Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lessons Learned in the French Classroom

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

It’s not that I have never studied another language before. As a Canadian, I was forced to spend years conjugating French verbs that I never used outside class. I have also had the pleasure of living abroad, both in Russia, where learning the language was a completely organic experience based on the need to communicate, and in Korea, where I traded English for Korean lessons, but could not really speak beyond ordering in a restaurant. But, after 12 years of teaching ESL and EFL in a variety of contexts, I recently moved with my husband to Belgium. In addition to teaching English here, I also immediately signed up for elementary-level French classes. After years of being on one side of the desk, I am now on the other, and I am continuously surprised at my own reaction to violations of what I have long held to be teaching “truths.”

Lesson 1: English Only?

Interestingly for me and frustratingly for my besieged French teacher, the target-language-only rule that dominates my English classes loses clout the minute I switch roles and enter my French class. Sometimes, if I don’t understand a grammar point the teacher is describing, or if I don’t remember a certain word, rather than laboriously try to negotiate meaning In French with the English speaker sitting next to me, I simply ask in English, “Does she mean …?” When students have done this in my classes in the past, I have reminded them to speak in English, but now I can see the benefit to quick, quiet explanatory conversations in the first language. My French teacher even speaks in English (insert gasps and shrieks of horror) sometimes to explain a particularly tricky grammar point. Although this would have certainly garnered my disapproval as a teacher-mentor six months ago, now, as a student, I am less horrified and more relieved at finally being able to understand what the teacher is trying to explain. Sometimes, when possible, I believe that a grammar explanation is better delivered in the students’ native language rather than in the target language, even beyond pre-beginning and beginning level classes. It is simply the easiest way to move from the French subjunctive to the next activity.

Lesson 2: Letting Go of English

As a teacher I know that grammar does not necessarily directly translate. I encourage my students to “think in English” as much as possible and let go of their native language grammar rules. Like following my own rules regarding the use of target-language-only, I have also found this theory easier to swallow on the “teaching” side of the table. I am surprised at how often I have to remind myself that there won’t always be an exact English equivalent to the French lesson on the agenda. For example, just the other day, we were learning how to speak about time. In English, we would use since with a point in time and for with a length of time. I am comfortable with this. However, I had the hardest time getting my head around the fact that the French time word, depuis, is much more flexible than our since. Even though I am consciously aware that it is important to avoid trying to translate grammar concepts, I have to repeatedly remind myself to let go.

Lesson 3: Writing First … Sometimes!

As an ESL and EFL teacher, most of the activities I plan for my students tend to focus on oral production. We spent class time learning new concepts and practicing them in conversation or with communicative Grammar games. Writing seemed to take too much time and was better done alone and at home. In addition, I argued that since real life does not allow for much preparation time, why should students have preparation time before speaking? So, you might imagine my surprise when I found myself looking forward to the times when my French teacher instructs us write our dialogues out in pairs before delivering them. My vocabulary is so much richer, even without heavy reliance on my dictionary, and my grammar is markedly more accurate when I am given more time to plan, though in retrospect this seems obvious to me. More interestingly, though, I was surprised by how much I truly enjoyed having time to think, and how much more I actually retained from the activity. As a teacher, I would have worried that this activity was too boring. In addition, as inundated as we have been with notions of communicative competence, I would have worried that this kind of quiet work would have actually hampered my students’ efforts to communicate. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I now believe that a mixture of activities that prompt spontaneous output and activities that allow for a more thoughtful approach to the target structure is wise.

Again and again, I have had experiences as a French student that call into question several long-held beliefs about teaching and language acquisition. I can only hope that, as I develop as a French speaker, I will also continue to grow as an English teacher.