Parlez vous Français?

While Evan has been swanning about Sancerre, the boys and I have had our noses to the grindstone being immersed in French. This is one of the highlights of our trip that I’ve been looking forward to, but as we got closer, I got nervous. What if the only language I could remember was German? What if the boys’ brains were already hardwired in English?

On our first morning, we had an early introduction when all the students for that week (all six of us) gathered together for a “pause cafe”. Soon a lively conversation ensued (at least on our teacher’s side) and the boys managed to repeatedly use their two sentences of French: “Bonjour, je m’apelle Callum. J’ai neuf ans”.

And after lunch we started properly. The boys and I moved into our own classroom with our teacher for the two weeks, Laurie. For the whole two weeks, I don’t think Laurie spoke a word of english to us. I had been thinking that a french immersion teacher had an easier time of it, as she only needs to know one language. But for us she needed an actor’s miming ability to get her point across.

Our school, Coeur de France, specialises in families, and a reasonably relaxed immersion in local culture, which was why we chose it. They have a standard method of putting the whole family in together, and teaching them in turn, or together, depending on how big the gap is. In our case, we took turns, mostly. Callum and Declan went systematically through a book about some french children called Alex and Zoe, who managed to get into all sorts of situations involving useful vocabulary (on the first day, the words for all of the contents of their pencil cases, for example). And then when the boys had some fun exercise to do involving Alex and Zoe, Laurie and I would chat, or she would explain some tricky bit of grammar to me, and then chat some more, with Laurie sneakily asking questions that required the use of my new grammar form. And every now and again, we would all play a game together. Bingo, with pictures and french vocabulary, or Uno, or variants on snakes and ladders involving lots of french practice.

We did three to four hours a day, each week day for two weeks.

Callum, Declan and Laurie, our teacher, pose with our certificate in our french classroom

The school has a good relationship with the local shops, and every now and again we would go on an excursion to buy something, and we could practice our french and independence. Which was great for the boys, as they had got a long way out of the habit of sitting still for three hours at school.

Going in, I alternated between expecting the boys to pick it all up magically, as their pliable children’s brains made the necessary neural connections automatically (aren’t children supposed to be language sponges?), and wondering how on earth they would learn anything from a teacher speaking only french to them. I think on the whole, I’ve been pleased. Their pronunciation is now pretty good, and they can talk about a variety of simple subjects. They can read something out in French with a reasonable stab at the pronunciation, even if they don’t fully understand it. Callum is having a great time decoding every piece of written french he can find (he got a real kick out of working out the sign on the station platform this morning warning you not to step over the yellow line). And I knew we were getting somewhere when one day this week Declan asked Laurie, in French, nearly in tears, whether she knew where his pencil sharpener (which for some reason he treasures – it’s Smiggle) was.

I’m sure I would have learned more if I had been in an adults only class. It was an interesting exercise in understanding how difficult it is to teach a class with different levels of knowledge. And Laurie didn’t push me all that hard. But I’m still amazed at how far I’ve come in two weeks. At our weekly conversation practice this week, we chatted about the Blue Mountains, and how home made pastry is so much better than supermarket pastry. My word order is still a bit all over the place, and my verb endings often incorrect. But I’m amazed at how I’ve been able to get to the stage of actually telling a story that makes some sense to a listener, if they  are willing to listen patiently and forgive the mangled grammar.

Oui, nous parlons français un peu. S’il vous plaît parlez lentement!

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4 thoughts on “Parlez vous Français?”

  1. Immersion is how babies learn their first language and it works for older people too.

    Have you noticed that way you are better at understanding than speaking back?

    My nephew has learned Spanish by immersion and understands more than I do but is less confident at speaking. I learned by a combination of university in New Zealand and immersion classes in Spain and find I can usually get across what I’m trying to say (albeit with wobbly grammar) but often have problems understanding the response.

    Footnote: I did school French for three years – badly but when I started learning Spanish nearly 30 years later and when I couldn’t find a Spanish word the French one would pop up. It’s if the brain recognised a foreign language but found the Spanish file empty so then searched the French one.

    1. I’ve always been better at understanding than speaking back (perhaps because Evan speaks French so I’ve been able to get away with not talking much) – in many ways what I was surprised by was how much better my speaking was from the two weeks. I think because I had no choice to talk I had to give it a go no matter how bad the constructed sentence was.

      The interesting thing for me will be whether I continue to improve now that I’m just hanging out in France, but I am trying to push myself to talk (it’s easy not to if you are mostly shopping in supermarkets).

  2. That sounds like a fantastic way to spend a couple of weeks as a family, even if the language doesn’t “take” as well as it might in a segregated setting. What a great idea.

    Now I’m wondering if we could do a Spanish camp someplace somewhere while spouse spent his days fishing….

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