Great Promise

Passage from Tocqueville’s letter to his mother, May 14, 1831.

One difficulty that has hampered us ever since we left France, and which we have begun to overcome, is language. In Paris, we fancied we knew English, not unlike collegiate school graduates who think that their baccalaureate is a certificate of learning. We were soon disabused of that notion. All we had was a basic vehicle for making rapid progress. We truly drove ourselves during the ocean crossing; I remember days on a windswept deck translating English when it was difficult to hold a pen. Unfortunately, with so many French speakers aboard we could always fall back on our native language. Here the situation is different. As no one speaks French, we have had to give it up. Our conversation is entirely in English. It may sound pitiful, but at least we make ourselves understood and understand everything. Interlocutors even tell us that we show great promise. If we do end up mastering the language, it will be an excellent acquisition. The benefits we’ve already reaped illustrate for me the foolishness of a Monsieur de Belisle, who travels to lands where he cannot converse. One might as well take strolls in one’s room with the windows shuttered.



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