I am attempting to learn to speak my first foreign language three years short of my “three score and ten.” Why I am, is not as interesting to me as the how. French wouldn’t even have been my first pick. That would have been Spanish. As a kid I knew that more nations close to the U.S. spoke Spanish than any other language after the era of colonization. It also had a reputation of being an easier language to learn.
Sticking to the constellation of “whys,” however, I’ll start with my mother. Since Alzheimer’s overtook her, my genetic inheritance has loomed large. Mom was afraid it might catch up with her after her own distraught mother told her, “Georganne, I’m losing my mind!” I’ll be damned if I want to be the third generation that loses its mind. Recent studies suggest that knowing multiple languages is one defense. 

Vanity counts for yet another why. Mom’s father, who escaped the disease, once explained to his brother that he opted for a master’s degree in history because Columbia University didn’t require him to have studied a second language. He felt he had no talent for language and he would not have been let off so lightly had he pursued economics or the sciences. That was back in 1915, so Columbia has probably upped its admission standards. While I don’t have my own advanced degree, learning French would let me one-up Grandpa. 

And there is one more seductive why that I’ll call “legacy.” Almost 100 years ago my Grandfather was awarded heaps of medals for fighting in the trenches of World War I. I plan to visit France this fall on the centenary of his getting shot up by the Bosch. 
But perhaps my most potent why is my desire to defy gravity or, in this case, brain hardening. I learned long ago that children could pick up languages like fallen toys but that with every year that facility wanes. I also knew that picking up a language surrounded by speakers of a different tongue was quicker than text books. Today we call that “immersion” and it’s all the fashion in school districts that take advantage of their youngest student’s mental flexibility. Their brains are “plastic” like silly putty whereas mine has all the malleability of a polyurethane bowling ball. Ah, but I found a cheat, or a “how,” on my cell phone.

I carry in my pocket a universe of human ingenuity and learning. When I’m not threatening other people’s lives with it in my car, my cell phone is a modern miracle. It has an app with algorithms galore to keep track of my progress imprinting the vocabulary and grammar of other languages into my bowling ball. I chose French despite all its dratted conjugations.

I bought a couple of idiot guides to Francoise, of course. One came with a CD, but that ain’t immersion. Short of inviting a bunch of French speakers to my house for an extended stay, that won’t happen until I land at Orly Airport. But I found an app called Duolingo that comes close and it’s free except for the pop ads that I haven’t paid to remove.

After three months of using it, Duolingo assures me that I am now 56 percent fluent in French. I know that’s rubbish because last night I horse-laughed my way through the French movie “Tall Blonde Man with one Black Shoe.” Had it not been for the English subtitles, I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on, although I did hear one character say “soixante-quinze,” or seventy-five. What Duolingo’s measure of fluency involves I don’t know, but I’ve got six more months before my departure. I really would like to get the speaking part down. 

Thomas Jefferson prided himself on his French fluency when he made his appearance before King Louis XVI as America’s Minister to France. But Tom’s French had been strictly an on-paper experience. Add to this his well-known reluctance to speak in public, let alone in a language he only knew how to read and write, and you can see that even his famous intellect was severely cramped. Duolingo attacks both reading and speaking skills.

I find it very helpful that France and England were joined at the hip across the English Channel for 300 years. A French prime minister once said something to the effect that French and English were composed of the same words but that the English did not know how to use them. Well, I’m working on that. Anyone want some “Patriot Frites?”

Three months back I started practicing about 20 minutes a day. Last week I outdid myself with about 19 hours of cell phone drilling. It was almost like immersion, but I could attack French at my speed. I just sacrificed 19 hours of other stuff that week. Trust me, there are a lot of things that are not hard to sacrifice, for instance, watching national news on Fox. 

Harry Welty is a small-time politician who also pontificates at www.lincolndemocrat.com.