What was my best-ever day as a language learner?

It was, as they say, Proustian. I was on the platform of the La Poubelle metro station in Paris.  It was a perfect, late-afternoon, orange-light tableau: me, Holden, a high-school classmate who I’d happened to run into purely by chance, a beautiful French girl in a black miniskirt, her three-year old girl, and a French man.  I had just bought, yes, a madeleine and as I bit off un petit morceau, the Frenchman said to me Est-ce que le train à Poitiers est sorti?.

Well, I think that’s what he said. You see, I hadn’t actually done a lot of listening to good French during my six years in my beloved Monsieur Tabernac’s French class. I had listened to Monsier Tabernac a lot and I will remain forever grateful for his long, complex and sophisticated lectures on the passé-composé and other interesting topics, and I had listened to a lot of my classmates speaking French– well, let’s face it, mostly English– but French, not so much.

But, no matter that I couldn’t be sure I understood my interlocutor. I just KNEW that Monsieur Tabernac had done his level best to prepare me for France, and so, as I stood with the Frenchman’s question ringing in my ears and chewed on the madeleine, I cast my mind’s eye back to those amazing French classes, searching for the answer to that question. What did I see?

Rows. A blackboard. A screen and an LCD projector. Dusty filing cabinets. Shelves of dictionaries– not dusty; we used the dictionaries daily– in French. Posters of French writers whose works, Monsieur Tabernac would assure us, were absolutely central to our development as both French speakers and solid human beings. An overhead projector.

At the front, comme d’habitude, was Monsier Tabernac asking us to take out our homework. Instead of staring at the amazing curves of Sonya– whom I’d been drooling over since we’d both been in home-ec together in 9th grade– I looked toward the screen, where the homework was projected. “Man,” I thought, “this is gonna frikkin’ rock— grammar homework!”  Like all of Monsieur Tabernac’s assignments, it was really interesting. There were sentences with the verbs removed, and you had to find out what was happening in each sentence by

A) reading the rest of the sentence to get a general overview of its meaning.
B) going to the list of verbs at the bottom and looking up their meanings in the dictionary
C) picking the verb that best fit
C) conjugating the verb

Some of the sentences that day were

Je ______ à Paris.

Tu _____ à Lourdes.

This was really cool. I didn’t know who “je” or “tu” were, or why they, uhh, something to?  in?  at? Paris and Lourdes, but man, what an interesting exercise. The best thing was, Monsieur Tabernac had given us not just two but forty such sentences so the passé-composé fun just kept on coming.

“Hey,” whispered my neighbour Holden, “this is dumb, I didn’t do it, let me see yours.” What! Really? Why would a kid want to copy my homework? This would deprive him of not only the valuable knowledge of the passé composé, but of the exquisite pleasure of filling in the blanks. I have never really understood why so many kids in my high school just copied each others’ French homework. I mean, did they not want to learn French?  How could you possibly learn French without worksheets and daily grammar practice?  Holden grabbed my cahier and furiously scribbled down the answers. Holden managed to finish just before Monsieur Tabernac shuffled up the aisle past us, glancing at our cahiers.

Once we’d finished marking our homework, Monsieur Tabernac said “I have noticed that some of you are having problems with passé composé adjective agreement avec le verbe être so I’ll do you the enormous favour of tapping into my extensive knowledge of French grammar and explaining this again for your benefit,” at which point he delivered a simply mesmerising lecture about how the subjects of sentences where the être verb is used in past-tense auxiliary formation dictate that the past participle agree in both number and gender with their antecedents.  As he delivered this impromptu and very beneficial lecture, an immense farting sound came from Holden’s desk, where he had fallen asleep. “HOLDEN!” yelled Monsieur Tabernac, and, when Holden sat up, blinking, he added “I am trying to give you as much detailed grammatical knowledge as possible about the French language, so that one day you may live the dream that all young men do, and go to Paris, and order a croque-monsieur with espresso, and read philosophy books in a café on the left bank. So turn that frown upside down, find some grit, and pay attention!”

