Friday, March 04, 2016

Mes, ils yas mes mes! Commeme.

Griffin, now age eight, just this morning learned to write il y a [there is/there are] instead of ils yas [they…uh…what?]

His teacher lets me pull him out of class twice a week for French lessons with me in the school hallway, and for the past few months I've been struggling with how to balance our time together: read fiction or nonfiction? focus on writing or speaking?  accuracy or fluency? and can I get through the "teaching" quickly enough to have time to play a French word game* with him every Friday, which he considers a real treat (not realizing that it's educational too, heh heh heh)?

Griffin is the second-best speller in second grade** without any particular effort on his or our part, which I had always attributed to his voracious reading--he just seemed to pick it up.  But that's not happening with French!  (Of course, while he is perfectly content to listen to me read to him, he doesn't seek out books to read in French or Spanish by himself; his appetite for books is monolingual.)

voracious and flexible!
As a result, his French spelling is based on vague notions of what letter combinations make which sounds and the firm belief that lots of letters aren't actually pronounced, which means they can be sprinkled in with impunity, especially if he throws a few accents aigus in there to jazz things up.  Olé!

This approach, of course, is completely understandable, even natural; I know plenty of native-English-speaking adults who would claim that "their are defiantly a few peices of pizza left in the refridgerater" and not loose lose any sleep about it.  And why should they, when their meaning is perfectly clear?

But then I remember reading a note from a friend who grew up bilingual in the US with her French parents.   We were both 20-year-olds studying abroad in France; I had had four years of French classes, none with a native-speaking teacher, while she had never had any formal instruction in reading and writing for the language that she spoke fluently.  She wrote "commeme," which I assumed to be slang or some other expression I had never encountered.  Turns out that she was going for "quand même" [even so], a phrase that I didn't know until we eventually figured out how to spell it.

Aaaaand that's why us would-be bilinguals need "book learning" as well as real-life conversation experience!

So how to handle this with Griffin?  Petit à petit.  Not so much spelling and grammar that it makes him dread our "French school time" together, but enough that he each time he will walk away knowing how to spell one common word or expression correctly.  And, more importantly, why, so that he can apply that knowledge to other words.

For example, he now understands that a is a verb and à is a preposition (and, yes, he knows what a preposition is--thanks, Schoolhouse Rock!) and that mes [my], mais [but], and maïs [corn] are not interchangeable ("Mais ce sont mes maïs !" he will say, just to be contrary).  Today it was il y a, and boy, does it feel good to look down at his paper and not see any ils yas any more.

How do I pick which expressions to focus on?  Whatever is written*** so unclearly that anyone other than his maman wouldn't know what he meant, or else errors that show up frequently in his writing (sometimes these overlap).  And while I only address one or two things at a time, we sometimes go back through previous summaries so he can find the mistakes and fix them on his own.  He's been ils yasing for at least a year!  

Next up: tackling "je" vs. "j'ai."  French is fun!

And so is battling your little sister with balloon swords--en garde!
*Le pendu (Hangman) or his favorite, Le petit bac (similar to Scattergories).

**Ironically, at the school-wide spelling bee last week, he misspelled a word of French origin: personnel (he did "p-e-r-s-o-n-a-l," because he didn't know what "personnel" meant.  And why would he?!).

***What do I make bribe encourage him to write about in French?  I'll save that for another blog post.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Happy New…er…February!

I might not have posted for three months, but I promise that I'm still speaking exclusively French with my kiddos!  And leading a monthly French immersion storytime and running a monthly French immersion playdate and tutoring three children in French and teaching Griffin to write in French….I just can't find time to blog about it.

For now, I'll just have to content myself with posting a cute photo of G&G quietly sharing a book.  Moments like this fill me with such joy and peace.

Or, rather, big brother resigning himself to the fact that little sister will always be peering over his shoulder.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quelle heure est-il? Time for some realia!

The curse of having been an ESL/EFL teacher is that I am still compelled to collect and keep examples of American culture and English language in context and comic strips and advertisements and newspaper articles and funny pictures (not to mention all of the textbooks I used as a grad student, the textbooks I taught out of, the class set of paper clocks, the flashcards, the bingo markers, the fly swatters, the puppets, the picture files…you teachers know what I'm talking about!)

