Along for the ride, but with a better view.

Learning French on Marlborough Street

This past fall I took French classes at the French Cultural Institute, part of the Alliance Française. With the knowledge that I would be living in Paris in less than a years time, I knew that I needed to get serious, and the strangely organized Rosetta Stone was not doing the trick. After 4 units of the program I knew how to say “the cat is on the table” or talk about my green bicycle but not how to introduce myself. I had been fighting taking a class because of the cost, and the time commitment, but after taking two months of Arabic last summer, I realized how much I could learn in a stricter class setting and how much I enjoyed being in one.

So every Tuesday and Thursday morning I would make my way through the Public Garden. I passed parents taking photos of their children seated atop the bronze duckling statues of “Make Way for…” fame. I watched the swans and ducks go about their business, fishing, swimming or sleeping with head tucked firmly beneath wing, visited in later months by geese winging their way south. I watched the weeping willows, my favorite, gently brush their long, leafy tendrils in the pool, their color changing slowly with time from green to burnished gold. In the city the leaves change slower, more subtly, and it becomes even more of a treat to see red leaves shot through with sunlight.

I walked through Back Bay to the beautiful old house that holds the Center. I walked through lovely rooms, up two flights of stairs to the back of the building, to a classroom that alas, had little in common with the rest of the old house except that it was always too hot or too cold. And there I spent an hour and a half before going on to work or whatever else the day planned. We were a group of ten, ranging from 17-70 years old, mostly women, mostly learning so that he or she could travel easily in France. Some had family who were now or would soon be living in France. I felt comforted that it is never the wrong time to start, but when I told the class that I needed to be fluent by May, we all had a good laugh. I think it would be possible for some; those to whom language comes easily…and who spend more time on homework. Our teacher was a young man from France, infinitely friendly and patient. This program is a type of “immersion” program, meaning only the language being taught is spoken while in class. This is a popular method, and thought to be useful because it is the way in which we all initially learn language and the best way to begin to think in the language itself rather than translating as you go. Rosetta Stone itself uses this method, using photos to communicate words and phrases. With Rosetta Stone I was missing larger concepts, such as grammar, and spelling. I would know how to say something using a verb, but not how to conjugate it. I noticed some similar issues in my Arabic class as well, but whereas in Morocco the teacher would speak English (if he or she was able) to explain a difficult concept or word, here the teacher, on strict orders from the school for French only, would enact a miming ritual (I know, so French) which would usually be humorous, but would take valuable class time. Hearing nothing but French for an hour and a half is incredibly helpful and vital to training the ear and mind, but the strict rule of “no English” can be a hindrance. If, for example, the teacher was able to spend 5 minutes after writing out the accents (aigu, grave, circonflexe) explaining why they existed, it would only serve to enhance the class time that came after. Instead I had to wait until I got home and looked them up to learn what the purpose was. Learning that the circonflexe (as iHôtel) usually replaces an “s” that was once there, no less than blew my mind. So much easier to remember how to spell words! Our teacher did acknowledge that the best learning would be a combination of class time and self-study, looking up terms and words, etc, but such basic, important ideas that can crack open a language like that should be shared.
The class also went very slowly, being catered towards the slowest student as opposed to aiming somewhere in the middle. We were learning from a textbook that is used around the world, and there are issues as with any language textbook. The verb “pouvoir” for example is defined in English in the dictionary at the back as “to can” which I think we can all agree does not mean anything. It is more commonly defined as “to be able”.  I was amused by the fact that one of the first words we learned was United Nations, as it was in the Arabic textbook. I’m starting to think there is some kind of conspiracy. Besides the slow pace, the teacher was very lax on pronunciation, only correcting when it was very wrong, even praising mediocre articulation. I think he was being easy on us beginners, but pronunciation is one of the things that I think it is important to emphasize early on, so that good habits can be formed rather than bad ones. 

I didn’t sign up for the class this semester; taking that walk in 18 degree weather is less enticing, and the path is icy and the trees are bare anyway. I really found it overpriced for what we ended up learning. By the time competency is reached the student has spent thousands of dollars. Maybe this is normal, and a small price to pay for another language. And somehow when I am sitting on my own with the books spread out in front of me, it seems a lot more confusing than it did in the classroom. Overall I am reminded that conversation, listening and speaking, is the only way to learn. But I will be tossed right into the deep end of that pool in 5 months whether I like it or not. Sink or swim indeed!

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