Holden blinked, and said “Sorry, Monsieur, I don’t know why I fell asleep and dreamed about rolling fat blunts of bomb Cali chronic with my fine shorties, but clearly I need to get with the grammar program.”

This made me so happy. It would be ridiculous to imagine that a teenager should prefer thinking about marijuana and girls to learning about the passé composé and the possibility of one day discussing early twentieth-century philosophy with old French men. I was glad Monsieur Tabernac had straightened Holden out.

For our next activity, we were going to learn about pronoun placement. I’d been just DYING to learn this. Monsieur Tabernac began with showing us a short, amazing video called “Est-ce que tu l’a?” which was part of his new, cutting-edge teaching strategy called l’approche communcatif-experientielle. He’d explained this to us by saying “obviously, the most important aspect of knowing another language is a rock-solid grasp of the grammar rules, but we also have reason to believe that one must speak the language in realistic situations, such as finding out interesting and necessary information from others. After all, the more we talk, the more we learn” (which was true: Mr Tabernac talked for hours about French grammar, and he obviously knew it inside-out.  Also, duhh, that’s what babies do:  they learn by talking).

The video had a guy asking a girl interesting questions and she answered. It was also loaded with cool cultural stuff, like shopping for a dinner party in France. In the video, the man first asked the girl “as-tu acheté les baguettes? and she answered with “Oui, je les ai acheté.” How cool was that– in France an essential part of culture is that people eat bread! Who would have known?  I was psyched because although I would probably never say the word baguette in America, I would sure use it in France. Then the girl said “As-tu preparé le repas?” and the guy answered “Oui, je l’ai preparé.” MORE culture stuff– in France people eat dinner together! Americans never do that; we’re so different.

After the video, we got a five-minute grammar lesson on object pronoun placement, and then Monsieur Tabernac told us to ouvrez our livres to page 97. (He was SUCH a nice guy– he told us that he usually didn’t get to P.97 until the 17th of January each year– we were clearly a VERY advanced class as it was January 16th).

During the grammar lecture the massive farting sound came again from Holden’s desk and I elbowed him awake. I didn’t know it then, but the sounds and smells of farts would be forever associated with French grammar in my mind.  On P97 was a list of objects and we had to ask our partners if they had bought the object in question. Then they were supposed to ask us. This was cool: you learned to speak by speaking.  What, other than grammar practice, could be more natural?

“As-tu acheté la salade?” I asked Holden and he said  “is it tossed?” and giggled and I said “il faut parler en français” and he said “dude.” Then it was his turn and he said “Aimes-tu baiser les jeunes filles?” and I immediately applied all of my grammar knowledge and said “Oui, j’aime les baiser.” At this point Holden laughed but I didn’t know why– I obviously knew how to apply the rules and I had generated a perfect French sentence using them.  Then Holden was bored and I had to practice by myself.  And I did.  I mean, seriously, what is more fun: asking your friend French questions about really interesting stuff– like buying bread and salad or a scarf– or talking about weekend party plans in English?  As I looked aorund class, I was amazed to see most of my classmates Snapchatting or speaking English.  A few of them wanted to practice and that was awesome.  I asked “aiment-tu manger le pain?”  And they would answer “oui j’aimons manger le.”  I loved listening to good authentic French from American kids. Why would a kid speak English to another kid if they could speak French?  OK, sure, French was hard, and we didn’t really know what we were saying, and it was boring (for kids other than me) to talk about buying food over and over, but still…people had to get some grit and just knuckle down and do the work.

When this was done, we had some portfolio time. For me, the only thing more important than grammar lectures and homework, and practising speaking new vocab, was portfoli– err, portefeuille time. This was where we got out our portfolios and our writing assignments and reflected on how we could improve our Français.

