French without tears

It took some time to realise what was happening and it was wonderful. On the Wednesday of my week in Paris I had been to a film and had understood most of what was said. By the Friday, understanding spoken French was almost second nature. After six years, something had clicked. In aeroplane terms, I had got up enough speed to take off. For the French it would be ‘je m’envole‘, and the nice thing about the French wording is that it indicates that I did it myself. The feeling was exhilarating and although reality has since reminded me that there is still a long way to go, a barrier has been broken. Whatever else happens, the week in March will be remembered as something special.

In some ways it should have come as no surprise. I had felt for some time that a breakthrough was due. I was in Paris for my fifth, or was it sixth, immersion. This time, however, it was different. I was staying in the house of my teacher so each day there were over 6 hours of French guaranteed. On day one I made my goal clear – ‘to understand spoken French’; to be ‘fluent’ in comprehension. My writing, reading and speaking were not too bad, but when matched against my own expectations and when compared with my peers, my understanding of conversation was poor. I would often have to ask French speakers to repeat what they had said, which was embarrassing; even then I did not always get the drift, which was worse.

When I declared my goal, Karin said nothing, I even wondered if she had heard me. Then the week began. We worked hard on translation, pronunciation, presentation, grammar etc. and all this was interspersed with more general discussion – about her, about me, about her house, about politics (difficult!) and about France. Gradually, over the five days, I went from hesitant to passably fluent. More importantly, my understanding improved so that conversation became a two-way affair, and rather than feeling that French radio and TV programmes were an unpleasant threat, they became a welcome challenge.

It was quite a transformation and all rather mysterious. Then it clicked – could it be because Karin hardly ever corrected me? Occasionally, yes, but in the main she allowed my mind to flow and through this for me to gain confidence as practice lubricated the French talk centre in my brain. I was suspicious and asked Karin several times why she rarely interrupted and she said that there was no need as I made so few mistakes. And her lie worked. It allowed me to discover myself.

Over the last few years I have been taught by at least a dozen French teachers, with lessons lasting up to three hours and in various venues – cafes, pubs, front rooms but mostly classrooms. Most of my teachers have been superb, and the present ‘team’ (Christiane and Thierry in London, Marie in Brittany) are that and much more. They encourage, drive, and support wonderfully. And when I am being prickly, or press them with questions, they respond with patience and respect. But, as with all teachers, they do what teachers are supposed to do, indeed are paid to do – they correct. And in lessons this is inevitable. Of course they carefully chose what to correct and when to interrupt. During a week long ‘immersion’, the atmosphere can be the same, and in the past this has been the case, but having this ‘correction-free week’ was what I seemed to need. Who would have thought it?

Interestingly, when it came to vocabulary and grammar, Karin was no match for my home team, but that did not seem to matter. What I needed was to be let free for a few days. And, in some ways, the outcome could be predicted, at least at one level. They say that the quickest way to pick up a language is by speaking/hearing it in the playground (or the street). And in such a location, of course, corrections would be unusual. There is, it seems, something to be learned from the ‘playground’ school of teaching. Obviously the ‘silent teacher’ approach can offer nothing erudite and so is far from ideal, but it clearly held advantages for this oldie at this particular stage in his development.

Now, back in London and once again party to the conventional teaching approach, my Paris week seems almost like a dream. But it has left me with added insight and confidence and in French terms, more savoir faire. Such weeks are a wonderful luxury, and are, of course, what ‘summer’ schools are all about. But as is so often the case, having the right teacher at the right time is the essential component, and I was lucky.

 

One comment on “French without tears
  1. Harold East says:

    Dear Joe,

    I’m so pleased you arranged to stay with Karin in Sevres and that you benefited from her tuition. Is her mother is living? I have made a similar discovery to you that the time comes when the fewer, and more succinct the corrections by the teacher, the better. It improves confidence and fluency which I believe is key to progress in speaking naturally. Let’s meet for lunch.

    Kind regards, Harold

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