By Jon Cogburn
I forget in which book of Primo Levi's that he recounts learning Russian from the soldiers that liberated him from Auschwitz. Weirdly, the surviving prisoners were brought by train back into Russia and then at the end of the war had to find their way back to their home countries. If I remember right, Levi spent something like nine months in Russia and then walked from there to Italy.
In any case Levi claims that the soldiers who really took a liking to him were so culturally illiterate that they didn't have a concept of a language other than Russian. Much hilarity ensues from the fact that as they teach him basic Russian they think they are teaching a grown man his first language. To the soldiers, Levi is (as would be any Italian) this amazing grown up feral wolf child finally learning the names for things. Honestly, it doesn't seem very plausible, but Levi's portrayal of the Russian soldiers is on the whole very sympathetic (and the setting of his first novel is in a Russian factory), so he's clearly not setting the scene to try to score points against them.
I state this to make it clear that when I compare highly educated French people to illiterate Russian peasant soldiers, I (like Primo Levi) don't mean to demean either. I think I am even more of a Francophile than Levi is a Russophile. I'm not sure I would come back here if I wound up in France, where normal people read books on public transportation and teenagers are capable of sitting still.
This being said, highly educated French people are a lot like Levi's illiterate Russian soldiers, at least with respect to their mother tongue. I suspect that everyone who has tried to learn the French language as an adult has this pair of experiences. When you go into a little store to purchase shampoo, batteries, bread, etc. the person working there is really happy that you are mangling their language. This may be what George Bush calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations" that arises from all of the Americans (and I find myself inexplicably doing this, even though I'm aware that I do this and don't want to) who go to foreign countries and communicate by speaking English loudly, slowly, and in an embarrassing caricature of the accent of the non-English speaker. When compared to that, the willingness to say "Bonjour Madame" gets you a lot of points.
I used to gestalt this as a kind of Parisian waiter thing, an inexplicably weird chauvinism that Americans understand as little as foreigners understand American attitudes about firearms. But now I think that it's something that actually can be fruitfully theorized about. As far as I can tell from reading novels that talk about French education (I realize that assuming they are a reliable guide is perhaps problematic), French people are taught that their own language is itself a paradigm of rationality. And this is maybe with some justification, at least compared to English, which is a weird mishmash from all of the various invaders over the centuries. Again, as far as I can tell, French people from a very young age are taught about the glory of the French language in a way that is utterly unique to France. And part of the ideology is that French is suited to all of the rational thinking that has taken place in it (and any fair-minded observer must conclude that the French have always punched well above their weight here) because its own syntax and semantics are so gloriously rationally structured. This is the kind of thing German Romantics all the way down to Heidegger** (it ended there for obvious reasons) used to write about when inveighing on the world historical importance of the Greek and German Languages.
So the highly educated French person doesn't necessarily think that you are incredibly stupid because he thinks that all Americans are stupid. Rather, he thinks that French is such a logically structured language, that one could only make the mistakes that you (or any adult learner) are making if you are incredibly stupid. To be fair, the kind of linguistic chauvinism that leads to all of the facial expressions I adumbrated earlier might very well lead to a broader cultural chauvinism. But I think that if American children were taught second languages before they hit the critical period wall, then there would be much less of the pained, condescending embarrassment that characterizes so much Franco-American discourse. To be fair though, the fact that in the United States we start second language learning in junior high school, right after the brain has fully lateralized, is excellent evidence that at least our rulers are idiots. So, even though I've been on the receiving end of them more times than I can count, I have to admit that the facial expressions have some merit.
*I've solved this problem by just not worrying about speaking French. Everything became much simpler when I decided that all I really cared about (and I do care about this deeply) is getting competent enough to read novels, history, and philosophy in the original French. I recommend this strategy very highly. In fact if you read enough biographies of literary figures, you realize that this is actually how foreign languages used to be taught in the United States. At some point, for some reason, college level foreign language education here became teaching people the grammar and vocabulary that would be helpful to a tourist. It doesn't work. The percentage of people who benefit at all from their college level foreign language training is vanishingly small. This is, I think, because reading is not prioritized enough in American teaching or life.
**Who complains, to a group of French philosophers, in Four Seminars, that French is "too ontic." Philosophy desperately needs es gibt apparently! Il y a not so much.]