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Kerrying On

French-fried Memories

When I entered the eighth grade in 1959, I was given the option to study either Latin or French. I chose French because from what I understood, the French weren’t dead yet. Miss Limply, the school’s French teacher, launched the first day of class by showing a cartoon of the Three Little Pigs. From the confusing muddle of sounds blaring from the projector, I learned only one word—loup—or wolf. It made me laugh because it was pronounced loo, and in England that’s a toilet. Perhaps French was going to be fun.

Sadly, the second day of class brought no new amusing words. Instead, it involved a lot of verb and gender hoo-hah that seemed far too complicated to learn. Especially when my preferred mode of learning was passing notes to the girl who sat next to me. Perhaps I should drop the class before it was too late? The only other elective offered during that time slot was metal shop—which a friend told me consisted largely of burning things in a forge. Let’s see, which would I prefer? Conjugating French verbs or melting American lunch boxes?

After two weeks of falling hopelessly behind in French, I said goodbye to Miss Limply, crossed the great cultural divide that separated the language learning center from the metal shop, and began the task of making a cup out of a soup can. To this day, the only thing I recall from my brief brush with French is that “loup” means wolf, and I’ve not once had an occasion to use that tidbit.

That’s not entirely true. I did try to sneak “loup” into the conversation one afternoon when I was having lunch with a group of European executives in Munich. We were chatting about American authors and I was keeping up nicely until the conversation turned to European authors of whom I knew nothing. It was embarrassing to see how much these Europeans knew about American culture and how little I knew about anything European.

To joke my way out of my egregiously parochial view, I decided to say that I didn’t know much about European authors because I had been raised by wolves. Ha, ha! Get it? Raised by wolves! This entire conversation was taking place in English but, for reasons I’ll never know, I decided that this was the perfect time to impress my European colleagues by using my one French word, loup. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure what the plural was for loup so I said: “I was raised by loupies.” My European colleagues thought I said lupus and stared at me with an odd mix of confusion and pity. It was really quite awkward.

I had forgotten about these language misfires until the day of my fifty-year high-school reunion when I ran into an old friend, Bernadine Westin. She introduced me to her husband as “her French connection.” At first, I had no idea what she was talking about. Bernadine reminded me that during those two weeks I had studied French back in 1959, Miss Limply had passed out the names and addresses of eighth-grade students in France who were eager to be our pen pals. Every month we were supposed to write our pal a chatty letter in French and he or she would write us back in English.

This sounded like a lot of work to me so I gladly gave the name and address of my proposed pen pal to Bernadine. She desperately wanted to correspond with someone in Europe, but hadn’t signed up for a language class. Now, some fifty-five years later, Bernadine was thanking me for graciously giving up my chance to make a European connection.

Bernadine went on to explain that since 1959, she had faithfully written her French pen pal every month. To this day, the two continue to write each other, occasionally travel together, and (in her own words) embody the meaning of “BFFs.” According to Bernadine, all this had transpired, thanks to me! Me, a selfless classmate who had abandoned any hope of a rewarding international experience by giving her my pen pal, without asking for anything in return. I took the praise like a man. That is, I took full credit for something I didn’t actually do.

The effort Bernadine put in to being a successful pen pal was truly remarkable. She had to learn French, travel to the post office, buy stamps, mail the letters, and did I mention learn French? But then again, her dedication had earned her something the rest of us never gained—a precious friend from a whole new culture—and an enriching world view.

And then it hit me. Everyone should have their own life-long pen-pal! Only without so much work. With the aid of today’s technology, you could just push a button and voilà! There on the screen would appear a live person from France, or China, or Uzbekistan!

I’m imagining software that could immediately translate whatever you say, with no confusion or awkward waiting. It would also match your lips to the words your smart device conjures so it would look and feel like an actual conversation. It would be an actual conversation. As an aside, my colleagues tell me that Google Translate and other language recognition software may not be far off in creating something like this.

Having meaningful contact with pals from afar would go a long way toward engendering cross-cultural awareness. At a time when many of today’s youth (and adults) are capturing every little thing they do in “selfies,” and when narcissism scores are (you guessed it) on the rise, what would it be like if today’s youngsters were in frequent contact and deep conversation with e-pals around the world?

