I Don't Understand
The French phrase for the week is: Je ne comprends pas. In English: I don’t understand.
In high school, we had a substitute teacher who spoke French and taught us this phrase, the first French phrase I learned. He was this flamboyant, portly character in school, always fanning himself, unused to the humid weather. Unfortunately I can’t remember his name, and neither can I remember the context why he taught us that phrase, but I remember when he scrawled it on the chalkboard that afternoon, rapping the board to catch the attention of mostly bored students.
The thing about understanding is that it takes both knowledge and confidence to say that you understand. Earlier I saw a tweet from a friend, a screenshot of the dictionary definition of the word “egregious”, which is: outstandingly bad. But below that, the dictionary noted the archaic meaning, which is: remarkably good. “Language is the worst lmao”, he said.
It’s funny to imagine that there exists a moment in time when someone used the word egregious, and the person they were talking to said, “Oh you mean it’s great”, and that someone replied, “No it’s horrible.” (Could sarcasm have been the switch that changed the meaning? Did a lot of people use the word sarcastically until the opposite became the canon?)
To say that you understand means that you have considered an array of differing explanations, assessed each one, then arrived at a single explanation for the thing that you say you understand. Subconsciously I’m going through this process every time I talk to people in French. I try to parse what’s being communicated by the other person through the many possible meanings. Did they say peux or veux? Was that je me or jamais? D’or or d’heure?
The problem with overthinking is getting overwhelmed with the information running through your head. I’d often catch myself arguing with my French tutor: Why does the adjective go before the noun sometimes? When do you use quand or lorsque? And it’s frustrating when the answer is: just because. Which is frankly not the most satisfying answer, because that means you have to believe that it makes sense, even when you couldn’t understand.
You need to have confidence that it is sensible, even when it doesn’t.
Saturday night last week, I caught the barbershop a few blocks away from our apartment just before it closed. “Are you available?” I asked in French to the woman attending the store, and she guided me to the barber chair. She caught early on that I wasn’t that well-versed in the language (not that it was a surprise), and she tried her best to speak English. For the next thirty minutes as she cut my hair, we gestured with our hands and spoke with what little we know of each other’s languages, an ordeal that actually wasn’t all that horrible, the two of us laughing despite the language barrier.
As I admired my new haircut, I struggled to say in French, “It’s hard to find a barber who speaks a little English.” She grinned widely, a confused look on her face. “Je ne comprends pas,” she replied, and I shrugged, now resigned with a smile, “Pas de problème !”