Some of my oldest friends are fellow language learners I “met” in books and wish I could talk to in real life. I’d like to introduce you to as many of them as I remember. Maybe we already have some friends in common! Let’s start with someone I’ve known since childhood: Sara Crewe from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
From Chapter 2
It’s Sara’s first day in boarding school. Her teacher Miss Minchin has just handed her a very basic French book for beginners. Sara tries to say that she does not need to study French, because she already speaks it, but Miss Michin refuses to listen. Only when the French teacher Monsieur Dufarge arrives can Sara explain herself.
“Is this a new pupil for me, madame?” he said to Miss Minchin. “I hope that is my good fortune.”
“Her papa . . . is very anxious that she should begin the language. But I am afraid she has a childish prejudice against it. She does not seem to wish to learn,” said Miss Minchin.
“I am sorry of that, mademoiselle,” he said kindly to Sara. “Perhaps, when we begin to study together, I may show you that it is a charming tongue.”
Little Sara rose in her seat . . . She looked up into Monsieur Dufarge’s face with her big, green-gray eyes, and . . . knew that he would understand as soon as she spoke. She began to explain quite simply in pretty and fluent French. Madame had not understood. She had not learned French exactly — not out of books — but her papa and other people had always spoken it to her, and she had read it and written it as she had read and written English. Her papa loved it, and she loved it because he did. Her dear mamma, who had died when she was born, had been French. She would be glad to learn anything monsieur would teach her, but what she had tried to explain to madame was that she already knew the words in this book — and she held out the little book of phrases.
When she began to speak Miss Minchin started quite violently and sat staring at her over her eyeglasses, almost indignantly, until she had finished. Monsieur Dufarge began to smile, and his smile was one of great pleasure. To hear this pretty childish voice speaking his own language so simply and charmingly made him feel almost as if he were in his native land — which in dark, foggy days in London sometimes seemed worlds away. When she had finished, he took the phrase book from her, with a look almost affectionate. But he spoke to Miss Minchin.
“Ah, madame,” he said, “there is not much I can teach her. She has not LEARNED French; she is French. Her accent is exquisite.”
“You ought to have told me,” exclaimed Miss Minchin, much mortified, turning to Sara.
“I — I tried,” said Sara. “I — I suppose I did not begin right.”
Chapter 2 is called “The French Lesson”. The irony is that the teacher is the one who gets the lesson! It’s a different sort of language lesson. But as we also find out in Chapter 2, Miss Minchin gave up on traditional lessons. She never really learned French — and it makes her short-tempered around French learners who aren’t giving up!
What I would say to Sara
If I had to pick the first topic, it would be language learning. (Is anyone surprised?) I’d tell her that I thought of her a lot during my very first French classes. Learning French is so much harder than already being French. I remembered her again when I found Khatzumoto, who wrote things like, “You’re not a foreigner; you’re just a remedial native speaker.” (Source) What would it take, I wondered, for someone to say of me, as Monsieur Dufarge had said of Sara, “She has not LEARNED German; she is German”?
But before Sara and I had language learning in common, we had loneliness in common. Her father’s wealth, her Indian upbringing, and her unique way of seeing the world were like walls between her and her classmates. A few years ago, a friend who had also read A Little Princess remarked that Sara’s problem was that she had no peers at her school. Even the three girls who become good friends to her are not her peers. I knew exactly what he meant. It had nothing to do with money or social status or other traditional divisions. It had everything to do with traditional connections not doing their job.
Take language, which is supposed to help us connect with people. In Sara’s case, and in mine, it mostly divided us from them. French was a wall between Sara and Miss Minchin; English was a wall between my grade school classmates and me. In circa 1980s Philippines, it may have been a status symbol among grownups to have a child who spoke English better than Tagalog . . . but among children, it was just strange. Although Sara had never been to the Philippines — and although her father had never intended to raise a “designer” child — I think she would understand perfectly.
But A Little Princess is not a totally sad story! In the second half of the novel, Sara finally has a chance to use her knowledge of languages . . . and her upbringing . . . and her imagination, to make a real connection. I won’t say more about that, however, because it’s a big spoiler!