My good friend and climbing partner is Major Ian Cox, M.D. of the Canadian Armed Forces (yes, Canada has an army, and we are so badassed that we once invaded America and burned down their presidential residence, which they rebuilt and painted White). Major Cox and I were recently swilling bee– err, climbing in Las Vegas and the Major told me how he acquired French. Some useful lessons here.
Corporal Cox enrolled in the Army at age 16 because it was free Uni. He had had some textbookish French teaching in highschool, which he described as “useless.” He became a zipperhead (tank driver) and then did a chem degree at U of Ottawa.
Wanting extra $$ and knowing from a 20 mm wrench, the Corporal got a job in an Ottawa bike store. Since about two-thirds of the customers were French speakers, he heard a lot of French. More specifically, he would hear things like can you adjust my brakes and chain? and when are these going on sale? and how much is this? over and over. He had to ask his boss initially what things meant, and once meaning had been clarified, he was able to pick things up easily. He did a lot more listening than talking, most of the staff also being native French speakers.
Then there were the French girls. Ten years’ worth of French girlfriends also provided an entirely different incentive to acquire French. The Sergeant was introduced to a lot of French families, where a standard set of questions and a standard set of rituals (with accompanying language) provided a lot of repeated French.
He returned to Uni, doing an M.Sc. in chemical hygiene. The Captain tested into the Army’s French ranking and did well enough that they started sending him on U.N. missions and to work with French-speaking soldiers. Army work in French was the same deal: limited vocab used over and over. Whether you are doing tank maneuvers, testing for mines, running first-aid drills or doing contamination surveys, you are using limited vocab, it is being repeated a lot, and it is anchored in movement, objects, ritual etc so it is very comprehensible.
When the Captain went to med school and came out a Major, he also went to U. of O., where again he heard loads of French. Now, when we drink bee– err, climb, and we meet Quebeckers, I am in the listener’s seat, and am amazed at the Major’s fluency and pure lain Quebecois accent.
So, what enabled him to acquire French?
- restricted vocab.
- massive meaningful recycling of that vocab.
- comprehensible input: what was said matched what was happening and visible.
- a lot of input, and relatively limited demands for output.