Hello everyone, I’m Ben. Thank you for visiting Language Ascent, my site about learning new languages.
I have been fascinated with foreign languages since I was about thirteen years old. Growing up, my extended family used to talk about how we were related to the Marquis de LaFayette. My grandma had the same maiden name, and my uncles would propagate these rumors at any opportunity when we were together. I remember a biographical report I had to draft in fifth grade and how in love I was with the idea of being related to a hero. There was something romantic about this revolutionary who came from another culture but who crossed an ocean to join us in our fight for liberty.
In middle school all students in our district were given the opportunity to take short courses in Spanish, German, and French. The first two in that list are deeply embedded in the heritage of my home town, Milwaukee. Still, I remember an insatiable curiosity when my 7th grade French teacher told us about the French culture or recited basic phrases to us. I was in love with the sound of the language, and the romance of the culture, and the strange discoveries about how many countries it was spoken in around the globe.
In high school, we were forced to choose a proper language path. I began to take French classes as often as I could, and worked my way up to advanced independent French, which, during my senior year was basically a study hall when I could watch French Disney movies, listen to obscure French music like Manau, and read French comics like Asterix and Obelix. I am so happy that my unassuming French teacher with an outrageously laissez-faire attitude toward her students took a special interest in me and didn’t place too many boundaries in the way of my going broader or deeper in the language.
I had a long break between high school and university language learning of about five years while I attended technical college that didn’t offer any language courses. Eventually, I enrolled in university determined to renew my exploration of French, and ended up doing even a little more. While I was able to reach a middle intermediate level in French after approximately 2 years of study, I was again captivated by my family roots and this time decided to begin studying Russian alongside French.
My maternal grandfather was the youngest of 12 and the first child of his family born in America, after having fled the Volga region and immigrating to the states around 1918. My mother recounts stories to my siblings and I about how when she was growing up, her dad would sit in the kitchen at night playing cards and speaking Russian with friends.
Eventually, after about 7 years of education and no four-year degree to show for it, I dropped out to begin working at a startup company. Although my professional path took a turn at that time, I was extremely passionate that I should never again let my language learning passion fall to the wayside, no matter what I did between 9 and 5.
While I’ve had a lot of off and on, trial and error throughout that period, I am proud to say that I have managed to stay connected to language learning. In the process, I have experimented with various approaches and programs.
I want to share my findings with the world and the community of language learners out there. If I can help even one person, I have done something good, and if I am the only one that benefits, then at least my doing this can serve as self-awareness to help steer my next language adventure.
Epilogue: My Lived Experiences with French
I eventually did a lot of genealogical research. While there was no provable link between our family and the Marquis, I did trace multiple lines of my heritage on both sides back to French-Canadian and French roots, in addition to what I knew about my grandfather. In the last 3 years, I have been blessed with a couple of experiences that have deeply enriched my life and have made all of the hours I’ve put in over the years so worthwhile.
In 2014, my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I went to Montreal. It was a cold October and I was deeply sentimental for the entire trip. I tracked down a number of cultural locations and even a statue of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who I found out I am actually related to through my maternal grandmother. This trip was about a year after my grandma had passed away, and it held a special significance to me as I traveled about and discovered where my ancestors from back to the 1700’s had lived.
Earlier this year, we were able to go to Paris, where I feel I reached the peak of my French capabilities to date. Words cannot describe the experience, but it was incredibly powerful to live entirely in French, to understand a lot and be understood, and to see and hear and feel so very much.
To this day, I continue to work hard to improve my French. I know in my heart that it is a lifelong adventure for me, and while I know that perfection is an unrealistic goal, the enrichment that each new lesson or discovery provides to me is all the motivation I need to carry on.