The Sculpture of Language

One of the pursuits that occupied, and continues to occupy, a large amount of my time in Virginia is that of practicing French. While I love the theory and practice of learning language, French is one that seems to come to me with little effort. It’s a far cry from the Spanish classes of my middle school days.

Back then, I tried. (really.) But it simply never worked. I always felt a bit stupid, trying to imitate my teacher, a native Brazilian and fluent speaker. She made Spanish sound nice, but the words only ever felt like chalk in my mouth. I could never roll r’s or pronounce v’s properly. I was jealous of my older sister’s Spanish, with its easy cadences and spontaneous feeling. My Spanish sounded like the way I felt when I spoke it: clipped, hesitant, forced.

Contrast that with Level I French in high school. (In New Orleans, eighth grade counts as high school). The very first day, I could hardly believe it. When I wanted to make a certain sound, out it came. Grammar was sticking. Words were practically leaping off the page to explain themselves. The throaty, nasal accent that English speakers make fun of felt smooth as a big spoonful of honey and subtle as wispy curls of smoke. I was so excited! Finally, a language that I could learn without strain, without feeling unsure or embarrassed or frustrated. It was like French and I were a match made in heaven! Or at least a match made in the Académie Française.

Spurred by the success of French, I tried to learn German in freshman year. It lasted only a few weeks. Despite my best efforts, it wasn’t clicking. The hitched, wooden feeling of Spanish had returned. I gave it up. Why? There was no David.

When asked how he managed to make a huge block of marble into his renowned David statue, Michelangelo responded along the lines of “I didn’t make a block into a statue. David was already in there. I just had to get him out.” At the risk of sounding too sentimental, I think the same thing could be said of language. If you don’t have the language in your heart, it’s never going to happen. Even if you manage to push through, it’s not going to be a sculpture that you can marvel at, truly enjoy, and display with confidence. You’ll constantly be second-guessing, noting all the little things you don’t like about it.

Spanish and German were like that for me. David wasn’t waiting to come out. Alas, they were only ever big blocks of marble. I tried chipping away at them, but no beautiful shape was forming, only a lumpy mass. Learning French, I whistle as I work, determinedly chiseling away my ignorance on the way to a masterpiece. It feels as though French is dying to come out of my heart; all it takes is consistent, joyful effort and out it will come. This summer, one of my biggest goals is to work on this sculpture. Maybe you can find one to start working on as well!



“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.”

We see well only with the heart.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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