this gift of a lifetime was the transfer of his love of that most exquisite language of all, French, to me.
During Iran’s better days, I had been admitted to the L’École Française in Tehran at the ripe age of 3 but then the 1979 Iranian revolution came about and put a damper on my education by shutting down anything foreign, civilized and educational. Revolutions of this kind are a master at ruining dreams and plans. It is thus that my mom’s dream of me learning to speak French early on with a Parisienne accent went up in flames overnight.
She may have managed to get over it. I did not.
The Early Influence of Multiple Languages
When living in Turkey, I had to become fluent in Turkish fast (fluent enough to hold my own among students, translate for the parents AND get a passing grade in geography and other classes!), elementary German (Turkey has a disproportionately large German influence) and English (thankfully, this was also taught!), while we continued to speak and communicate in Farsi at home. Challenging yes but I still much preferred these to the difficulties of learning Arabic in Iran.
Languages seep in and out of your life at different rates. The learning – the seeping in – is painfully slow while the forgetting – the seeping out – is unfairly quick. Constant practice is the only way to retain the skills and yet hardly practical unless you live in the environment that demands it of you day in and day out. Today, I remember but a few words in Turkish and German and I have no recollection of Arabic but I managed to hold on with iron grips to the good old English and my Mother Tongue, Farsi, continues to thrive thanks to my renewed appreciation for it.
Whether I remember everything I learned or not is inconsequential to the larger change that was taking place. During our 3 year sojourn in Turkey, these exposures to various languages at such a young age created an affinity of languages in my mind that has grown stronger every passing year. I cannot begin to imagine being limited to one single language in the course of my life. Can you?
Even so, these languages were simple infatuations and just the start of a sweet journey. I had yet to fall in love.
Enter: My Grandfather and Le Française (French)
Winter 1986 – A time of sad remembrance and a lasting impression.
We welcomed my grandfather and grandmother, two most special people, into our home away from home in Ankara, Turkey. A highly educated man in physics, mathematics and the sciences from the best schools in Paris where he published text books, he was also superbly fluent in French. He had wanted the same French influence for my Mom who received a complete education in French in Iran and Paris. There used to be a large influence of French culture and language in Iran; I used to compare it to that of German in Turkey, neither of which I ever truly understood and both I found fascinating.
As always, he came prepared to his last visit with us. I have, in the photo above, the gift that he left behind for me: His 1952 French-English/English-French dictionary, badly torn and about to fall apart from years of over-use, and yet one of my most endeared possessions to this day.
With this dictionary, some paper and pencil, he taught me my first words in French. After each lesson, he would tell me to run off and show off my new phrases to my Mom and grandmother. He shared something he loved with me during this last visit and this something happened to sound exquisitely beautiful in my ears. All the other languages paled in comparison. They were tools; this was beauty and class, romance and style, a world of fantasy and royalty, to my 12 year old perception. This was perhaps a way to reclaim that which had been taken from me at 3; I had taken the first steps to resume my French again.
What’s more, I felt important when I spoke French, inexplicable as this may sound even to myself. I felt proud, I felt good, I felt feminine, and all this made my beautiful grandfather smile. He, who in his brilliance picked the queen of romance languages, managed to transfer this passion to me effortlessly. I remember the way he expressed his wish for me to learn French then. It was a matter of course, not a discussion, a family tradition more so than an education. That I should learn and speak and be fluent in French was implicit and obvious to him and that was reason enough for me then and it is enough now.
This small encouragement on his part, this sincere desire to please a grandfather I would never again see, this growing obsession with the most beautiful language of all, all of this is part of that crystalline transformation resulting from the small actions. Actions which have propelled me forward over the years to make room for French in my life. Actions which have played a part in the person I have become and in the choices I have made.
Why do I love French so? Is it because French is an innately beautiful language or is it the sweet tender way it made its entrance into my life and set up permanent home in my heart? And does the answer really change the bond and commitment I nurse for it? I cannot help but wonder at times what a solid education and unique experience I would have received as a little girl at the hands of the French Catholic nuns at L’École Française, how differently I would have learned, how fluent I would have been. Oh the longing for what would have been, what thoughts and reverie we entertain at times. All the same, I have made my peace with what would have been.
I believe with my heart and soul, departed as he may be from this earth, my grandfather just knows I stayed true to my French, that I continued to pursue it throughout my education and beyond, and that I practice and strengthen and reap pleasure from it every day. With that, I am at peace and to my genius grandfather, eternally grateful.
The opportunities for learning any language are abundant today and so I direct my energy to learn, to strengthen, to reinforce my French language skills every day. It is the ultimate fulfillment of a promise and a duty to myself – that I would indefinitely continue the passion transferred to me and perhaps today, I have transferred some of that passion – a passion to learn a new language, to rekindle an affair with an old one, or to do both – to you. Wait no longer! Learn a new language today!
“The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language.”
– Ezra Pound
This is the first post in a Language Series topic. The purpose of this series is to offer you a new perspective and compelling reasons to learn new languages by sharing my stories and the best practices in my experience.
To drive you to action, in the next post in the series, I will offer you a list of compelling reasons on why you cannot afford to live fully with exposure to only a single language in your life so stay tuned!