How This Paris Boy Became an American Scholar (Plus a Disquisition on Language Learning)

Here is another escapist story. If the autobiographical genre annoys you, I don’t blame you and don’t read this story.

First of all, don’t wince or grimace. I just said “scholar,” not “eminent scholar,” nor “famous scholar,” not even “respected scholar.” It’s just a descriptive term; the word describes much of what I did for a living. Period.

I grew up on the unglamorous east side of Paris where visitors never go, or didn’t then. My family’s apartment was in a government subsidized project. It was really a project but a good one, well built, well maintained, with central heating and full bathrooms, but no elevators. Graffiti had not been invented yet. I shared a room with two brothers. There was only enough space for one small desk, an important detail in my story.

My family was not poor but it definitely wasn’t rich. Everyone was unimaginably poor in the forties and fifties by the standard of 2022 anyway but, fortunately, we didn’t know what 2022 would be like. France was in a period of economic expansion for much of the time I was growing up. We could almost feel the tide that was going to raise our boats too. We did not have phone service but we never went hungry; we had good medical care. (I did realize though until the French Navy clothed me that I had been cold every winter of my childhood and youth. It was normal.)

And then, there were the schools. It seems to me, seventy years later, that the elementary schools did a more than adequate job. I am guessing that almost all of us came out reading, writing and doing a little more than basic math (including trigonometry). Elementary education was adequate and more for people who were going, in their vast majority, to rise but modestly in the social scale of the time. I seem to recall that half my fellow students quit school at fourteen to become apprentices. The rest -including my three sibling – went on to a variety of schools, many of them more or less vocational. Not me.

When I was twelve, a miracle happened in my family. I passed an exam that got me accepted in a respected, prestigious academic school in central Paris (Lycée Condorcet). It was a combined junior high and high school It’s hard to explain to Americans but it was a public school; there was no tuition. It was a feeder school for the best French universities. Many famous people were alumni. Few children from my part of Paris made it there. (In fact, I never met one in six years.)

As you might guess, there was a social class aspect to this respectability although it was a free public school. I would guess that as many as two thirds of the students there came from bourgeois families, as conventionally defined. Their parents were top managers in big corporations, attorneys for same, or they owned one, or they were doctors, and high-level engineers. (I know quite a bit about those bourgeois kids because around age 14, I began going to parties at their apartments where I discovered wall-to-wall carpeting.) There was even a sprinkling of foreign kids whose parents were diplomats. Some of the bourgeois kids came from private elementary schools; many more came from public schools that were just better then mine that, perhaps, maintained higher standards. Their home environment was probably more propitious to studying in ways that I still don’t understand well. After all my own home environment favored and rewarded studying hard and getting good grades and even “prizes” at the end of the year.* (But maybe, they each had their own desk where they could stack up their books.)

So, at twelve, I had pretty much the run of Paris by subway because the school was far from where I lived. It was good for my maturation. Classes began at 8:30 five days a week, they ended at 11:30 then, began again at 1 to finish at 4:30 four days a week . We had lunch at school. On Wednesday, or Thursday, there was no class at all. There was school on Saturday but only in the morning. On full school days, I chose to stay after class at study hall until 6 or 6:30. That added up to eight hours or more inside the walls of the school, a long time for a young boy.

The study hall was a large single room with ten rows of desks. It served without distinction students from age 12 to 18. You could do pretty much what you wanted in study hall except that you were not allowed to make noise because it might disturb others who were actually studying. So, no talking allowed. For three, or maybe four years, study hall was nearly always proctored by the same man. He was apparently qualified to teach English but he was not part of the faculty. In that elite school, it was not enough to be formally and practically qualified, you had to carry prestige or, at least, the seed of prestige in your attaché case. I think most or all of my instructors had achieved a scholarly degree pretty close to a PhD (“l’aggréegation”). My Spanish professor did not have one but he was a ranking Spanish Republican refugee. My first math instructor possessed that degree and he was also a well published author of fiction. My second geography professor was an expert on American science fiction. And so on.

