Alongside my degree in Linguistics and Language Studies, I am completing a certificate to become an International English Teacher. Our first assignment in one of my classes this year was to explain some of our "dreams" and "nightmares" from our experience learning a second language. For me, this language is French. Attaining native-like proficiency in a complex language like French is nearly impossible, but with a few thousand hours of practice and a bit of life in France, I've luckily made it pretty far. So here is a snippet from my first assignment, titled "dreams and nightmares". Enjoy!
Quelle est la date d’aujourd'hui?
Reflecting back on my language learning experience prior to university always brings many stories to mind. I began learning French as a second language in kindergarten at around age 5. As an Anglophone living in Ontario, I have only ever grown up in English-speaking communities. For me, French class was all about vocabulary. We began class with the day’s date, and continued to highlight the terms and phrases that coincided with the month’s events (Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day). What was the problem with that?
Surely, elementary school Core French was a dream. Not only did I associate all French things with Madeline, the fictional character created by Ludwig Bemelmans, but also all of the instruction was given in English. French was never presented as a tool, or means of communication. It was a subject, just like math and science, with rules, facts and fill-in-the-blanks.
Throughout high school I participated in extracurricular French public speaking competitions. I was a drama major so presenting a well-rehearsed monologue wasn't too hard. I would always have a lot of help writing this speech, and by the competition date it was very different from anything that I had written myself. The competitions would go well, up until the very end. The judges asked all contestants at least one question, to gain a bit more information on their French comprehension. When it was my turn I would become very nervous, misinterpret, and answer the questions wrong.
My first year at university happened to be the same style of teaching as Core French. There would be the teacher lecturing to a big group of students, and the students writing notes silently. We would then study the standard verb conjugation algorithms for written tests. It was especially challenging since the vocabulary and context was somewhat farfetched. Useful terms and phrases for travel, business and university never found a place in class.
After my first year I decided to participate in the Explore summer language program in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. Our class time was still quite structured, and vocabulary was usually based around food, areas in the home, and animals. When we would travel around town, bank clerks and store cashiers would refuse to speak to us in English. This was a definite nightmare. I remember searching on Google for answers on how to ask for dates, times, and prices in conversational French. Should I use inversion, “Est-ce que”, or statement form? Once I finally figured out how to “withdraw cash” in proper Québécois, it was barely relevant.
In the summer of 2013 I took a course which used a textbook called Improving French Pronunciation. Our assignments focused on practical use of the language, and formulating opinions on current events in the news. We would listen to and analyze news clips from a French station called TV5, while answering questions throughout the video. Once the video ended, we would conceptualize our notes, and then record ourselves answering these questions in a short three-minute time span. The hardest part was abiding by the rule that we could not read off our notes.
Up until this point, no one had ever assessed my French pronunciation, and corrected it in a way that was comprehensive and retainable. The professor would listen to our recordings and note down mistakes with the correct phonetic transcriptions. As a linguistics major, everything about this course was a dream. We had speed exercises that helped us understand and develop tonic accent in rhythmic groups, vowel distinction, and dropped sounds when linking words in speech. I have held on to these skills like nothing else, mainly because I notice the language traits all around me.
In the summer of 2014, I took part in the Ontario-Rhône-Alpes Summer Language Program. I lived in a small town in France called Saint-Étienne, with students from around the world. Unlike in Quebec, the main language of communication between students was French; we rarely got to use English. From buying tickets at the train station, to enjoying weekends at the beach, my French language skills soared.
I had always been told that there would be a time when I would just start to think in French. I never believed it since I was so used to translating my English thoughts verbatim. I had a true epiphany moment while sitting in a French drama studies course only a few days after returning home from Saint-Étienne. The professor spoke fast, and regardless if I was trying to understand him or not, I always did. The once distant dream of becoming reasonably fluent in French, finally came true.
As I continued my studies in French, I took a more advanced course that focused mainly on the various registers of the language. This is what I was missing – practical application of French in my day-to-day life. We began to understand the differences between all sorts of dialects, and how to properly speak and write in various contexts.
I am an avid reader of French blogs and magazines, especially since European style is so distinct. Watching YouTube videos also allows me to keep my French comprehension sharp, as I am constantly learning new phrases and slang from all over the world.
My current "nightmare" is struggling with the fact that most thoughts come to mind in complex forms, which are often too hard to express in French. It makes me feel ashamed when I cannot come up with the proper words to comfortably converse with colleagues and friends. In the end, I must realize that the only way to improve, retain, and enjoy my second language is to use it. Who cares if we make mistakes? The beauty of being a language learner is the unshakable quality of being imperfect.
Bon courage. xx