Thursday, July 05, 2007

so why French?

As most of you know, I'm a university French instructor teaching French to my nephew. As an American, I don't speak French as my native language, but I've been learning it over half my life now. Jeanne recently wrote to me to ask me to post about how and why I got into French in the first place, and while it's not a particularly remarkable story, it is relevant to the blog. So here goes!

I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, with educators as parents (Dad was an English professor, Mom a remedial reading and math teacher). In those days (late 1980s) and that state, you couldn't study a foreign language till high school (ninth grade--age 14), so that was when I started. My parents insisted I take Latin because it had such a significant influence on English and because it would provide a solid understanding of grammar.

While Latin wasn't my favorite class, I did well in it, but didn't care for the teacher. So when it turned out that Latin 2 would conflict with a required course the following year, I happily switched to French, a language I was more excited about.

You see, even though my mother taught English and math, she had started out as a French teacher; in fact, she was in the first class at her small town midwestern university to graduate with a degree in French! She had taught high school French for a while before moving on to do graduate work in English. I can remember her singing to me in French and using occasional French words and phrases with my brother and me. I had a few records with French songs (remember records? those large plastic disks that produced sound when a small needle dragged over them as they spun in a circle?) and a couple of children's books in French plus a French-English picture dictionary. France and French had always held a certain je ne sais quoi for me, an allure of something musical and exotic and different from the very southern accents that surrounded us. (Most of my very southern teachers called me "Say-rah.")

I loved French class but also got bored in it because we moved so slowly through the material. Fortunately, a friend of the family had been sending her daughter Molly to the immersion French camp at Concordia Language Villages and they told us all about it. I actually attended the two-week Swedish camp, Sjolunden, the summer after 10th grade. Now I honestly can't remember why I picked Swedish instead of trying to get ahead in French; I suspect I just wanted to do something very different from what I was used to. While I don't remember much Swedish these days, I can still sing parts of songs, count, say polite expressions, and recall some of the grammar. What really stands out, however, is how different learning Swedish at camp was from Latin and French at my high school--we took Swedish names (I became "Astrid"), exchanged dollars for kroner, slept in cabins named after regions of Sweden, ate musli for breakfast, sang songs constantly, did cultural activities like Swedish arts and crafts, dancing, and St. Lucia Day, and had a tiny class of six students.

After two years of high school French, I went back to the Concordia Language Village, this time for four weeks at Lac du Bois, the French camp. As "Arielle," I did the same sorts of activities, but with much more intense classes (still small) and more cheese. We organized a Mardi Gras carnival (I was the palm reader because I had more "hippy" clothes than the other campers) and acted out a one-act play I wrote (in French!). This was also the first time I had met people from other Francophone countries--some of the counselors were from Africa and Belgium. And since I was not a complete beginner, like at Swedish camp, I rarely felt lost and confused and thus really benefited from hearing French 100% of the time from the counselors and teachers (and often from the other campers, though we didn't always try to speak in French). At the end of the four weeks, I had received credit for one year of high school French--it really was that intensive!

Because of my experience at Lac du Bois, I took French IV my senior year of high school, and it was a bit better than my previous years--smaller class, students who cared a little more, more poems to read. I was good enough at French and passionate enough about it that I decided to major in French at college, even though I didn't really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Well, that's a lie--I wanted to be a "writer," but wasn't sure how to go about it and pretty certain that majoring in French wouldn't be too useful. As I loved drama back then [still do, though I haven't acted in a play in ten years], I toyed with the idea of becoming a "French playwright" as a way of combining my three greatest interests!)

I double majored in Creative Writing and French at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, a small undergraduate liberal-arts school in the mountains, where I adored most of my professors and met lots of "kindred spirits" and really, thoroughly enjoyed going to class for the first time.

One reason I had chosen an in-state school was so that I could afford to study abroad in France my junior year. I went to Chambery, a medium-sized city next to Switzerland and Italy. Now I realize how lucky I was: unlike most of my students, who end up in classes of French for foreigners when they study abroad, I was able to enroll directly at the Universite de Savoie and take classes with the French students--linguistics, literature, translation, and music history. I could go on and on about that year and that experience, but for now I'll condense it: it kicked my butt. I went from being the best French student at my high school to one of the best at my university to someone who could was barely coherent. While I was quite good at that point at filling in the blank with the correct form of the verb, I was lost at City Hall, in the classroom, in the novels we were supposed to read, in the slangy conversation of my French roommate and her cousins. It was very humbling. But I survived and my French improved significantly!

By the way, one of the highlights of my teaching career was two years ago when I took at group of students from my university to Grenoble, a big city near Chambery, for a summer study abroad program. My former French roommate now lives in Grenoble, and she came to the class I taught and did a lesson on Savoyard cheeses!

