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.


  1. I so admire your dedication! I'll have to try hangman when my kids are old enough for spelling tasks - great idea. Can't wait to hear what you do to bribe him :)

    1. Your kids will be reading and writing sooner than you expect! Bribing Griffin is easy: offer him time with a parent without his little sister around. Throw in a hot chocolate and a mechanical pencil or new markers and he'll try anything.

  2. Hi Sarah, so nice to see you're still at it and that you're the kids are speaking French! Congratulations on your success !

    1. Merci! You too! Félicitations on your cookbook--will it be available in French too?

  3. Our children are the best thing that can happen to us. I still remember my daughter who at the age of two spoke her first word si "Yes". She learned this probably playing at our neighbors who are French, I am from England by the way.

  4. Hi Sarah! I've lost track of you over the last few years. I'm impressed to see you are still at it - both the language teaching/learning and the blogging! I'm rather sporadic with it all :)
    My 6-year-old isn't writing too much in English yet, so I haven't started much in German with him. But that is coming soon, I'm sure.
    One thing I've been doing with him is a German "date" once or twice a week after school, where we go for ice cream (actually frozen yogurt :), and we do some fun German activities.
    I'll definitely be checking back for advice on teaching writing as we get there.
    I'm so impressed that your school lets you take him out of class twice a week to have a French lesson. Fantastic!
    This is Kate from German in the Afternoon, by the way :)

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