This entry describes how I came to be a member of "Le Cercle Français".
The United States has a disadvantage compared with most other countries: pretty much everyone around us speaks the same language. I know that this is in many ways an advantage, but from the point of view of language study, it's not. It's one reason why US citizens are so poor at foreign languages. People learn what is useful to them, and for the everyday living of most Americans, foreign language study is not worth the effort.
Even when they travel, Americans find they don't need any language other than English, which has become almost a world language (and it managed to do this despite its bizarre spelling - see my entry Linguistic lunacy). Hence even for travel, putting in the major effort required to learn another language is hardly worthwhile. And after having learned a foreign language, it's hard to maintain it in the United States, because you seldom hear it spoken, or have a chance to speak it. Thus the old joke,
- What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
I've written about some of my experiences in a language study group in Pau, France, in 1961. Note 2 I followed up by obtaining a technical training job ("un stage téchnique") at the Eléctricité de France in Clamart, France, near Paris, in 1964. I was immersed in French that entire summer, and my French improved immensely (see my Entry "Le stage"). But once I was back in the US, disuse caused it to deteriorate substantially over the next 16 years.
Thus, in 1980, I decided to brush up on my French by taking an adult education conversational French course, given by Wayland Adult Education. The instructor was a Wayland French teacher named Marguerite Brynjolfsson.
At some point in the class, the teacher asked each of us to speak in French for a few minutes about something - anything we wanted, just to get us talking. One of the students, a woman named Marta, who had a Spanish accent, talked about her son's preparation for the New York Marathon, coming up in a few days. Her son had been a talented long-distance runner in High School, and she told us a bit about his preparation for the race. She then added that he seemed to think he had a good chance of winning. Given that he had never before run a marathon, this seemed dubious to her. She figured it must have been something he said to himself to prepare psychologically for the contest.
It turned out that Mme. Brynjolfsson was leaving the next day for a trip to Switzerland. The following morning, she woke up in a hotel room in Geneva, and turned on the television set just in time to catch the sports headlines. The reporter noted, "Hier aux Etats-Unis, Alberto Salazar, de Wayland, Massachusetts, a remporté le marathon de New York" ("Yesterday in the United States, Alberto Salazar, of Wayland, Massachusetts, carried the New York Marathon"). Mme. Brynjolfsson started jumping up and down and cheering in her hotel room, and she then ran out to buy some newspapers to learn more about the event.
The Cuban woman in our French class was Marta Salazar, Alberto's mother. His New York win made Alberto a famous runner, and he later went on to win two more New York marathons, and one Boston.
At the end of the class, Mme. Brynjolfsson noted that my French was pretty good, and she suggested that I might be interested in continuing my study by joining an informal discussion group that met once a week in Wayland. Mme. Brynjolfsson had for a time been a paid tutor for the group, but it was now continuing on its own. That's how I came into what I later dubbed Le Cercle Français, although at the time, I don't recall that it had any name at all. Note 3 And I've participated in the group ever since.
In the early days, meetings were every Wednesday, and there was a core of members who attended almost every meeting. Many spoke several languages. The remarkable Jerry Holland, who could read eleven languages, was a man of wide-ranging interests and knowledge. Carlotta Higley was British, but had lived in Latin America (Ecuador, I believe), and had worked for the British Secret Service during World War II. Marthe Mulvaney (who has a blog entry of her own) was French Canadian and grew up in Quebec, but spoke her flawless English with an Irish accent, having learned it from Irish nuns. Elisabeth Beltran grew up in Columbia, but was from an aristocratic Russian family. In addition to Marthe, I may write entries in the future about some of the other early group members mentioned in this paragraph. Alas, in the thirty years since I joined the group, all of them have died.
Our meetings rotate around the members' houses, with the host serving light refreshments, coffee, and tea. After I got my first home computer in 1984, I started sending out mailings announcing the meeting locations, and I gradually became the de-facto organizer of the group. Note 4 I began charging $15 a season (we always suspended our meetings during the summer) to receive the mailed announcements, to cover my costs for postage, paper, and ink for my inkjet printer. Messages were customized using the "MailMerge" feature of the WordStar word processing program, so that each one had a postal address on it. These were then either stuffed into a window envelope, or, later, simply tri-folded with the address on the front, stamped (first class), and mailed.
It wasn't until the mid 1990's that e-mail became prevalent enough for me to drop the snail-mailed announcements, and switch to e-mail (Elisabeth Beltran was the last holdout without e-mail). Since the messages were now free and immediately delivered, I could also poll to see who intended to attend. This changed the nature of the group somewhat, promoting more members who attend only infrequently. But polling messages allow us to continue meeting over the summer - if not enough people can make a meeting, it is just canceled. In addition to my weekly e-mail messages (the poll on off-weeks and the announcement the next), I also maintain a web page with basic information about the group, and a schedule of meetings.
I forget when it was that we reduced our meetings from every week to every other week. Then, when I started studying Spanish, I started a Spanish conversation group on the off-weeks of Le Cercle Français (it was called "El circolo de habla hispana"). Oddly, it was the Spanish group that proved unable to sustain itself, while the French group goes on. I say "oddly" because Spanish is a much more useful second language in the US than French. But perhaps there are also more avenues available for practicing your Spanish.
Le Cercle Français is just what I need to keep my French fresh. Now, when I go to France, I can "hit the ground running" - I can speak French and understand French that is spoken to me without much difficulty, even though French is a rather difficult language to decipher (see my earlier blog entry "L'Accent tonique").
My meetings of Le Cercle Français have been something I've looked forward to for thirty years now, and are an especially welcome activity now that I've retired. Language study remains my most significant hobby. Italian Monday, Spanish Tuesday, and French on Wednesday.
The nearby town of Framingham has a lot of Brazilian-born residents, and the best second language to study around here is Portuguese, actually. But I think if I tried to study another Romance language, my brain might explode.
Note 1: If you look to see who is best at foreign languages, it's people whose own language is pretty much useless outside their own country. The Scandinavians excel, for instance. A Danish citizen who steps outside the borders of Denmark discovers that his native Danish is pretty much useless, and he had better speak something else. The Finns are so well taught in English that I've often mistaken them for British.
The French have been traditionally bad at foreign languages because at one time, French, the traditional diplomatic language, was everybody's second language, and the French didn't need to learn anything else. That's changed now, and the French are of necessity changing too. But I once heard the above joke told about the French. [return to text]
Note 3: I originally called the group Le Cercle Français de Wayland, because I stole the name "Le Cercle Français" from another group of the same name that I had been a member of in Cambridge (Massachusetts). But I gradually dropped the Wayland part of the name.
I recall once attending a sort of "mixer" run by the Cambridge group. To help people meet, the men all randomly drew slips of paper with the name of an animal on it, and the women drew matching animal names. The idea was to go around the room making the sound of the animal until you located your partner. The problem was that the Americans were going around saying things like "moo" and "cock-a-doodle-do", while the French, for the same two animals, were saying "meuh" and "cocorico". Some of the pairs had trouble matching up. [return to text]
Note 4: My first home computer was a Zenith Z-150, which was an IBM PC clone. I built it from a Heathkit in June of 1984. It originally had only two 5¼ inch floppy disc drives, but I shortly added a 40 Megabyte hard disc drive. [return to text]