There was a thing called the C.E.F.R. which stands for “completely explicated French rocks.” This was a system of giving students a Number from A1 (“you suck and must be stereotypically American”) to C2 (“you are ready to drink café au lait and manger des croques-monsieurs à Paris”). So if you got an A1, you would know, OK, you sucked, which would obviously motivate you to get to a C2. (It hit me then– this is why Monsieur Tabernac was such a rigorous teacher:  because a few low marks int he class motivated kids to not get those low marks).  Anyway for each Number there was this list of things you had to be able to do to get the number (French class was like work: you did Activity a, b or c, or made product e, f or g,  and they paid you with a Number).

The “explicated” means “broken down into bits and explained,” basically. So I was working on getting my C.E.F.R.  A2 (“You are now allowed into France, but only on a temporary work visa, and, because you still sound like an American, albeit less so than your countrymen, do not dare to talk to any French philosophers and don’t even think about chatting up a sexy French person”) and for this, as the Council of Europe website says, I had to be able to

  • understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc
  • deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • produce simple connected text on topics, which are familiar, or of personal interest.
  • describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans

So I rifled through my paragraphs, essays and worksheets, and thought, what learning and cognitive strategies can I use to reflect on my performance and thereby improve it? I realised that I had not, ever, reviewed my writing and checked for adjective agreement. I also realised that it had never occurred to me to look at pictures, or words that looked like English words, to help me guess the French meaning, and I also realised, I don’t spend enough time practising.

So I went through and checked all of my writing for adjective agreement problems. Lo and behold, my otherwise-perfect French was riddled with errors, like this: “Je être une grosse garçon” where obviously the problem was, I should have written “gros.” It just went to show what Monsieur Tabernac always told us: if you consciously focus on something, and really summon some grit, you can find and fix the problem.  There was my revised sentence, now perfect: “Je être une gros garçon.”  How useful it was to break out the grammar notes, find a rule, and fix one’s errors.

So for twenty-five minutes I beavered away at my adjective agreement. Almost at level two, I whispered to myself, almost there. One or two of the other kids– but not Holden– were also working really hard, not talking or on their phones. I had to periodically nudge Holden because his sleepy farts disrupted the class.

I was totally happy when Monsieur Tabernac assigned us fifty more sentences using direct object pronouns, dictionary searches, and verb conjugation. And to add to the fun, he said “you’re having a pronoun test on Monday.” Awesome– I love a challenge.

As I was lost in my reverie, the Frenchman on the metro platform said “allo?” and I thought, oh yes, he’d asked me a question, and I went back into my grammar knowledge and thought, ok, DR AND MRS VANDERTRAMP verb, masculine subject, passé composé, OK, I can do this, and opened my mouth, ready to use my French.

But there was nobody there.  Where had the Frenchman gone? I turned around and there was the three-year old girl telling him “Non, Monsieur, le train n’est pas sortí” and there was Holden talking to her gorgeous French maman. “T’es occupé ce soir?” he said, “j’aimerais t’inviter a manger parce que t’es trés belle et j’aimerais te connaître.”

I don’t know what Holden was saying to her, but she smiled at him and touched his shoulder as he took out his phone and started entering a number. I almost felt jealous, but then the train came, and I thought, awesome, soon I will be on the Left Bank, drinking café and eating a croque-monsieur while I discuss Sartre. I mean, what else was French for?

1 April 2015

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5 comments

  1. The wife of a friend with whom I was studying Urdu (with the friend, not the wife….. I wish) exclaimed Oh! You can visit Pakistan and see all the monuments and tombs! Her husband said, No! He wants to sit in cafes and talk to old men about philosophy. True story. He was right of course.
    I’m not sure chatting up girls in Pakistan is a good idea right now for an American anyway.

  2. Good stuff! I would love to see you tear apart American teachers’ current OBSESSION over “authentic resources” with your wit in a similar post someday.

      1. I have also never seen research that shows that authentic resources in and of themselves do anything for acquisition. I also think that if a language class’ goal is to “develop undertsanding of the culture where _____ is spoken,” we can do this much better in L1, as L2 seriously limits what we can say/think and restricts “culture” talk to tacos in México, baguettes in Paris and tango in Argentina.

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