MIDLIFE: Can you go baguette?

Learning a new language at 60? It seemed like a good idea at the time.

At least once a week, the doubt descends. What are you thinking? Why are you trying to learn French — at age 60?

It seemed like a good idea a while ago. I’d visited my daughter during her stays in France before and after college. I’d studied “Fifteen-Minute French,” learning enough to march up to a bakery counter and say, “Can I go baguette?”

I wanted to do better than that. When my daughter began working for Alliance Française in Minneapolis in 2012, I saw my chance and signed up for classes. I was an official “debutante.”

I was surprised to find so many people like me: men and women of a certain age who want to read and speak French. I was impressed to find more at conversation groups that meet weekly in bookstores and cafes around the Twin Cities.

A few are beginners like me on a new adventure. Others are working to recapture what they learned in school. Maybe we’re all motivated at least a bit by the research that shows that learning a second language can keep the older brain sharp.

Overall, it’s a dedicated group. Being older may make us more focused on what we want to accomplish. It seems to make us less concerned about our laughable mistakes. At this age, who cares? We seek out the metro’s second-language niches, taking in French film festivals and museum tours and book clubs. Some even host French-speaking visitors to the area.

After a year and a half of daily practice, I can see progress. But I can also see that I will never be fluent. When I hear myself attempting the throaty French “r,” the effort can seem foolish, futile. I don’t have that many more trips to France in my future, after all.

But then the invitation to the beginner’s book club arrives and I remember: I love this. It gives me pleasure and challenge and good company. Those Aha! moments — when I can understand a news update on Radio France International or read a paragraph of the French “Harry Potter” without running to Google Translate — give me reason to carry on.

I expect the doubt to keep coming, but I hope some day soon it will come in French: Que pensez-vous?

Maureen McCarthy • 612-673-7112





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