Although French is typically seen as the most romantic language, my journey with the mother tongue of Balzac and Hugo was not romantic at all. My intentions, on the other hand, were of a very passionate nature. It was my second year at university and a guy I had a crush on chose French as a second language to study. Needless to say that was my initial motivation to take up that particular course.
Here are some basic facts for you understand what I'm writing about:
- the teacher was Polish but spoke French 95% of the time
- we had four 45min classes a week
- the group consisted of real and false beginners
- we used a book called ‘Tempo’ from time to time relying mostly on some photocopied worksheets
- the teacher never used miming, pictures or realia to set up contexts or explain vocabulary
- he spoke most of the time and constantly urged us to do so
- the most difficult areas of French for me were: the pronunciation and the tenses (not really the usage but verb forms)
- the most difficult skills: writing (as we spoke most of the time I had no clue how to write in French) and listening (I was able to figure out which verb someone used but had no idea in which tense)
Without further ado, I’ll simply say that I hated these classes.
The teacher talked. We listened. He would then choose a person he wanted to talk to. In the meantime he would write some words or grammar items on the board, explaining it all in French. We would note it down, guessing we had just learned passive voice or reported speech. Then he would choose someone else to talk to and ‘teach’ us some other things. If you asked you clarification – you got it, in French.
Looking back, the main problem was combining real and false beginners. The false beginners very quickly remembered what they had lost and became the stars of the class. The rest of the people, including me, were sitting with their mouths wide open most of the time trying to figure out what was going on. You can’t imagine how frustrating it felt.
And then there was the end-of-the-course exam. I nearly failed the grammar and writing part. But, as I was told, I almost reached level B1 in speaking. Some people might say that the teacher was doing a great job then! Fluency triumphed over accuracy.
Yet prior to the test, I had spent weeks learning vocabulary and basic grammar with the help of a computer programme called ‘Learn basic French in 4 weeks’. It gave me an opportunity to systematize what I had acquired and take some control over the chaos.
Maybe I’m an exception but I like to know exactly when and how to use a language. Guessing and uncertainty are a nightmare. That’s why I believe that it makes sense to introduce things gradually and practise them long enough to ensure retention. Otherwise, even if students are ready to get the meaning and usage of something ‘beyond’ their level, they will not be able to or willing to use it. Why?
a) because they won’t remember it
b) because they will remember only the narrow context in which it was explained
c) because they will be struggling to formulate it accurately
Obviously you can throw, let’s say 3rd conditional, at beginners occasionally but not all the time and as matter of principle.
On a final note:
- I have never spoken to a native French speaker and have always dreaded doing so
- The best part of the course was watching the musical Notre Dame de Paris and guessing what the people in it were singing about
- My level of French now is most likely A0
- A LEARNER wrote that post, not a teacher
- That cute guy I mentioned at the beginning eventually chose Spanish so we never studied together L
So, how shall we interpret that?