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.
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!