Yes, that is indeed a stuffed Eiffel Tower.  Smiling broadly and sporting a beret.  Kitsch much?
And the curse of having started my teaching career in 1996 means that I'm still fighting the mindset of "I can't get rid of this--I might need it again some day!"  My email account was still a toddler at that point; I didn't have internet access at home (and probably wouldn't have known what to do with it if I did); I certainly couldn't consult with teachers across the world via listservs and blogs, or type, say, "how to teach the conditional past" into a search box on Google or Teachers Pay Teachers, and my Pinterest addiction wouldn't hit until my late 30s.

In other words, I became a teacher who believed strongly in hard copies.  If you excavate my home office, the strata go from "French with elementary students" to "French with preschoolers" to "French with toddlers" to "French with babies" (as my children grew) to "French with college students" (my job before starting a family" to "ESL with college students" to "Masters degree in TESL/TEFL" and "Masters degree in French" to "ESL with high schoolers in France," with assorted private tutoring leftovers scattered throughout (study skills!  note-taking!  SAT vocabulary! freshman composition! and my favorite tutoring story, about the two Korean boys whose parents fired me because I made their sons laugh too often when teaching them English).

This is the teaching souvenir of which I am most proud: the director's chair signed by all the actors in one of the French plays I produced at Colorado State University
Anyway.  I am trying to hang on to fewer articles and worksheets and pictures--especially since I can save them to Pinterest rather than printing them out--and especially now since our basement flooded TWICE last month on separate and unrelated occasions and I easily could have lost two decades' worth of lesson plans, worksheets, plays photocopied from Interlibrary Loan materials and carefully glossed by hand so that they'd be accessible rather than overwhelming to my students….Thinking about it makes my skin crawl.

the rusty residue of one of my three metal filing cabinets
Where was I?  Ah oui, realia.  The term refers to examples of real stuff from a country where the target language is spoken--directions for operating a hair dryer, the box that the hair dryer came in, the magazine ad promoting the hair dryer, the receipt from the store where you bought the hair dryer, the warranty card for the hair dryer.

Okay, so those are not very exciting examples, but you get the picture.  Think movie listings, driver's license applications, museum brochures, restaurant menus, chocolate wrappers, cereal boxes, classified ads, personal ads, lost pet flyers, and all those items that track the minutiae of daily life and simultaneously present language in a rich context and reveal information about what the culture considers interesting or important.

The 11-year-old boy that I've been tutoring (he's a home schooler who wants to learn French) has been learning the days of the week, the months of the year, and how to tell time ("You mean that to say 7:45 pm I have to add 12 to the 7 and subtract 15 from 8:00?  Geez.  French is weird!").  I found such a fantastic piece of realia for him that I just had to share it:

A blank schedule page?  What's the big deal?
So this emploi du temps is a nice example of a school schedule template that a French learner can fill in to practice time, days of the week, and the class names.  But that's not all!  Here are some other elements that an astute student might notice (with some guidance from le prof):

  • The week begins on lundi (Monday).
  • Time is listed according to the 24-hour clock.
  • Lunch is such an ingrained part of the day that it is included every school day at noon as a given.
  • The school week ends on samedi (Saturday--though I understand that few French schools still hold class on Saturday mornings any more)
  • The days of the week are not capitalized
  • French cursive handwriting is different (and cuter?) than American cursive.
  • The digit 1 begins with a pre-stroke like an upbeat or a tiny wing, while the 7 features a horizontal stroke that just makes it look cooler than an American seven.
  • The drawings at the bottom don't depict football, pennants, or technology.
  • But they do include the ubiquitous and very French trousse (a pencil case that sits at the top of every desk to enable students to rotate between pencils, fountain pens, and ballpoint pens of various colors as well as to underline key points with a straight edge at a moment's notice).
  • The bird icon is speaking English! 
And these are the sort of things that we teachers (should) want our kiddos to pay attention to.  If you're learning a language, it doesn't happen in a vacuum.  Verb conjugations are fine and dandy, but they don't do you any good if you show up for dinner on the wrong day at the wrong time because you misread the calendar or assumed that 18h was the same thing as 8:00.