The study hall proctor was the nicest of men whose function put him in a difficult position: Sometimes, he had to discipline students. As far as I now, he had only one punishment. He made you copy the three main forms of English irregular verbs: “go, went, gone.” How many verbs you had to copy depended on the depravity of your transgression: twenty verbs, fifty verbs, uncommonly, one hundred verbs. After so many hours at school and, perhaps, I was hungry, had low blood sugar, I did not maintain the silence discipline very well. In the course of several years, I must have copied five times three hundred irregular English verbs. Somehow, I did not mind. A part of my brain was smarter than I. (Happens all the time if you pay attention.)

After my second year in that good school, my general performance began to slip. I am not sure exactly how it started but I became gradually disengaged from several disciplines. I often cut the corresponding classes. As befits an elite institution, my school operated on the basis of a loose, ill-defined honor system. It was such that my parents were never made aware of my delinquency. And, no, puberty did not particularly trouble me except for the fact that it took me a while to figure out whether girls liked boys who looked a lot like them or rather, hairy rough types with broad shoulders and even some acne. In those years, there were events and developments in my nuclear family that bothered me and distracted me and these may have played a role in my long and slow fall from academic grace. It started with math which became too difficult for me and on which I just gave up. Then, physics and then, chemistry also dropped off my radar. No one said anything, in part because I was earning the equivalent of straight As in French, later in Spanish and, of course, in English. I was also doing quite well in History and in Geography. I was thus an excellent student to half the instructors; that was good enough for the other half.

Things went from bad to worse. It did not help that when I was seventeen, I had a hot hot girlfriend. She had many assets. One of those was that both her parents weren’t home one day of the week. That was a day when physics and chemistry were scheduled. Of course, I cut school on that day! What would you have me do? In those times, there was a high school graduation exam that also served as an admission ticket to most universities. The exam was then difficult and deliberately selective. I went to take the exam like a sheep to the slaughter. I failed, of course but with excellent grades in History, in French, in Spanish and… in English. I repeated a senior class in high school with the same predictable outcome. In the France of then, it was like social death. I had not been apprenticed to a pork butcher, or attended a graphics high school like my older brother and my younger brother. I had nothing. I was no one.

By some concourse of circumstances right out of a reverse morality tale, about the same time, I received a scholarship to spend one year in high school in California. It was a merit scholarship. I hightailed it to the US. There, I did quite well. I spoke English badly but I understood everything. If I had not been blinded by the humility surprisingly common among young men, I would have noticed that I wrote English better than many of my American classmates. In California, I noticed with interest the wonderful American institution of the community college where just about anyone can go in and the good ones come out to transfer to a real university. So, yes, in case you are counting, I spent three years total as a senior in high school. Nothing to brag about, really!

Fast forward: I am twenty-one and about to be released from the French Navy into which I had been drafted. I have no skills, no particular revealed talent, no diploma, no nothing. I apply for a visa to go and study in a California junior college near where I had spent a year. Long story short: At the community college, I discover I am a late bloomer. I do well, better than well, in fact. I win a full tuition scholarship to Stanford where I transfer as a junior. I do well there too. After graduating in four years flat, I go back to France for a year to work in a very good job, in urban planning. There, I decide I want to study some more. I apply to graduate school, also at Stanford. I get accepted with full tuition fellowship and a stipend.

I performed well in graduate school also, in large part because I could write well. I earned a PhD. A fairly normal and quite respectable academic career followed. (Go ahead, Google me.) The fact that I wrote well and easily had everything to do with the good course of my academic research. My writing made me attractive to others with research skills far superior to mine. They recruited me eagerly throughout. I became a member of star research teams without striving, or even trying. I was very productive with the other guys. I might not have been otherwise. Hard to tell: I only have one single authored scholarly article. It has had a very long shelf life but still, that’s only one.

