New Words.

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My students inevitably all ask the same question: when did you become fluent in French?

It’s one that can’t be answered, as you don’t cross fluency like a finish line, don’t pass a test of Knowing All Of The French. You just realize little by little that it is easier and easier to be understood. You recognize milestones accomplished in the other language, from navigating official paperwork, to building friendships, to standing your ground in whatever irritating French situation you are in that can only be resolved through vicious rhetoric. I feel like I walked through these milestones the year I lived and worked in Paris, but that isn’t to say that I haven’t seen my French improve since then.

Because studying a language is a blissfully endless process of learning new words, words you didn’t know you needed to know until you need to use them right then. I have all the words I usually need to use on a daily basis, but every now and then I find myself going back to the dictionary to find a word that needs to attach itself to a new thing, a new feeling, a new place.

Words like oursin – sea urchin. When we walked through the village of Sète last week, we stared into crystal waters and saw jelly-fish (méduse) drifting their diaphanous disks above multitudes of sea-urchins. I taught them the word for jellyfish, but I laughed about the urchins and admitted that I didn’t know the word because I had never needed to know it. Several hours later, when I was limping out of the perfect aqua colored water at the beach, I wished I knew the word. If I had known it, I could have hobbled over to the hard-core beach goer with scuba gear and asked if I should be actually concerned about the urchin spines lodged in my foot making it swell up and burn, or if my student was overreacting when she suggested it might need amputation. After some frantic Googling and a round of gelato for all, we headed back to Montpellier with the certainty that I would live, and with a new vocabulary word- oursin.

Words like salins – salt flats and flamant rose – flamingo. If I had known them, I could have better described the sight that stretched before us as we stood on top the ramparts of Aigues-Mortes, gazing out at pink marshes and spotting pink birds dotting the swamps. The man driving our little bus offered the words up, pinning thme in our brains to both fields and birds of pink.

And when we rode horseback down the beach, watching the sun glisten off the impossible blue water and spread across the untouched white sand dunes, I feel like I was missing more words than I had. Equestrian words like hooves and bit and post, the last of which our guide yelled back at one point, but in her southern French accent so strong that I have no clue what she said. The words mixed in with the cries she would yell at our horses, and sounded like a strange sort of music or chant, fitting to the beautifully desolate dunes and marshes of Camargue.

And when we wandered around the old market at Uzès, there were so many vegetables I had never seen before, so many fish whose names escape me. So many words that I want to know and use and eat.

But I feel like I need other words too, and I’m not even sure in what language I want them. I just find myself coming up short in describing how rich this past week was in all its sights, smells, tastes, and sounds. It’s like I told my students as we stood in front of paintings that we didn’t understand earlier in the week: sometimes you just have to feel it first, and for a while, before you know how to talk about it.

I guess I’ll just have to keep finding new words.

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11 Responses to New Words.

  1. streckerme says:

    this is achingly beautiful, and makes me want to renew my german studies. must keep learning.

  2. Anna says:

    Hannah, you are KILLING it lately. I want you to come home, but it’s obvious that France agrees with you! 🙂

    • Hannah says:

      And I agree DEEPLY with it. But I am pretty sure that by the end of these 6 weeks, I will indeed be ready to be home. Donuts! Pool dates! Summer fun! Dissertation research! [One of these things is emphatically NOT like the other]

  3. Sarah says:

    This makes me yearn to wander around France!

  4. Carol Young says:


    Your pictures are lovely. I am hopeful you are sending them to Nat Geo.  Your stories are lyrical and informative. Your Shot Photo Community — National Geographic

    |   | |   | |   |   |   |   |   | | Your Shot Photo Community — National GeographicWelcome to Your Shot, National Geographic’s photo community. Our mission: To tell stories collaboratively through your best photography and expert curation. Show u… | | | | View on yourshot.nationalgeo… | Preview by Yahoo | | | |   |

    \ Je pense que tu est joyeux!:)   Je t’adore et bon vacances.  (am not checking grammar or spelling. grace for me ma cherie)

    God bless,(Aunt) Carol  Carol Therese Young

  5. Ashley says:

    You really are killing it with the pictures and blog posts these days! All other blogs are boring to me right now, haha. I kind of wish we were best friends and I was over there with all of you. ALAS! But I *did* check out la fregate L’Hermione which sailed from France in April and is temporarily docked in Old Town. It’s about as close to French influence as I’m going to get for now! 🙂

    • Hannah says:

      Ah thanks! I promise…. it will very soon get boring over hear once I finish my travels abd get back to my exciting summer of dissertation research. : / I hope that L’Hermione is still in Old Town when I get back… I want to see it!!!

  6. Pingback: Annecy. | The Art in Life

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