What are some of your favorite pieces of realia, as a student or a teacher?  (And do you have any souvenirs as tacky-but-delightful than my Tour Eiffel en peluche?  You know you do.  Go ahead, tell us about them!)

Friday, October 23, 2015

an unexpected result of a parent-teacher conference

I hate soccer. Je déteste le foot.

Griffin, par contre, adore le foot.
No, wait, that's too strong.  Rather, I am ambivalent about sports and I dislike the commitment that playing on a kids' soccer team requires--two practices a week, right at dinner time (which means that we can either eat early without my husband, who is still at work, or eat later, which throws off the kids' bedtime routine), plus a game on Saturdays which can be as early as 9:00 or as late as 4:00.

On soccer afternoons, Griffin has to walk home from school, decompress from his 7.5-hour school day (he craves time by himself most days), eat a protein-heavy snack, do his homework (20 minutes or so), practice his music (10 minutes), find his shin guards and cleats and water bottle and hat, and walk to practice, all in two hours.

This would, of course, be a piece of gâteau to a grown-up, but not for a lollygagging seven-year-old.  And not for the seven-year-old's mother and his little sister who must accompany him for all these steps.

He loves her very much, of course, but sometimes he just wants her to leave him alone.
So I feel confident in blaming le foot for the fact that it's been hard to get Griffin to do anything in French at home with me lately.  He's a busy little boy, and I don't want to push him to read and write in French if he doesn't want to; he'll resist and resent it.  (Fortunately, he still willingly snuggles and listens to me read aloud in French at bedtime.)

At his first parent-teacher conference of the year, as we discussed how to keep him engaged and challenged in second grade, I had a brainstorm: I asked the teacher if I could come in a couple of times a week to do French lessons with him during the school day.  And she agreed!

So far, so good.  He's thrilled to skip the school breakfast and calendar/circle time for half an hour at the beginning of the day while spending time one-on-one with maman. We sit at a table just outside his classroom and take turns reading aloud, then we discuss what we read, then he writes a little about it, and--his favorite--sometimes we play word games. It's low-key, and lovely.

It makes me so, so happy to spend time helping him explore this language that I love.  And not having to coax or cajole him to interact in French, not having to ward off and wrangle his inquisitive, imperious sister, not having to squeeze our lessons in between snack and soccer, or chores and bath, or homework and dinner--that makes our time together all the sweeter.

my smiley garçon, showing off the chameléon he made in art class

Sunday, September 27, 2015

l'alphabet français II : répétez !

Okay, so now you have listened to more French alphabet songs than you'd ever thought possible.  Enough listening!  You won't learn the sounds and the names of the letters until you get comfortable pronouncing them.  So clear your throat, take a long drink of eau, and try these out:

"Military-style French Alphabet": An English-speaking French teacher walks you through her version of the alphabet, set to the rhythm of a familiar military cadence ("I don't know but I've been told…").  This ten-minute video is very thorough and offers opportunities to practice single lines at a time slowly and then build up to saying the whole chant more quickly.

Watch this quick example first:

But this guy's cuter: Tom from is a young Frenchman who earnestly teaches Anglophone viewers how to say the French alphabet.  Do watch this too so that you hear a native speaker pronouncing the letter names:

Want to keep practicing but don't want to keep watching these same two videos over and over?  (Oui!)

These websites have simple pronunciation activities:

From, click on the letter and repeat:

From, words that start with each letter to listen to and repeat:

This page from the BBC focuses on the trickier sounds for anglophones, including nasal vowels.  Strangely, it neglects to include U.  (My high school French teacher always told us to "round your lips as if you're going to say "ooooo" but then say "eeeee" instead.")

And, finally, here's another activity that reinforces on the vowel sounds, courtesy of

Coming soon: l'alphabet français, part 3, which will feature games and apps about the alphabet….

Friday, September 25, 2015

l'alphabet français I : chantez !

It's time for my tutees to learn the French alphabet (and for my four-year-old to stop mumbling "elmo-elmo-pé" when she gets lost in the middle of the song)!  Let's start with some chansons (songs)...

First, some traditional alphabet songs with Mozart's familiar melody:

La chanson de l'alphabet, featuring a man's voice accompanied by a calm acoustic guitar:

The letters appear on screen, along with the lyrics at the end of the song: "Maintenant je les connais/Toutes les lettres de l'alphabet."