What does this have to do with my French high school study hall proctor, you might ask at this point? Well, it does; bear with me. Remember that nearly all of my scholarly career took place in a language other than my native tongue. As an immigrant in polyglot and multicultural California, I became well aware of the struggles of diverse categories of immigrants to operate in a foreign language: English. A teacher for thirty years, I also witnessed at close range the struggle of hundreds of US-born college students to learn languages other than English, mostly Spanish and French. I also saw several of my fellow professors try and fail. As a matter of fact, other than teachers of modern languages, I only ever met one (1) Anglo reared in the US who had mastered a foreign language. (The language instructors I encountered were all competent.)

I had many occasions to ask myself: What do the students who fail to learn a language (beyond knowing how to ask for more beer), the monolingual Mexican immigrants who earn half of what they otherwise would, and my few colleagues who tried in vain, have in common? The answer came to me a little at a time and then, it became blindingly clear: They failed to clamber over the wall of irregular verbs conjugations. It’s simple: Those who do go on to learn everything else; who who don’t just give up, mostly forever.

But now, a digression. I am completely convinced that, contrary to an idea that is very widespread in the USA, living in the country of the language one studies is not a necessary precondition to learning it nor is it a miracle cure for monolingualism. If it were, immigrants would learn quickly the

language of the country where they live. In fact, few if any learn it without formal schooling. And, I hate to tell you, college parents, but your children’s expensive “study abroad” stays almost never bear that particular kind of fruit. (they may be useful in other respects.) Your children never come back “fluent in _____,” whatever “fluent” means. How do I know? I interviewed dozens, perhaps hundreds of them (over thirty years) in the weeks and months following their return. None of them could ever say, “If I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have gone.” None! (“Si j’avais su que cela allait être comme ça, je n’y serais pas allé.” “Si hubiera sabido que hubiera sido asi, no hubiera ido.”None!

The main, all-important reason people fail to learn a foreign language is that they give up when the time comes to master more than handful of irregular verbs, or even earlier. Here are two natural and fully representative examples; you may notice that they are about verbs everyone uses in everyday life:

Spanish: Verb to go: Ir

Present: Yo voy

Tu vas

El va (You formal address: Usted va)

Nosotros vamos

Vosotros vais (You, plural)

Ellos van (Ustedes van)

Simple past: Yo fuí

Tu fuíste

El fue (Usted fue) Watch the spelling!

Nosotros fuímos

Vosotros fuísteis

Ellos fueron (Usted fueron)

French: Verb to be: Être

Present Je suis

Tu es

Il est

Nous sommes

Vous êtes

Ils sont

Well, you get the idea!

In summary: There is no articulate sentence without a verb. Verbs have to be conjugated, person by person (I, you, he). In European languages, there are tenses to indicate timing (I am, I was, I will be). If you don’t control both person and tense you can often still communicate but it will be at the level of a five-year-old: “I go yesterday.” That is neither encouraging nor rewarding for adults. It’s also quite limiting.

Now, in my dotage, I think back at my early life. If my study hall proctor in Paris had been a less mild man, he would have imposed a less fruitful punishment; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been more disciplined, he wouldn’t have had occasion to punish me the way he did; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been worse, he would have had me expelled from study hall; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If the boys room in our small apartment in Paris had been larger, I might have had my own desk; I would then probably not have attended study hall; I wouldn’t then be an American scholar. Go figure!

Sometimes though, I can’t help but feel some regret. I am pretty sure I would have made a really good pork butcher. I think I would have been an inspired designer of esoteric pâtés, for example. That’s if my parents had not blindly pushed me toward a classical education. That’s if that study hall proctor had not meddled in my destiny!

© Jacques Delacroix 2022


* In the 1940s, at the end of each school year, the best students in each class of 30-40, were ranked. Those best students, perhaps 1st to 6, st –received a prize in a formal ceremony everyone else hated. The prizes were well chosen books. Books were still expensive then. Once, I received the French translation of Gulliver’s Travels. (Just bragging.)

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