Je Suis Américain

It was Palm Sunday. A group of us from the Jesuit business school gathered after the liturgy for dinner at the Jesuit residence in Abidjan. The kitchen staff had prepared an assortment of liquors and snacks for us before dinner, including soda bottles filled with nuts and shredded coconut. They do that in Côte d’Ivoire. You can find soda bottles filled with nuts everywhere, from the beach to curio shops at the airport.

When it was time for introductions, we went around the room, saying who we were and something about ourselves. Since I was the newcomer and obviously not a native, people were curious. A novice from Cameroon told me later he had assumed I was French but realized I wasn’t when I spoke. “Je suis Américain,” I said. Then I told them it was a pleasure to be with them and that this was my first time in this part of Africa–French Afrique. As I did, two memories flashed through my mind.

The first was in 1980 when I practiced French at Paul Masson Winery in California with a girl named Heidi whom I eventually married. The other was Miss Plom, my seventh-grade French teacher at PS 51 on Staten Island. One day I had to go to the board to write an answer to a question from our textbook. Instead of writing, “J’ai un chien” (I have a dog), I wrote, “Je suis un chien” (I am a dog). You can imagine the laughter. That was the moment I embarked on a lifetime of foreign language adventure and humiliation.

The interesting thing about adventure and humiliation in a foreign language is that they are almost always the same thing. For instance, I gave a three-day workshop in Brazil in Portuguese that ended up being an English lesson for the graduate students and a Portuguese lesson for me. It had become clear that my Portuguese was not up to the task the first day when I asked them to “pair up.” I was informed in a hushed aside that what I had asked them to do was closer to going forth and multiplying. “Opa!” I said.

Then there was the day I spent in Barcelona with a German graduate student too exhausted from her presentation to speak English and whose Spanish was nonexistent. So, I served as translator from Spanish into German. By the end of a long day of sightseeing, she had me work on my pronunciation of Scheisse as opposed to Scheiße. Suffice it to say that this was a continuation of the theme of going forth and multiplying.

Speaking of Spanish, one day years ago I gave a talk to Hispanic youth and young adults in the Diocese of San José, California. At the time, my lessons consisted of reading Scripture in Spanish and listening to AM radio. What I did not realize was that the station I listened to was heavy into Mexican slang and gang terminology. Not knowing any better, that’s how I spoke to the audience, who stared at me in disbelief. I thought things had gone swimmingly until I was pulled aside during the break and asked to continue in English. Actually, they pleaded with me. “Simón, dude!”

So, because of experiences both painful and memorable, I have come to the conclusion that humiliation is the core of language acquisition. There’s no getting around it. It may even be the core of all learning. After all, if you play it safe, how much will you really learn? This brings me to my own students. Admittedly, I have lost patience a couple of times this semester. They are too timid. But I should probably remind myself that not everyone has the gift of self-humiliation. It has been granted only to a special few.

The kind of humiliation necessary for learning–the roll up your sleeves, wade hip deep into the excrement kind of humiliation–takes time to develop. It is a gradual, formative process that, in the end, will prepare you for any kind of contingency. But not everyone is up to it.

On the other hand, the ensuing years would have been so much easier if I had just written, “J’ai un chien.” Of course, those were also the days when we roamed fearlessly around the neighborhood in paisley Apache ties. On my next trip to Abidjan, I will tell them all about it, en français bien sûr.

This is the third of a three-part series on my trip to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: Rusty Staub, the French-Canadian, New York Mets outfielder, died March 29, 2018. Long live Le Grand Orange!

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