How learning French made me a better writer

How learning French made me a better writer.jpg

Merci, Papa

Thank you, Dad.

In honour of Bastille Day, I’m giving a shout out to my dad for encouraging me to study French at high school.

Oh, how I hated those terrifying conversation assessments and mind-boggling grammar tests. I definitely didn’t have ‘an ear for languages’. I’ll never forget the way my French teacher crinkled his nose in despair when I grossly mispronounced a word (which was pretty much every time I tried to say something other than bonjour).

Yet I persevered. An arts and humanities student through and through, I gave up maths and science as soon as I could in favour of English, history, geography and photography.

Dad told me I had to keep French in the mix so I’d have “at least one practical skill”. (You can imagine his face when I told him I was going to do an Arts degree).

But I’ve got to give it to Dad, he was onto something. Little did I know then that learning French would make me a better writer.

Against all odds, I passed high school French and decided to take a paper at university, just to see if I could hack it. One paper became another, and I ended up majoring in French – much to my high school teacher’s amusement, I’m sure!

Learning language is like becoming another person.
— Haruki Murakami

I still don’t feel as though I have ‘mastered the language’. In fact, I think that it’s impossible to ‘master’ any language – even your native tongue. Language is slippery and ever-evolving. It defies perfectionism.

What I did learn was how to approach language from a grammatical perspective. This may be a reflection of the New Zealand education system, but I don’t remember learning English grammar at school. I ‘just knew’ how sentences were meant to be structured, without being able to explain why.

Before I could learn French grammar, I had to understand English grammar. Studying French prompted me to delve deeper into the structure of my own language, and therefore helped me become a better writer and editor.

And that’s without mentioning the other benefits of learning a foreign language – such as how it shapes your imagination and expands your horizons. Studying French opened up a whole new world of expressions and beliefs. I believe you can’t claim to understand a culture until you can speak its language. So much cultural identity is wrapped up in words.

I would encourage everyone to learn what they can – pick up a few words here, watch a few subtitled movies there. Even if you don’t have aspirations to be a better writer, learning another language will make you a better person – and I promise, the adrenalin rush of accessing a previously ‘hidden world’ is worth all of the headache-inducing grammar tests.

Happy Bastille Day!

And thanks again, Dad. I’ll keep you on.