Fortunately, lots of young people are doing just that. They have international e-friends, and many are entering language-immersion schools starting as early as the first grade. But what if we turned the best-and-brightest of Silicon Valley to designing the technology required to produce the software I’ve proposed? Once created, we could give a device to every grade-school child in the world—along with an e-pal address of a person they’d be assigned to chat with (e-face to e-face) a couple of times a week.

Imagine a world where we’ve all been transformed into a Bernadine. With constant contact from friends abroad, we would gain a deep appreciation for cultural differences along with a true empathy for others’ challenges. Plus we’d know enough about world events and people that we would never again have to say that we had been raised by loupies.

Best of all, if negotiations were to break down at, say, a world peace conference and leaders started to consider using forceful methods, they’d fondly remember their e-pal. And so would millions of other people who would have been chatting with their foreign buddies about sports, music, fake vomit, and annoying relatives twice a week since the first grade. Having enjoyed thousands of casual yet curiously bonding conversations with friends from afar, nobody would think of using force (and certainly not violence) as a tool for dealing with “foreigners.”

So what do you think of my proposal Miss Limply? Mucho clever, right? Mucho clever.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

17 thoughts on “French-fried Memories”

  1. I really enjoyed this read with only a hint of skepticism. In the secular world that we live in and home-grown terrorism on the rise, I would be slightly fearful that through some creative way people will find a way to slither in and poison the minds of our young people. I do however love this idea and think it could broaden the minds of not just the American culture but world culture.

  2. I am a person who is fascinated with other cultures, but I’m too lazy to get a penpal or save up a bunch of money to travel. Instead, I have a collection of very interesting foreign blogs that I follow. I have two from England, one from China (Columbians living there teaching English to Chinese students), one from Norway (a French lady living there as an au pair), and one from German (improbably an Australian woman who has moved there). I even had one from Kathmandu, but she moved. I’d like to find ones from India and Africa also. I visit them all regularly and pick up little tidbits of their everyday lives and occasionally leave them a comment. It’s great fun and I’m learning a lot.

  3. What a delight to read Kerry’s perspective of this shared experience! Let me only add that although my first career dream had been to teach English in France, I now thoroughly enjoy my volunteer work for Alaska Literacy Program teaching English and citizenship classes to refugees from all over the world – including a few from Africa who speak French. Thanks again Kerry for sharing your connection to Michele!

    1. I didn’t know that you planned on teaching English in France. In any case, good-on-ya for volunteering in Alaska!

  4. Mucho clever – aside from all the perils, it would be so great to have e-pals who become our friends that we learn and appreciate other parts of the world, such as Bernadine’s experience.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Also wanted to let you know for those that are inspired to obtain a pen pal or communicate with someone in another country they can join http://www.postcrossing.com.
    I highly recommend Postcrossing. I’ve made many connections and received some beautiful postcards. I will warn it can be highly addicting. I can’t go anywhere now without buying lots of postcards for future exchanges – and they become harder and harder to find in the U.S.

  6. When I was in high school in the 70’s, I belonged to a student club called “American Field Service, ” which is an international exchange organization for students and adults that operates in more than 50 countries, and organizes intercultural learning experiences. I got to know a foreign exchange student at our high school who was from Iran. During the last few decades, I have thought of this friend whenever there was something negative about Iran in the news. My friendship with her taught me that most of the people from Iran are wonderful people who care about their country. I also was privileged to attend some college at an international university in Hawaii and was able to interact with people from all over the world. I agree that, if everyone had a chance to meet and get to know fellow world citizens, we would have a lot less hostility in the world.

  7. Bonding with my own brothers and sisters never kept me from using force with them. In the Civil War, brother fought agains brother, so that all brethren, regardless of color, could be free. It’s a nice start, but lacks the boundaries reality.

  8. Google translation needs a lot of work.
    I checked how Google would translate a line from an Estonian nonsense song. In Estonian the line is “kokal pudru kõrbes põhja”, meaning “the cook’s porridge burned in the bottom (of the pot)”. Google translated it as “the cook’s porridge in the desert north.”

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