Susan C. Anthony

Susan reading on Exodus truckLearning French

Since my first trip to Europe at age 20, where everyone I met spoke 2-3 languages, I had aspired to be bilingual. I studied Spanish diligently in college, but remember little because of lack of practice. I can get by in a Spanish-speaking country but I need language immersion to become truly fluent.

I wanted to learn a different language during our year abroad. But which?

I arbitrarily chose French, and purchased a phrase book and tape, French at a Glance. I had good intentions, but didn't do much more than scan it until we reached Belgium. There, both Dennis and I learned to count and pronounce a few survival words and phrases. I remember being really excited when I heard a man say C'est ca on the telephone. "That's it!" I understood!

On the Exodus expedition during the long drive down through France and Spain, I began to practice again.

After a few long days in the truck, I realized that a large part of the three-month trip would be spent sitting and riding, with little to do except look out the window. We had 18,000 kilometers to cover at a top speed of 60 km/hour. After initial pangs of boredom, I began to view it as an incredible opportunity. We'd purchased some 20 used books in London, mostly classics and fiction. The truck "library" had several reference books on Africa. It was heavenly to contemplate reading to my heart's content. I never have that kind of time in daily life. I would have more time than I could have dreamed possible to listen to language tapes and study. I hadn't known it initially, but French is almost universally spoken in the African countries we'd be visiting, so I could start practicing what I learned immediately.

Isle of GibraltarThe phrase book wasn't going to be enough. I wanted a complete self-instructional course. Fortunately, we stopped in English-speaking Gibraltar for a day (the photo is of the Isle of Gibraltar, located just south of Spain at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea). I went to several bookstores before finding what I wanted just prior to closing time, a book and four cassette tapes for 26 English pounds (about $45). That seemed a bit expensive, but I'd pay at least that for a language course at a university. Now I had the luxury of time.

The course was entitled Hugo's French in Three Months. It always amazes me that they say any language can be learned "at a glance", "in three months", "quick and easy", but I guess that sells books.

Rock of GibraltarEven a few words in a completely unfamiliar language help a lot, and I was rewarded for my efforts almost immediately. A few others in the group had studied French in school but didn't remember much. By the time we got to Algeria, I could understand a fair amount when people talked slowly and used gestures and synonyms. It really motivated me, and I began studying 5-8 hours a day.

In Niger, I was able to hold limited conversation, and in Zaire I was reading a book in French written for 5th graders, Histoire du Zaire, and studying vocabulary lists I compiled from the dictionary. The course included all common verb tenses including the subjunctive, and I listened to the tapes again and again. I enjoyed being my own teacher and designing learning activities. I had what I dream of as a teacher, a self-motivated student (myself).

I'm didn't attain fluency, and was frustrated with my poor memory when talking to a Frenchwoman three months after I stopped studying regularly. In Alaska, there are few if any opportunities to speak Spanish or French. As I age, my memory rusts. Before meeting Dennis, I would have eagerly entered a language immersion program to live with a family, but he's not at all interested in language or staying with strangers. I'm not at all interested in living apart from him for an extended time. I'll have to be content admiring polyglots rather than becoming one.

Go on to Some Notes on the Sahara
Source:, ┬ęSusan C. Anthony