Inspirer means “inhale” in French. It also means “inspire”.
This part of learning a language — the part where you actually have to use it all the time — is strange. Before, I would say “yeah, I speak French,” and I always felt like I was making steady progress in the language. But now that I’m here, I feel like the difference between really speaking a language and learning it is like the difference between living with a person and seeing them once a week. You may have thought that you knew them well, but now you’re learning their secrets and subtleties, and you realize that before you were less than halfway there. Some of the new stuff is charming, some annoying, and some just makes no sense.
I sat on a bench in the Metro and a man came up to me and began to speak to me. I thought he was asking for money, so I said “sorry” and walked away. When I left, he said in a very friendly way, “Well have a good night then, eh?” It took me a minute to realize that before, he had actually been telling me that I was on his sleeping bench and that I should move.
Learning French has made me learn about my own inconsistency. Sometimes I can understand and sometimes I can’t. My accent is passable and then I sound like John Kerry. I surprise myself and say something articulate without thinking about it, and then it takes five minutes for me to say something simple. In class I listen to every word carefully, and then I realize that I have no sense of what the words mean strung together. I have it, then I don’t.
Having to speak a foreign language all the time has made me pay closer attention to people speaking English as a second language. Does the quality of their accent change a lot? Actually, yes it does. I never noticed before. It’s funny, because when I’m with a French person who speaks English, it’s hard to choose which language to speak in. Both of us want to be comfortable, but we also both want to practice.
One night, after I’d just finished dinner, I got a text message from a friend asking if I was still coming. It was Tuesday and she’d invited me for dinner Thursday. It turned out that she’d gotten the two English words confused.
When I got there, another guest named Kim smiled and said in English, “Don’t worry about it. Sometimes Clem gets confused with Tuesday… Thursday, FRIDAY, SATURDAY, SUNDAY!!”
Somewhere during the meal we ended up discussing the differences between the French words for sparkle, shine, and glow. The words are “briller,” “étinceler,” and “scintiller,” and although all these words are in the same category, you can’t translate them exactly. Sometimes “briller” means “glow” and sometimes “shine.” But it’s French, so it’s possible to get it wrong.
“It’s not important,” said one of the boys, “sparkle, shine, glow…”
“It’s good to know, though,” said Kim.
“Yeah, I like knowing,” I said. “Inspirer, that’s like breathing, right? But it’s also like, to be inspired?”
“Yeah, it’s both.”
“That’s kind of poetic.”