French Is a No-Huddle Offense

I spent most of Wednesday evening and Thursday morning studying--catching up on missed work, and preparing myself for a review of work from the day before. My class was working on understanding directions and descriptions. In English, this would consist of saying simple things like "the chairs are under the table" or "the book is on the desk" or "the couch is in front of the plants." I spent quite a bit of time drilling myself on furniture names and drilling myself on directions with the classic flash-card technique. I was doing pretty well at home. I knew the information. I was very proud of myself.

But there's a difference between knowing something and understanding it--a fact I quickly discovered (again) when I was called before class to describe my living room. The words came slower. I kept mangling masculine and feminine, misplacing prepositions, and otherwise making a mockery my chosen second language. My teacher corrected me at every turn and then shook her head when I was done.

I don't know how French is taught in public school these days, but when I was a kid, it was basically the consume and regurgitate method. You learned the conjugation, and then you filled in the blanks. You looked at pictures of various weather, and then you filled in the blanks. You learned language in two dimensions, not as it was actually practiced. Imagine testing someone in math by seeing if they have memorized a bunch of theorems, but never having them solve for anything. I know many people who took French for many years in school and never became fluent. I suspect it is the difference between knowing something and understanding it.

Consider the NFL. A pro football player must memorize an entire playbook with many, many plays. And it is not enough for him to simply memorize them. He must be able to recognize them when called, and recognize the roles of others, and recognize his role and then execute. Very often games are lost, not because someone was stronger or faster but because a guard pulled when he shouldn't have, a center botched the snap count, or a safety blew his coverage responsibilities. The player may have memorized all the plays (which is to say he may "know" all the plays) but recognizing and executing in real-time is something different. 

The great wide-receivers are generally fast, but often what sets them apart is the ability to run the exact route called, with exacting precision and exactly where the quarterback needs them to be. This gets complicated. There may be a "read" at the line of scrimmage, which is to say a play might be called in the huddle, but the receiver must recognize the need to change right at the moment. The team might be running a "no-huddle" offense, which means the players must hear the huddle at the line and execute almost immediately. 

Spoken language is a no-huddle offense. Those who conversate must comprehend all the parts of speech and their particular application in context, as surely as the receiver must comprehend his particular route within a play called at the line. It is not enough to simply scribble down all your routes on flash-cards and recognize a post from a down and out. 

My favorite example of this comes from hip-hop and the art of freestyle. A great freestyle MC can take concepts fed him in them moment, interpret them, all while staying on beat. I don't play any instruments and I can't read music, but I have been told that there is a similar act of improvisation happening in jazz and even more in be-bop. Perhaps at some point I will learn to hear it. 

The only way to become good at this is practice, and as with any form, it is very hard to carve out time for reps. I have a good teacher here in Paris. But there are fourteen kids in the class and getting through the material takes much of our time. Written exercises are easier because students can work on their own, or in pairs. Oral reps require someone with expertise listening and correcting. I'll probably sign up for extra oral work next week.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.


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