Week Two: The First Week of Class

One week in and, would you believe it, it turns out that studying French for six years at secondary school can be something of an advantage when trying to take up the language in later life?! That said, I’ve already hit one or two stumbling blocks.

My first week of class focused on what you’d expect – introductions, basic vocabulary and phrases relating to the classroom and to communication difficulties, numbers, and, most of all, pronunciation. We began grappling with pronunciation by drawing on our existing knowledge of French, looking at place names, as well as French/English crossover words such as le restaurant, le café, la pharmacie, and so on.

I must admit that I felt a little frustrated at times by the pace of the class. My Leaving Certificate French definitely gave me a head start when it came to things like pronunciation and the intital range of vocabulary. For a while I felt as though I had made a mistake by enrolling at the Beginners Level. This feeling didn’t last for long however, and during aural exercises on spelling I became frustrated all over again as I couldn’t for the life of me differentiate between the vowels a/o/u. Following a little bit of homework and with the help of YouTube I’m doing slightly better now but it was definitely a confirmation of the sorry state of my French.

Besides the improved pronunciation and the small amount of new vocabulary, I have already gained a huge amount from my foray into French. For one, I was reminded once again that Irish (the language I teach) is not the only language with a complicated grammar. As my teacher explained to one student who asked about differentiating between masculine and feminine nouns, ‘There are rules, but there are a lot of exceptions.’

Even more exciting than grammatical comparisons is the way that a new language exapnds your entire universe, suddenly and dramatically. A whole new world of music has been opened up to me. The relatively minor effort I have made so far has been repaid many times over by my discovering of Belgian artist Stromae, whose album Racing Carrée I’ve had on repeat for the past fortnight (I can even sing the entire chorus of ‘Formidable’, something that everyone else in the house is really happy about).

Stromae: Michael Jackson meets Pharrell Williams meets Faithless with a Belgian twist:

 

The fantastic response I received to last week’s post really took me by surprise. I am hugely grateful to everyone who offered words of encouragement, feedback, and advice. I’ve had a couple of interesting book (Babel No More) and website (italki, livemocha) recommendations, and hopefully I can look at these in the near future. The most common advice put forward was to get talking to French speakers asap. To that end, I’ll be throwing myself in at the deep-end this coming week by taking part in one of the language exchanges suggested by commentators on the Facebook page.

I have already ventured briefly into the scary world of learning by speaking. During breaktime of my very first class I tried my best to buy a cup of coffee en français. Everything started out alright with a ‘Une Americano, s’il vous plaît’. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that as I turned to the cashier and said ‘Quel dommage’, receiving a quite bemused expression in reponse. What I thought I was asking was ‘What’s the damage?’ (i.e. how much do I owe you?) but what I actually said was ‘What a pity’. It might not sound that bad but I promise you, the awkward silence, the confused stare, and the fact that I had no idea what I had just said, meant that I lit up red as a traffic light within seconds. On the positive side though, I will now never, ever forget what quel dommage means.

Comedian Des Bishop relives his own embarrassing misunderstanding had while learning Irish (from his In the Name of the Fada series):

If anyone else has a similar story of embarrassing miscommunications please do share in the comments section below and, as before, any recommendations on how best to approach the early days with a new language would be greatly appreciated (in particular any advice on how to make the most out of language exchanges).

 

 

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Week One: The Assessment

Next Tuesday I will take my first French class since leaving school over eight years ago. Shameful though it is, despite studying the language for six years at secondary school, I will be starting once again, at the very beginning. And this, I assure you, is in no part down to false modesty.

Prior to enrollment I was asked to attend a free one-on-one evaluation. Any notion I had of possessing something approaching basic competency was swiftly dispelled as I read the first section of the self-assessment form. Honesty prevented me from ticking even one of the five boxes required as a minimum indication of elementary ability.

 

The first section of my self-assessment form. I never made it to the second section.

Section one of my self-assessment form. I never made it to section two.

 

It actually became quite embarrassing as I tried to convince my incredulous evaluator of my limitations. As a last resort I was forced into a demonstration. Fortunately, this didn’t last very long and I was quickly advised to enroll at Level A1.

For an idea of how successful my attempts to converse with my French evaluator were check out ‘Foux Du Fafa’ by Flight of the Conchords. It’s disturbingly reminiscent.

As a teacher of Irish, during the first week of class I usually ask my students to discuss their reasons for studying the language, their experience with language in general, and their thoughts on how best to learn. Now that I’m the student I suppose there’s no better place to start!

I have a couple of reasons for wanting to learn French. Firstly, as a language teacher, I feel that by putting myself in the shoes of my students I will be able to better understand the challenges they face and therefore, will be able to improve as a teacher. Secondly, I have become fascinated by linguistics and am hoping to go on to study the subject in the near future. I am certain that learning a new language will be of great benefit to me in this regard.

The reason I have chosen French is that I have a strong personal connection to both France and Canada. As a kid I spent many family holidays in France. I also had one of the greatest years of my life in Canada and, though I was in Toronto and not in Québec, I still realise the enormous significance of the language as a component of Canadian identity. If everything worked out perfectly I would love to move to Montréal someday. For someone interested in linguistics and enamoured with French, I can’t think of a better place to live. On top of all that, I just think French is a particularly beautiful language!

Currently, I speak two languages, Irish and English. I have English from birth and, though Irish is not my mother tongue, I did receive my education through Irish and have spent most of my life studying and working with the language. English is my first language but Irish is my language of choice.

At the very least, my being bilingual removes any subconsious doubts regarding my ability to speak another language. However, having acquired both English and Irish in a holistic, natural way, I am unsure as to what other ways my language experience can be of benefit to me.

Though I am taking the traditional route of formal classes this will be but one aspect of my endeavour to acquire French. I will be trying out any and every method of language learning possible. From Duolingo and Skype, to music, TV, podcasts, and newspapers. Whatever I can think of or whatever anyone else can recommend!

Recently, I came across Benny Lewis’ Fluent in Three Months blog (http://www.fluentin3months.com/). I’ll definitely be talking about Benny in future posts but for today I’m simply going to take a leaf out of his book and start off the way I mean to continue, by learning French through speaking it. With that in mind, here’s a short video of me introducing myself as best I can with what remains of my French learned at school:

Any thoughts you might have on how best (or worst) to learn a language are hugely welcomed in the comments section below. I’d especially love to hear any advice you might have on how to approach the first few days and weeks.

À bientôt!