This one, from the website Le monde des petits, has a child's voice singing the alphabet and gentle synthesizer music; it's the one Gwyneth likes best (she actually sings along, and she's very picky about that sort of thing):

The lyrics end a little differently: "Maintenant je les connais/Chante avec moi s'il te plaît."  This 20-minute video continues with a catchy animated song about the numbers 1-10, assigning a rhyming characteristic to each of them ("le sept aime les chaussettes"), and then includes a second alphabet song after the numbers, this one like a lullaby.

My favorite French version of the traditional alphabet song, however, is the accordion-spiced ABC & 123 Cajun from Michael Doucet (founder of the popular group Beausoleil).  Unfortunately, no one has made a cute animated video of it or posted a live version on YouTube, so for now, listen to the promotional clip (#7) on Amazon (and consider buying the album, Le Hoogie-Boogie, Louisiana French Music for Children--it's delightful).

But why limit ourselves to the usual versions?  You might like some of these fun, less-traditional French alphabet songs:

Alain Le Lait's L'alphabet en français, funky and animated:

The lyrics are simple: multiple repetitions of the alphabet, each followed by "c'est l'alphabet en français."

You will probably recognize this next melody for the alphabet song: it's the aria "L'amour est un oiseau rebel" from Bizet's Carmen.  I think it's genius!

A nice change from the major-key alphabet songs is this one; it's simply a different melody with those same 26 letters:

Ditto (the exact song, but this video features barnyard fowl rocking out):

This next video introduces each letter of the alphabet, accompanied by a drawing of an animal that begins with that letter.  The singer/narrator pauses just long enough for the viewers to repeat after him.  I like that the animal names appear onscreen, and especially that not all of the creatures are the ones you'd expect.  (Cigogne for C, for example, rather than the more common chat, chien, or cheval; and not an éléphant but rather an écureil for E.  And who doesn't appreciate a good "N is for narval"?)

And if you like learning a word along with each letter, then you should check out Les Alphas, a video introducing the alphabet via characters shaped like the letters.  Each one represents the sound(s) that the letter makes.  Some are cute (the dame and her extremely ample derrière) and some confusing (you'll think the C looks like a chenille, but it's actually a cornichon, while the N, which is supposed to be a nez, looks like the love child of a champignon and a crotte).  I also can't help thinking that the jet d'eau looks too much like a sperm.

(Did you notice the limace for L?  Whose idea was it to make its mascot a slug?!)

I do wish each of the words were written onscreen--especially since it appears that this video is part of a program for teaching (French-speaking) children to read.  Curious to see more?  Check out this clip that focuses on the vowel sounds and this one that introduces the back story of the planète des Alphas.

Now, take a trip back to the 1980s with Chantal Goya and her live-action on-stage spectacular featuring  little girls in matching sailor suit dresses; larger-than-life chickens, cats, and an egg with limbs; and Madame Goya herself with such a sweet voice and such large shoulder pads, gently encouraging us to "Apprends l'alphabet en chantant" :

(This video is simultaneously horrifying and enthralling, isn't it?  I bet you couldn't look away from the singer and her sprightly, singing, head-tilting minions.  I'm so sorry for inflicting this earworm on you!)

So…which one is your favorite, and why?  Which one(s) would you be happy to never hear again?

Stay tuned for part 2 (practicing repeating the alphabet) and part 3 (playing games online to practice the alphabet).

Friday, July 31, 2015

new resources to share!

Although it still is (and no doubt will always be) a work-in-progress, I have been updating my "French Teaching at Home" page with more books, games, songs, resources, and more.  Please take a look and tell me if I'm missing any of your favorites!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

jeux de mots avec Griffin

Griffin loves to play with words in all three of his languages--he tells and invents jokes, plays word games, does crossword puzzles and word searches, and even makes up puns.  Here's his best one in French so far--I am soooo happy that he has fun doing this sort of thing!

Maman : Oh, non, je me suis trompée. [Oh, no, I was wrong.]

Griffin: No, Mom, you're not all wet!  ["Trempée," soaked, is pronounced the same way as "trompée," wrong.]

