Thursday, March 18, 2010

How I Learned Your Language – part 2 French

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?


  1. How nice it is to read a blogpost from a teacher thinking back on her learning experience. I sort of missed that amidst all the tech-talk going on.

    I can't really say how to interpret that, but I sympathize, I've had some similar experience learning French. Can I share with you what I've been doing lately?

    I first had two teachers on pilot-mode, i.e. they were more of teaching the book rather than me, and that whole unit by unit, grammar by grammar thing was pissing me off anyway.
    I then invited a much less experienced teacher to tutor me, she was a bit terrified at first, of course, she's a novice teacher and I'm her coordinator, but she was convinced once we agreed that I would choose the material and draft the lesson plan, and that by doing it she'd learn with me how to teach 'out-of-the-box', in a less prescribed TEFLish way, and in an extreme learner-centred syllabus.

    The three classes we had so far were amazing. I chose to read a Jean-Paul Sartre play, I read a scène per week and study the vocabulary on my own, in class she clarifies my grammar doubts, and gives me extra practice on the most challenging ones, and we practice some difficult pronunciation. At the end of the class we perform the scène. It's exremely motivating!
    One thing we still have to find out is how to systematize and control chaos.

    My conclusion would be that students should be trained in "how I learn better and find a facilitator that conforms" instead of "how to learn in the way this teacher thinks I should".
    And at the same time teachers should more often forget about "teaching" and focus on "learning".

    Anita, I hope I didn't take much space here, but this post it very inspiring.

  2. Hi Willy and Welcome to my Playground :)

    Thanks a lot for the comment! How lucky you are to have found a teacher willing to do things 'your way'. I wholeheartedly agree that the focus on learning not teaching is something teachers tend to ignore.

    Good luck with French!

    I'm taking a break now though I might try to start learning it again one day. Still there are so many other languages I'd love to get closely acquainted with ;)- my top 3 are: Portuguese, Arabic and Italian.

  3. Reading your story I would say there is a major issue with the teacher rather than the method per se. There are a large number of things he is doing wrong.

    1) Ignoring half his learners and only focusing on the strongest. This is a rookie mistake.

    2) Only talking to one student at a time. Terrible. A good teacher would never do that unless there was a very good reason.

    3) He relied a lot on worksheets. Where is the real communication?

    4) The teacher never set up contexts. This is probably one of the most important elements of any good lesson. One wonders where he got his training.

    5) He focused solely on one skill and never aided the others. A good teacher integrates.

    6) He explained things in L2 rather than providing contextual examples. Absolutely uncalled for with beginners.

    7) He had a mixed level class and did not provide open activities that allowed students to perform at their level. Mixed level classes are great because the higher levels automatically provide the level+1 for the weaker students. Half your job is done for you. Stronger students also act as good scaffolds generally.

    This was clearly a case of a bad teacher rather than bad methodology. This is why I don't like to say "I've learned that I know nothing about teaching." It's clear from the example above that there is a ton we could teach this teacher. Obviously we know a lot.

    There are some other interesting points as well.

    a) You learned a lot of grammar and vocabulary at home. Excellent. This is what every good student should do. Why waste time in class on things that can be learned more quickly and easily at home. Class time should be used for skill-building and refining language previously encountered. As my students often say, we can do the book at home and then come with questions, why would we waste time on it in class.

    b) Knowing when and how to use a language. A good teacher will show you how to do this bit by bit. A big mistake most learners make is that they think they can understand everything immediately. Language doesn't work that way. It's simply too much. Today you may learn one aspect of present perfect or it's use in a particular context. Tomorrow we'll build on it. Slowly, slowly you'll build a holistic picture of it and it will become natural. If the teacher just taught all the rules first, it would result in confusion. Teaching blanket rules can introduce just as much uncertainty and chaos as it's simply too big to grasp. Starting with localized instances is better.

    This goes back to what I brought up on my blog the other day. Ok, so one use of the past subjunctive mood is suggestions. Please give me a number of examples...

    People simply can't come up with language very well through rules. They need to see it in contextual use and then they slowly build a picture of it. Students always want to understand immediately. It will never happen. Patience is key.

    By slowly building on material gradually like you said, it will become wired and automatic. Students will produce it without thinking.

    Teaching something like 3rd conditional is a perfect example of what I've been saying. The students encounter it in a contextualized, meaningful text (written or spoken). They will then see it again and again in different contexts and situations as they continue to learn English. This is where patience comes in. They will slowly move from very localized uses to general applications of the language. This is in line with the teach gradually and then wire it model.

    I really like this series. It's pretty interesting and offers a lot of opportunities for reflection. Keep it up :)

  4. Also, Willy, I love your story. It's a perfect example of how learner's can take control of their own learning and the teach becomes a tool or facilitator in that process. You know exactly what you need and when. The teacher just acts as a reference or guide. Wonderful!

  5. I let the teacher do it her way yesterday, it was an extremely challenging class, I think she's getting the hang of it...

    One day I'll wake up and decide that I'll spend six months in Turkey, I know that it will eventually happen, so if you're still there I'll teach you Portuguese, 'your way'. : )

    oh, btw, it's been very difficult to get my posts processed here, any hints?

  6. Nick,
    Thanks for the very long and informative comment :) I agree - the teacher was making one mistake after another. Don't want to write more - this time, I'm trying to stay largely on the learner side :) Glad you like the series. The next part will be Turkish and I'm planning to leave English for a dessert ;)

    Can't wait for the 'one day' to come ;)
    Not sure what causes the problem with posting comments but I've experienced it myself too :(

    Btw, I just remembered watching a TV series years ago about a XIXth cent(?) female Brazilian composer. Can't recall her name but I guess it started with the sound 'sh'. She was quite a lady! Any idea who that was?

  7. That was Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935), yep 'ch' sounds 'sh'.
    I found this video list with some more contemporary interpreters performing her songs.

  8. Thanks! That's the lady I was talking about :)