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Jennifer Solheim is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

While maintaining the UIC French department’s Twitter account some days after fall semester finals, I came across this Tweet from a French major who was in two of my classes this past term:



I found myself with a catch in my throat as well. These are moments of reckoning for anyone who studies a foreign language: the first time a foreign text, heretofore only fragmentary, is fully understood without assistance. For me, the moment came while reading Flaubert’s Salammbô. The descriptions bloomed like cinematic flowers: here are the bloodied elephants returned from battle; there is the debauched feast and fires from the revelry; now the princess glides down marble stairs to subdue a riot. The scrim had lifted. I was in French. And with this recognition came newfound confidence in conversation: I realized that I’d come a long way since the day my favorite professor stateside had cut her hair, and although I knew how to say “Your hair looks great!” in French, I had such stage fright I could barely stammer out the words.

Students of other foreign languages surely confront similar paralyses along the way, and while all languages are certainly shaped by the places in which they’re spoken, the origins and evolution of France and the French language are inextricably bound. The Oaths of Strasbourg, the 842 pledges of allegiance between the rulers of East and West Francia, were written in Medieval Latin, Old French, and Old High German, and are the first known texts written in French and they essentially reassured the people of each region, “These other people don’t speak our language, but we can trust them.” Since 1635, the Académie Française has been determining new French words and codifying grammar. It’s worth illustrating how serious an endeavor this is: celebrated writers and critics like Assia Djebar, Marc Fumaroli and Simone Veil are among those who hash through debates like what French speakers should call a computer (“ordinateur,” which became the now-familiar “ordi”), email (“courriel,” although “mail” has become common parlance), and sexting (“le textporn,” trading out one crass mashup of English words for another that’s easier to pronounce in French). The social imperative to master the language in order to assimilate in France, as well as the civilizing mission of French colonialism that placed particular emphasis on French education (both the language and system) means that to open one’s mouth and speak can be reasonable cause for anxiety.

I was delighted to learn that there is a name for these stories about language acquisition when I attended a 2009 lecture by writing specialist Cynthia Selfe (link: about literacy narratives. Selfe’s Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives explains:

A literacy narrative is simply a collection of items that describe how you learned to read, write, and compose. This collection might include a story about learning to read cereal boxes and a story about learning to write plays. Some people will want to record their memories about the bedtime stories their parents read to them, the comics they looked at in the newspaper, or their first library card. Others will want to tell a story about writing a memorable letter, learning how to write on a computer or taking a photograph; reading the Bible, publishing a zine, or sending an e-mail message. 

The lecture’s focus was composition pedagogy, but as Selfe progressed, it occurred to me: literacy narratives were all over Francophone literature. One familiar trope is the brilliant young student whose mastery of French leads to self-realization that transcends social identity—and harshly indicts the French civilizing mission in the process. For instance, in Tunisian-born Jewish-Berber Albert Memmi’s semi-autobiographical Pillar of Salt, the schoolboy narrator names with triumph the “most Racinian lines” from one of Racine’s plays as per his thoroughly comme il faut teacher – thus out-Frenching his French classmates. Yet he subsequently gives up speaking his native Arabic, becomes disgusted by his illiterate mother, and is ultimately alienated from everything that constituted home. The Algerian Djebar has written extensively about the tug-of-war between French and Arabic in Algerian and French colonial history and in her own life. In the novel-memoir Tattooed Memory, Moroccan writer Abdelkebir Khatibi writes of split personalities and institutionalization following an adventurous stint at university in Paris. Coincidence? Je crois pas.

For those of us who learn a foreign language in college, meanwhile, the process is a kind of miraculous disorientation: it’s not just that the language and culture are foreign. If you’re doing it right, you become foreign to yourself. Critic Mireille Rosello referred to the rise of Francophone literature as an unhoming of the French canon; “unhoming” is precisely how it feels to become fluent in a second language as a young adult. Not always comfortable, but never a dull moment. 

So with the opportunity to design a course in translation, I saw a chance to do some thinking with French-focused undergrads about the meaning of creating your own habitat in French, focusing on the moments when they found themselves confused, scared to speak; the moments when they successfully used idioms and cultural references, emulated the language’s rhythms. By looking at the process of destablizing oneself through a new language and culture, I hope to grant the students their own sense of place in the learning process. In Francophone Literacy Narratives, students will read four works in translation, and read essays from a composition textbook to frame our readings of the longer works. Students will write one open-topic personal essay, two literary analysis papers, and their own literacy narrative of learning French. There will be weekly blog posts for reflection, in-class writing workshops, and an in-person discussion with one of the Francophone writers and her translator. In my follow-up guest post at the end of this term, I’ll address how these activities worked, where things faltered, and perhaps share some students’ literacy narratives. On the heels of John’s post about teaching dream courses, this is one of mine. I’m looking forward to debriefing in May.

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