February 7, 2023

Motivated to Speak French and Spanish

From a Traveling Man’s Diary
Diary Page dated:
  March 19, 2002
By:  John Guy LaPlante

Father Armand and Father Antonio would be so happy to behold me now. Father Armand was my French teacher at my old prep school years ago. And Father Antonio was my Spanish teacher. Those dear men tried so hard to make us good speakers in their beloved languages. They must have gotten an A+ for effort when they passed to the other side. “Parlez francais un peu chaque jour,” Father Armand would insist. “Speak French a little every day.” He suggested every lunch. Ha! Poor man. Father Antonio had a different pitch. “Learn 10 new words each day,” he would urge us. “Dies! No es mucho!”

Yes, this is me during Prep School days!

We adolescents thought it very mucho. Those gentlemen didn’t understand. They thought we were studying to learn French and Spanish. The truth? Heck, we were studying to pass their quizzes. But, oh, if they could see me now. I practice my French and Spanish just about every day. I’ve made more progress than they ever might have imagined. And I’ve found it so easy and pleasant.

I’m not studying hours at a time. No poring over books. No evening-school courses. No audio cassettes. No computer programs. They are all fine, of course. I’ve found a different method. It keeps me engaged a few minutes now and then. Sometimes at home, but also when I’m out and about, doing my errands. And none of it costs a penny. Pas un sou. Ni un peso.

My progress has spurred me on. Sometimes I’ve felt exhilarated. If only my old teachers knew. (Maybe they do!) I’m sure Father Armand would beam up there. And Father Antonio, I can hear him now. “Bueno, Juan!”.

Why were all of us boys force-fed these languages? Well, French for a good reason. All of us had French blood. We were the American-born kids of parents recently arrived from Quebec, come down here to les Etats-Unis for the usual reason…a better life. We were continually reminded ours was a fine heritage, and it was precious to preserve it. But Spanish? I’m not sure. Ours was a remarkable school, and maybe it—and Father Antonio—had a prescience. Maybe they had a hunch how important Espanol would become here and other parts of the world.

Well, you ask impatiently: What is your method? First, some background. As all of us know, we consumers are being flooded with stuff. Some made here, much of it in other countries. Mass markets for TV sets and cameras and faucets and just about everything else are vaster than ever – they’re international, in fact, particularly since NAFTA. This stuff is destined to be sold not only in the United States but often Mexico and/or Canada, and often in other countries as well. Rather than imprint the boxes in just one language, it’s cheaper and more effective to do so in at least two, and often three. In English, Spanish, and French. Aha! Now you have a hint of what I do.

You’ve noticed this marketing trend yourself, I am sure. Well, now it’s more than a trend. It’s a standard operating procedure. You probably read the English part, and ignore the rest. I focus on the French and Spanish. Not only what’s printed on the packaging. But if I buy something, the stuff inside. I roam through the operating instructions, the warrantee, the mail-back marketing questionnaire, the safety cautions…whatever is in there. Yes, sometimes dull stuff. Oh, I’m not compulsive about it. But I do it quite regularly. It’s simple. It’s fun. It’s practical. It’s today’s vocabulary.

The opportunities are everywhere. Not only at Walmart’s and Home Depot and Lowe’s and Sears and so many other stores. At the bank when I pick up a folder about CD’s. At the hospital emergency room when I read about payment arrangements. When I glance at the signs on a bus, or read about emergency procedures on a plane. Even my homeowner’s insurance policy! My new bread machine has recipes in Spanish as well as English. The usual combination is English and Spanish, but I find French is included more and more.

I started this innocently. I brought home a new VCR and noticed the instructions were in the three languages. I glanced at the French and Spanish to see how much I could understand. I realized these linguistic snippets could be little lessons. Gradually my vocabulary grew. I began to pick up grammatical differences…to see distinctive patterns in sentence structure. I found myself checking something in a dictionary, even in a grammar. Now and then I found myself buying a Spanish or French newspaper. It has become a wonderful game. And never boredom or burden.

This has motivated me in other ways. I have traveled to France and Quebec and Spain and Mexico. Oh, not just to speak French and Spanish. I went to have a nice vacation. But the chance to speak in the native tongue was part of the appeal. And it has permitted me to leave the trodden tourist path now and then for interesting places where I knew my English would not be very useful.

In Brussels recently I had a typical experience. I stayed at the Jacques Brel Hostel. Yes, Hostel — I, at my age! Being with younger people — in fact, young people — is fun. And it’s stimulating.

One night my roommates were Marc, a law student in Paris, and Rodolfo, a civil engineer from Colombia. Yes, one speaking French, the other Spanish…and both eager to master English, today’s premier world language. We had a good time, and the practice did us good. I was able to hold my own. I thought about this later. And I remembered my dear old teachers. How they would plead with us. Father Armand: “Just 10 minutes every day. S’il-vous-plait!” And Father Antonio: “Remember, 10 new words, Juan.” “Yes, yes,” I thought. “I’ve gotten the message. Finally. But you never told me it might be so easy. And so rewarding.”


  1. John Aschieris says

    Good for you John. I have developed a somewhat similar program of using my very limited Spanish when engaged with a checker in a store or gas station, my gardener and cleaning lady.There are a large number of Hispanics in these occupations. I do my best to say hello, good-by, pay and ask for a receipt. I enjoy to smile on their face and the shocking look. “Well, you don’t look Hispanic.” It’s a learning experience and a fun part of shopping.

  2. Ivan Otterness says

    I like languages too because I think they are a challenge. I mostly read and often a paragraph seems clear on first reading, but if I take the time to read it closely, I often find nuance, emotion, sensitivity, etc. that rewards me for taking the extra time.

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