I’m delighted that the very busy Bethany Cagnol has agreed to write a guest post for me. Beth lives in Paris where she combines a gruelling teaching programme with her responsibilities as President of TESOL France. I first met Beth at Paris TESOL November 2009, and was instantly struck with her combination of good humour and the energetic way she went about her work – reminded me of another American woman that I know very well. 🙂
If I were to write a post on Conversation Killers in France, the number one way to clear out a cocktail party is tell people you teach English. I often joke around with my students telling them, “I’m an English teacher. I don’t have any friends.” They chuckle, getting it. After a decade of speaking French, my American accent still leaks through the guttural ‘Rs’ and the pinched /y/ rampant in this romance language. Curious strangers ask me what brought me to France. Upon finding out I teach English, their warm smiles fall like the walls of Jericho and with a curt “Ah! Je vois,” off they walk. Naturally, after the number of instances of this happening shot above a dozen, I had to ask my students, “Pourquoi!?”
Post Traumatic Stress
Many adult French citizens harbor deep, harrowing memories of their English language learning experience in the public school system. Granted, today things are slowly improving, but a great majority of the adult population is petrified to speak English. They have been brainwashed into thinking the French are “nul en langues,” so why surrender themselves to the torture of revealing that fact with tourists, or worse, in front of their co-workers during a professional training course?
English Feels Funny
English is not a beautiful language. We have to open our mouths, show our teeth, bite our tongue and spit if we want to say thespian correctly. All of the above are not common characteristics of French.
The common misconception of the hexagonians is they refuse to speak English because French is far superior. There is some truth to this. The French are proud of their native language. So proud in fact that they want to demonstrate that respect for immaculate grammar and lexis in the second language. Not doing so would surely insult English native speakers. Therefore, why place one’s self in an environment of imperfectionism? I was hit head on with this reality when one student came back from a business trip in New York. I asked if he felt his English had improved. “Why no!” he snapped. “One month in New York wasted! No one corrected me while I was there!” Ah, oui. The French correct foreigners when they try to speak français. It’s because they wish to help the non-natives improve. On the other hand, correcting a foreigner’s English in the United States is widely frowned upon.
Bilingual in 20 hours
One day, I was administering a placement test to a prospective student. When asked for the English skills he’d like to obtain in 20 hours, he responded, “I want to speak like the Queen.” Michael Swan once compared this miscalculation of the work:progress ratio to people who want to climb Mount Everest in a week. Many French think they can just buy the gear, slip on their hiking boots and go for it. Not so. The awakening to find out it requires years of practice and steadfast determination to learn a language can be rude indeed.
Living for a month in an English-speaking country will make you bilingual
“I have to travel to the country to learn the language.” I hear this sentence so often that, I swear, I will go on sick leave. OK, maybe I’m being a hypocrite. Coming to France did enable me to jumpstart my French. Before, I was painfully slow at learning anything that required intense memorization.
In the States, I studied how to shop at the Fnac and order a croque monsieur, but nothing prepared me for the physical and mental exhaustion of drowning in a foreign country. The first year was the hardest. I constantly had migraines. I slept a minimum of 10 hours a night. I never dared answer the phone for fear my wobbly tenses would get the better of me. I needed a nap after a 30-minute conversation in French, not to mention the mail-order-bride feeling at dinner parties, the crying fits and being utterly out-of-the-loop news-wise in two countries.
And the most frustrating thing was this isn’t like me at all! I’m curious, outgoing, an open book! But all of those qualities were suddenly hindered by one simple factor: language. So, I tell my students, if you want to go to chez eux, go. It will do wonders for your language learning. But remember, it takes a very very very strong person to do this. Perfectionists need not apply. You must have absolutely no complexes about anything, especially about being wrong all the time. You must be prepared to make a mistake (linguistically and culturally) at every second of every day. That, my friend, is not easy for the French.
Have Fun, But Not Too Much
Don’t tell anyone, but I was fired from a teaching job once. It was one of my first jobs too, so it really stung. I cried for days. I didn’t get it! The classes were going so well! The students were chatty and had gone through a miraculous transformation from feeling nul to being inspired by their new English skills. What happened? Turns out one student, who had only attended two sessions, demanded the company change teachers because it appeared we were all having too much “fun.” There were too many games, too many role-plays and not enough “teaching.” It’s true. I hadn’t incorporated the left brain.
The French are wonderful learners. They are critical thinkers. They search for the logic in the illogical. They are the only culture I know who can make something that’s already complicated even more convoluted. It’s these customs they bring to the classroom, and what surfaces is their dissection of the language.
This quest for logic can be summed up in two words: “Oui, mais.” These two words stock a lot of punch for a new teacher. It can be interpreted as “I don’t believe you,” or “You’re crazy” or “I know more than you.”
But what I’ve come to see is that something has clicked for the student. For the first time in their lives they are able to converse with the “expert,” to share their knowledge with the teacher. This is very poignant because it will not only bubble up a glimmer of what lies in the student’s past but launch a discussion on the lesson – discussions which the French cradle as a devoted art form.
In conclusion, when teaching the French, one must treat classes like a Joël Robuchon recipe: a mélange of freshness and innovation with a deep respect for ageless tradition.
Bethany Cagnol blogs at http://freelanceteacherinfrance.blogspot.com/