After finishing up my BA at UNCA, I won a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship to France. This year kicked my butt a second time: my French still wasn't as strong as I wanted it to be, and now I had to live there and teach English at a high school without ever having had any education classes or teacher training! And since I was speaking English at school with my colleagues and students, as well as at home with my English roommate, my French didn't get noticeably better that year, at least not like how it had in four weeks at French camp or two semesters at the university in college. But I liked teaching well enough to realize that if I knew what I was doing, I could probably do a great job with it, so I decided to go back to school and become a teacher.

But of what subject? Still tempted by the idea of writing (and with an unfinished novel or two in my pocket), I considered MFA programs in Creative Writing along with programs in English, Linguistics (straight and applied), French, and Education. I finally ended up at Colorado State University in Fort Collins due to indecision: CSU offers a joint Masters degree. I completed an MA in French and an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (ESL) concurrently in three years (some of the classes overlapped and I wrote an interdisciplinary thesis--on using drama to teach languages--finally finding a way to combine my academic interests with my favorite pastime!). At CSU, I didn't have to decide between French and ESL.

While in grad school, I taught composition (for native speakers of English), ESL (including reading, writing, grammar, listening/speaking, culture, and drama classes), and first and second year French. I liked teaching French best (and composition least), and so that's what I've been doing ever since!

Now it's y'all's turn (see, that's my inner Southerner coming out after all), particularly those of you who like me didn't grow up bilingual: what foreign language(s) did you choose to study, and when and why and how? Please click on "comments" to tell us a little about your choices and whether or not you've done anything with the foreign language as an adult!


  1. Thanks! That was really interesting! Do you think we will ever be satisfied with our languages? And it was nice to read a story of somebody else who had trouble choosing - I am still having trouble with that!

  2. Thanks for the history! I didn't realize your varied interests were backed up by a varied education!

    My limited foreign language education story is simple. French or Spanish was offered in junior high, but I filled my schedule with art instead. In high school, Latin was dying or dead (no pun intended), and I'd been warned off German as being poorly taught. That left French or Spanish again, and I decided I'd rather visit Canada than Mexico, so French it was. (I actually didn't realize at the time that only the Quebecois spoke French in Canada.)

    I took four years of French in high school, and squeaked out a passing score on the AP French exam which allowed me to skip the foreign language requirement in college. Then in grad school I had the opportunity to got to Berlin for a few months, so I crammed in a semester of college German before boarding a plane.

    Naturally everyone's English was by far superior to my German, so while a few people had the patience to attempt a German conversation with me, my German never progressed beyond the tourist level. I did manage to refresh some of my French during that trip with a long weekend in Paris.

  3. I determined early on that I wasn't particularly good a languages. I took two years of Latin in high school, but never got out of translator mode. It was an interesting puzzle, but it didn't feel like a language any more than math or Basic did. Take a word, convert it to its English equivalent, take the next word, etc.

    This was reinforced in college. I had to take three semesters of foreign language and quickly realized that there was a way to do so in Russian with only 3 credit classes instead of 5 credit classes. Since I was already pretty burdened with physics classes and I thought Russian was kind of cool (this was the waning days of the Cold War), I signed up.

    The three semesters were enough to get me to the point where I could translate written texts, even scientific texts, with a little bit of work and a dictionary. However, I never learned to 'generate' Russian. It was still a giant puzzle--translating it to English.

    Even now, I still have problems. I 'think' in English or I say rote stuff, like 'on neh va' (which I'm sure I've misspelled). When I see French, I puzzle it out--not simply absorb it. Maybe that'll change with more practice, but I'm certainly not as facile with it as many others!

  4. Sarah .. how inspiring! I can see myself in your last two posts.

    Although I grew up with 3 languages consecutively ... Indonesian is my only mother tongue, while Dutch and English are not. I experience the same things as you ... I have to keep up with my English and Dutch, otherwise my proficiency will decline. And no matter how much I expose myself to those languages, and native speakers of Dutch and English say I speak and write very well, I realize I'm native in neither.

    I will write an entry in my blog about how I grew up with those languages. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I've just been reading through your blog and the links trying to find some useful info for my 13 month old Franco-American.
    I think it's great what you're doing for your nephew. You're giving him such a wonderful opportunity.

    and your enthusiasm for French is great, espeically since it's a "dying" language in American schools (my French teacher friends tell me).

  6. Thanks for sharing, everybody! Sounds like we all have very different experiences with language learning.

    And I don't think French in dying out! Enrollment is down at my school, but the students are generally strong and motivated, even here in northern Colorado where there's little call for a foreign language like French.