Once a month I try to practice my French at meetings of people who want to speak or who actually do speak French at “meetups” organized here by Alliance Française. Alliance Française is very active here in Eastern Virginia because they have meetings not only in Chesapeake where I live, but also in the neighboring cities including Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, and Williamsburg. I could drive also at least to the meetings in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, it takes about twenty minutes most of the time, but I hate driving during rush hour, so I go only to the local one.
One meets all kinds of people there. This week I was sitting next to an older gentleman whose name I don’t remember now. I don’t remember it because it was an Armenian first name, and I am not very good with Armenian first names. He told me that he was 87 years old, born in Egypt where he attended lycée Français. This was many years ago, of course, but he still speaks very good French (better than mine), except that just like me, he has nobody to practice it with.
He told me that he speaks 5 languages: Armenian, French, Italian, Arabic, and English. I am pretty sure that he really does speak all those languages because he lived and worked in a number of countries where he was able to practice speaking them to his heart’s content. His favorite language is Italian, he told me, and he goes to Italy every year because he has friends there. At home he speak English because his wife is American and that is the only language that she speaks. He still drives, he gave up smoking 40 years ago, but he does like to drink: wine, beer or whiskey. “Every now and then, but not every day”, he said.
He also said that he exercises on a stationary bike and with some weights at home. I must try to remember all of that. If it works for him, it could work for me too.
He did not look 87 at all. I would have guessed maybe 75, if that much.
The ladies sitting next to us immediately started asking him how long he has been married, and then they immediately started going:“oooh”, and “aaah”, when he told them the number, I think it was sixty something. Being married for many decades to the same person is considered a real prize for some reason. I was going to say something like “Oh, well, after the first thirty years or so, most people simply give up”, but fortunately for me, we were speaking French and I could not come up quickly enough with the right way to make it sound funny in French.
There were exactly 20 people in that restaurant, ranging in age from 16 to 87. There were two 17-year-old high school students who looked like high school sweethearts. The boy spoke pretty good French (for an American teenager). One woman in her early forties was there with her 16-year-old daughter, so the daughter was the youngest person there. The rest of them were in their forties, fifties, sixties, and about three people were probably in their seventies.
Immigrants are usually well represented at meetings here where people go to practice a foreign language. Across the table was a woman from Montreal, next to her a woman who was born in Haiti and used to live in Virgin Islands, and then there was also a man from Vietnam. This was my third meeting and so far I saw only 2 French people at these meetings. We don’t seem to have a lot of French people here.
We were sitting at two long tables, the first table was occupied by “beginners”, namely people who would like to learn the language, but don’t speak it yet. There were about 10 people at that table, all of them Americans born in this country, mostly in their fifties and sixties. The only French I heard from that table was from a “prof de français”.
My table was more colorful, as I already mentioned, at least as far as different age groups and nationalities are concerned.
The big problem with foreign languages in United States is that they are so damn useless here. If you live in Europe, the next country where another language is spoken is usually only no more than a couple of hundred kilometers away. But here, you would have to get on a plane, unless you live near the Mexican or Canadian border.
Unless you happen to be a translator, there are not too many jobs here where one would need a foreign language. Unlike in translators’ associations in other countries, most members of the American Translators Association are in fact native speakers of another language than English.
Most people who were born here simply don’t bother learning a foreign language. They don’t know what they’re missing. They don’t know, for example, that being bilingual or multilingual helps to prevent or at least to postpone the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists have finally discovered that a good way to make sure that your brain will be in perfectly good working order by the time you are 87 is to learn a few languages in addition to your native one. Two languages is a good start, but four or five would be a really good number, the more the better.
It is also best if you exercise your body as well as your mind, not too much, but frequently, and also, do not neglect drinking either: beer, wine, or whiskey is best if you want to be able to drive well into your nineties.
But remember: no drinking when driving, and you should probably also not drink every day, that would not be good for you either.