Monday, June 04, 2007

à la recherche du mot juste

I'm posting from Louisville, Kentucky, where I'm spending the next week scoring AP French exams. These written and oral tests determine whether high school students will receive college credit for their advanced French class. It's my first time here, and it's intimidating. I'm realizing that I've gotten used to being a fairly big fish in a smallish pond--directing plays in French, authoring a CD-ROM of interactive exercises to accompany a French textbook, leading a summer study abroad program in Grenoble, serving on the Board of the state foreign language teachers' organization, giving workshops. Here, I'm a newbie, generally clueless, apparently a too-generous grader (based on the assigned criteria--my students might disagree, though!), clearly a non-native speaker, and what's worse, a weak speaker compared to my new colleagues. I've spent a great deal of the past two days feeling incompetent, and it's painful. My accent--particularly intonation--just isn't good enough, my phrasing sometimes strikes me as English instead of French, and often I find myself resorting to mundane words because I can't find the mot juste or anything more descriptive in French.

Have I always struggled this much? Has it been too long since I've spent time in France? Do I not make enough effort to expose myself to French outside of school? Are my native and native-like colleagues too indulgent with me, letting my errors and infelicitous expressions pass by without comment or correction? And, at the core of these fears, am I jeopardizing my students? Or at least putting them at a disadvantage? What does this mean for my nephew, for whom I am pretty much the only live input he receives in French?

What's important for me this week, though, is to push through these insecurities and get the most out of this experience as I can. I'll develop skill and speed in reading and assessing these essays, I'm sure, but I also want to improve my own skills in French. To that end, I'm encouraging myself to seek out the native speakers to chat with, to swap teaching ideas, to jot down idiomatic expressions and phrases I want to make my own, to finesse my listening comprehension. Because, you know, now I have a higher goal: not just to teach my college students the grammar they need to know to take the following class, but rather to help my baby nephew acquire a comfortable, natural, colloquial, useful French so that when he's in his thirties and finds himself surrounded by French speakers, he feels just fine, unlike his Tatie Sarah right now.

PS: My roommate here is also an aunt teaching her baby nephew French!


  1. I feel the same way. I have been discouraged the last couple of days, feeling like I will never be able to speak German quickly and with ease. I don't know how to get to the next level with the constraints I have. I guess I'll just keep plugging away!

  2. Oooh I know exactly how you feel .. feeling content in our comfort zone and suddenly seeing something which makes us feel very small.

    I think it's not bad to feel insecure once in awhile ... especially when it's followed by fresh spirit and high motivation to improve ourselves :D!

  3. You'll make it through! Big hug of support!

  4. Ha! I feel this way about my *native* tongue... when reading *board books* to my 10 month old... I can't imagine what it'd be like correcting AP Spanish exams. *sigh* But it is good to get out of your comfort zone. I read an essay yesterday about how at some point success means having the opportunity to do things beyond our current level of expertise.

    March on, march on...

  5. Thanks, y'all. I'm feeling a little better about it tonight (but not really enjoying it yet). One thing I'm getting out of looking at those essays that's relevant to this blog, though, is that it's important to help our would-be bilingual kids learn to read and write in both languages.

    We've seen a few essays by heritage speakers--at least we assume these are students who hear French at home but didn't study it extensively at school--and while if we read the essays aloud they sound pretty fluent and colloquial, they are fraught with grammar and structural errors. (This is due in part to the fact that "e (with an accent)," "er," "ai," "ais," "ait," and other combinations are all pronounced very similarly, yet indicate very, very different things at the end of a word in French. If you haven't worked with the different verb tenses, adjective endings, and so forth, you don't know how to write what you can say.)

  6. Oh Sarah - We've all had those moments! You know that right?

  7. Nicole's right, and I do know that.

    But I also know that I'm very glad to have only two more days of this intensive grading left!

  8. Sarah- I saw your blog URL in your e-mail and thought I'd check it out. Reading about your AP grading experience was familiar to me, too. In fact, just last week I happened upon a sidewalk cafe table of francophiles which included a friend of mine, so I decided to join them. Although I've done graduate work in French, lived in France, and taught French in the past, in recent years I haven't uttered more than a few French sentences. While my ear tuned in quickly and I could understand the conversation, I was terribly frustrated that I couldn't produce much beyond the basics.

    What happened to the part of my brain that used to be fluent and confident? Do I just need more practice or is it gone? This group gets together for 1/2 price bottles of wine and conversation every Monday. I'm hoping I can get up the nerve to go back.

    a bientot-

  9. Salut Molly! Thanks for stopping by my blog. I can completely identify with your experience--but I hope you'll go back to the conversation group anyway. Your French might be rusty, but it was solid once and will be again when you get back in the habit. And drinking wime while you practice won't hurt! Maybe you and Bob can have "French nights" at home where that's all you speak together.