A Tale of Two Personalities — Part One

Email to my 10-year-old French self about the consequences of teaching himself English so young.

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From: 24-year-old Ed <older@ed.com>

To: Innocent and confused 10-year-old Ed <younger@ed.com>

Subject: 5 Facts About Teaching Yourself (American) English Over 14 Years

Bonjour younger Ed,

It’s me, older, wiser and less socially awkward Ed. If somehow you’re able to read this, let me start by clarifying a thing or two about what you’re about to read. First off, teaching yourself English so young will be life-changing beyond imagination and will take you places where you will meet incredible individuals from all over the world who will inspire you continuously through their own stories. Second, the following isn’t a list of things you should have done better in your future life or things you should avoid but rather what you should expect to happen to you over the next 14 years. This email might get a bit lengthy though so I’ll split it into two parts.

Right now you’re still trying to figure out who you are, what your identity is and what values you stand for, but that’s totally fine. After all you’re just a kid. But as you grow older and learn more about English and America you will see a separate identity gradually come to life — a new side of you that will only be able to speak this new language as if it’d been born as an actual person. A side of you that will often be misunderstood.

It’s okay if you don’t understand squat about what I’m saying. The following should make more sense. So… without further ado, here are 5 facts about teaching yourself English so young.

Fact #1: Get ready to watch a ton of TV and despite what Mom will tell you, it’s okay.

It’s great, actually!

People today still undervalue how beneficial television can be to learning a language when done right. Not only does it teach you vocabulary beyond the basics you learn in school, but it also exposes you to real local accents you would otherwise never get to hear. But rest assured you will do a banging job learning English that way.

By now you’ve probably already stopped watching our favorite show in dubbed French because their voice-overs make the characters sound retarded and because you want to learn English even though you haven’t started learning at school yet (Disclaimer: this show involves an “Italian”-American, a dinosaur geek, a goofy skinny dude, a mentally crazy blonde, a fashionista and a high-maintenance cleaning freak).

You will spend countless hours in our living-room watching episode after episode, pausing every time there’s a new word or expression you haven’t heard of yet and writing them all down on a ton of A4-sized sheets of paper because it helps you memorize them. And because you have a visual memory, watching the characters interact in a particular environment will help you better understand American idioms which you will find yourself using way too much later in life. It’s a lot of fun, you’ll see.

Fact #2: No one else but you will give a shit in English class, and your classmates will give you shit for it.

I have to admit that part of your life will suck for you, but again that’s okay. I’m guessing you’re about 13 or 14 years old by now and you just started learning English in school but you have a head start on all the other students since you started a few years ago already.

You already have a somewhat decent American accent although there’s obviously more work to be done. What you’ll soon come to realize, however, is that not everyone shares your passion for it and that the French (generally speaking, of course) think of English class as a joke. You won’t really understand why at first because to you English is obviously important: it’s a universal language — one that your favorite TV characters speak — and can take you places like, oh I don’t know, say New York. But to your classmates, English is the one class where they get to fuck around and not give a shit because they already have to give a shit about all their other classes (you do too, sorry).

Every time you will raise your hand to participate and start speaking that weird accent of yours, they will laugh (I say weird because that’s what it will sound like to them. I think it’s super sexy). They will laugh because they’ll think you’re taking yourself too seriously: after all it’s just English and you only have 1–2 hours of it every week. But to you it means so much more. You know it’s your getaway ticket to America and the rest of the world (Wait, aren’t those the same? Whoops, wrong post. Moving on…)

My point is, don’t give up or feel embarrassed to speak out because you know what? Others will come to you for help later in life, so keep practicing.

Fact #3: As you dive deep into the American culture you will start to feel very lonely, but never lose sight of your end goal.

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You just turned 15 and have already expanded your list of TV shows to more over-dramatic types like CW-owned One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl (don’t tell anyone) and now have a lot more vocabulary in your pocket. But as you watch more of these shows and learn more about the American lifestyle and high school drama you will start to take a very big and curious interest in all of it. Sure, what you see on TV doesn’t always depict what happens in real life but when it comes to high school in America, let’s be honest, it does.

Unfortunately your friends don’t share that same passion for English. They won’t want to talk about the things you want to talk about and won’t understand you when you do, so you’ll start to feel a bit lonely stuck in a social bubble you’ve built only for yourself. You’ll continue to watch everything in English when you do watch television with your friends it’ll be in French, so you’ll wait until they’re gone to download what you’ve just watched on the Internet so you can watch it again in English but on your own. Then the loneliness kicks in again.

You will also join social networking sites like MyYearbook.com (now MeetMe.com) and pretend you’re from New York when chatting with other users because you want to feel like you’re part of their culture but you also want to learn more about how Americans your age interact socially. You’ll actually do a pretty decent job. But as you continue down this path you will start to detach yourself from your own culture little by little. You’ll feel torn between two cultures; two languages; two personalities. Two identities only you can comprehend but that’s okay. Don’t forget why you’re doing this. Better things are coming.

Fact #4: You will mispronounce a few words on your first trips to America but don’t feel embarrassed: embrace the awkwardness.

Well… this was bound to happen. I know you think you know everything already by now and that you feel somewhat American. I know, I know … But you don’t, and you’re not.

You’re coming up to your sixteenth birthday and are on your way to America for the very first time. You’re going to spend 3 memorable weeks with two very welcoming and heartwarming American families in Wisconsin and you’re finally going to see all the things you’ve been seeing on TV for so many years but in real life this time. You’re a bit nervous about it but mostly ecstatic: after all you’ve been prepping for it for almost 6 years. You’re ready… sort of. (Side note: get ready to hear reactions like “Why Wisconsin?!!??” when you share that story with Americans later in life. It’s fun, you’ll see).

Given this will be your first time in an entirely English-only speaking environment you will be able to use those new sexy expressions you’ve been learning and impress Americans with them. And impressed they will be. But you’ll also mispronounce a few words here and there, which will get awkward at times but you will always have someone by your side to correct you. Just beware of mispronouncing beach. We all know we’re headed for trouble here…

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Fact #5: As your English and accent improve you will start to correct your professors and friends, but don’t be a dick about it.

This one’s pretty straightforward.

What now?

I hope these heads-ups will serve you well and will help you overcome some of the social challenges you will face in life. Knowing all of this now would have certainly helped me when I was your age, but I’ve come to cherish all those experiences and have learned from every single one of them — and you will too.

In the second part of my email (which I will send soon) I will share 5 things teaching ourselves English so young have helped me accomplish — 5 things you should look forward to.

Hang in there tiger.

Cheers,

Older Ed.

Constantly experimenting with life.

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