No, it wasn’t the real Magic School Bus from the books and TV. But one of my most poignant humanities moments did happen on a bus. And I did learn a lot from it. And, yes, the bus was French.

I grew up in Arizona in a monolingual family. I studied French in my last years of high school because I needed it to graduate. I loved it. I loved it more than I loved any other subject ever before. So much so that I majored in French and History in college. I aced my French classes. Then I started taking Spanish and Italian. Languages came really easy to me. Growing up with a brother who had known he was going to be a pilot from the age of five, I thought that maybe I had finally found ‘my thing’.

In 2010, I took a job opportunity to move to Lyon, France as an English Teaching Assistant through a bilateral program between French and American embassies. I arrived and had the normal struggles adjusting to a new city and to how quickly people spoke French. I left the U.S. with my straight A grades and the language in my mind as a bunch of binary code of 0s and 1s that could be pulled out of my mind to fit any situation.

Except for the bus.

About two thirds of the way into my one year contract was when I had my humanities moment that still serves as a reference today. As is required in a French memory, I was on my way to meet my friends at a cafe and was running late. I was speed walking through the main square in the center of town growing more and more anxious about being late, proof that I was still not as French as I had liked to think. As I was rushing, getting my heart rate up, and tensing up all of my muscles to try to walk even faster, I noticed an idle bus facing the general direction I needed to go. As I walked up to the door, the driver opened it and I came gusting into the bus out of breath.

In the process of making eye contact with the driver, I asked in French, ‘Does this bus go to [name of cafe’s street]?’

The bus driver sat up straight and looked at me for an extended moment before saying very seriously ‘Mademoiselle, we say hello to each other first. We don’t just ask. So, let’s begin again. Bonjour Monsieur.’ His attempt to instruct me on how to be polite can be very easily considered rude, but that didn’t faze me because I had already felt the weighty guilt of making cultural missteps.

The bus didn’t go where I needed to go, so I got off and the driver drove on. I was very late to meet my friends. However, I stood on the street corner for a minute or two thinking about what happened. I thought about how I took my knowledge of the French language and framed it in my American habits of often being quick and in a rush. I began to realize the real world of language and cultural competence is just as important, if not more important, to learning a language. There are different styles of formality, salutation, turn-taking, interactions with strangers, etc. It wasn’t just the 0s and 1s that my French degree gave me. There were also 3s, 8s, 5s, and maybe even a few exclamation points mixed into the code. It was a rich world of human interaction that was accessed by travel. This has led me to language and its social implications. This has led me to sociolinguistics and researching language and belonging. So, this magic school bus did actually end up taking me somewhere I needed to go and it got me there just in time.

– Ashley Coogan (PhD Student in Linguistics & Applied Linguistics, Arizona State University)