Maman: [giggles appreciatively]

Griffin, on a roll: And you're not an elephant, either!  You're not "trompée" !  You don't have a trompe ! ["une trompe" is an elephant's trunk; he turned the noun into a new adjective, "trunked."]

(Okay, so I guess you had to be there.)

Here's one more example.  During a long car ride on vacation, Griffin and my mom and I were playing "Last Letter/First Letter" in French.  (One person says a word, and then the next player says a word that begins with the last letter of the previous word, and so on.)

After a while, they were getting stuck on "E" and "R," both of which appear very frequently in French.  Knowing that the words for some animals' young are formed by adding a suffix like -on (ourson, chaton) or -eau (éléphanteau, souriceau), Griffin started adding these suffixes to words where they don't belong, and in such a confident voice that my mother believed that words like rhinocéroseau (baby rhino) actually existed!

(Again, you had to be there--but I'm really glad that I was.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bonjour, bonjour ! Comment ça va ?

As a parent who only speaks French to my American children, I work as an unpaid teacher 24/7.  But I also have several private tutoring clients, parents who actually pay me to speak French to their children!  I really enjoy teaching French to these kiddos, but being with my own children reinforces that 30 or 60 minutes a week is not nearly enough for these other kids.  

Therefore, I'm starting to recommend videos that the kiddos can watch at home to reinforce what we cover during our private tutoring lessons.  Here are some fun videos to practice listening comprehension of words and phrases related to greeting people and asking how they're doing:

"Bonjour, Hello" by BASHO and Friends -- song with onscreen lyrics and lots of repetition of several ways to ask and answer "how are you" in French; designed for non-native speakers; no photos, videos, or other illustrations of what the words mean.

"Comment ça va" by Juli Powers -- an upbeat song for children that presents lots of options for responding to the question "How are you?", with photos illustrating each sentence and the lyrics in French at the bottom of the screen.

"French Greetings Song" by Natasha Morgan -- a gentle song with onscreen lyrics that appear as the singer writes and draws; features also common questions such as "what's your name" and "how old are you," plus numbers.  Each question or response is repeated three times in French and then the English equivalent is given.

Also from Natasha Morgan, here is her translation of "Two Little Birdies," this one with Fifi and Blanche, who greet each other, state their names, and then fly away.  Short and cute and clear!

"Bonjour" by Alain Le Lait, a short song with a rock and roll feel presenting several phrases in French worth memorizing: how are you, I'm happy to be here, thank you for coming.  A nice feature: the lyrics appear at the bottom of the screen (accompanied by happy, headless, dancing Gumbies) at the beginning but not when the verses are repeated.  Good for listening comprehension!

"Bonjour" by Louis and Josée of Mini TFO (a show for children on Canadian television), a short song featuring real live people who invite the watchers and other children to join them at the playground; no onscreen lyrics.

"Bonjour" from the Disney film "La Belle et la Bête" -- this is the opening song where Belle walks through her village greeting the other residents.  Sung in French; no lyrics onscreen, but you can read the transcription of the song and the dialogue interspersed here.

"Bonjour, bonjour" is a fast, catchy song by L'autobus à vapeur, a group that does songs in French for children (native speakers).  This video is a version sung by a children's choir, accompanied by a cute cartoon and onscreen lyrics.  (You can hear the original song here, no lyrics or video.)

Which one(s) do you and your kiddos like best and why?  Recommendations for other songs about French greetings?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Gwyneth "can't stand" my French!

My daughter (who recently turned four, which gives me hope for my sanity, as she's no longer a "threenager") is very, very good at pushing my buttons, and she is realizing that perhaps the best way to do this is to claim that she doesn't know what I'm saying and that I need to translate it into English for her.
joyeux anniversaire !
"Mommy!  I can't 'stand your French!  Say it in English!"

Deep breaths.

Don't let her know that I'm frustrated and saddened.

Recognize that yelling, "Mais si, je sais que tu me comprends!" doesn't improve the situation.  [But I know you understand me!]  To which she will reply, in English, "No I don't!"

Just smile, rephrase, repeat.  Point, gesture, demonstrate.  Hug, rephrase, repeat.  Hug, repeat.  Hug.  Câlin.  Hug.

"You can take a picture of me, but you can't make me smile."