French school

With my second at interview at BTL scheduled for Monday June 28, I didn’t think I’d be starting work until the following week. Hence I decided to enrol in French language classes. Although I’m speaking a little more than I was at the beginning, I’m astounded by how much I’ve forgotten, and think the refresher will be useful.

I arrive at Ecole France Langue at 8am for my entrance test, which will determine what level I am. The test gets progressively harder, and while I’m confident at the beginning, that confidence soon deteriorates as I stop knowing and start guessing the answers to questions.

When I’m finished, a man takes me to another room to have a chat in French and to correct my test. I only said about 5 words, but I think my accent being fairly decent and my comprehension led him to believe that my level of fluency is higher than it actually is. Then he attacked my test with his red pen. I breathed a sigh of relief as he started doing little ticks – tick, tick, tick – suddenly, a big red cross! And another. And more! Some of the questions I hadn’t read correctly and had to answer them verbally (and passed with flying colours), but by the end of the massacre my test was a mess of red ink.

He looked at the test, sighed, and then looked at me. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

Really? I thought. You’re not the only one.

Apparently I demonstrated knowledge of a number of advanced parts of the language, but I also made a lot of elementary mistakes. This meant that he didn’t know what level to put me in. I left him to the decision, and somehow I ended up in level B2 (upper-intermediate), which I think is a level higher than I was last time. Don’t ask me how I’ve progressed, not having spoken nor read any French in years.

Learning a foreign language as an adult is like going to school as a child again. Not only does your ability to communicate drop to that of a primary school student, but there’s a larger focus on games as a method of learning. As an adult, you get used to receiving lectures and taking notes. When learning a language, you are expected to speak more than the teacher does, and games are a good way to ensure this.

How many students can you get into a phone booth - first attempt

For example, when I arrived on the Wednesday our class had been put into the same room as another. A woman then told us we were going on ‘missions’ – there were six stages we would have to complete over the next three hours, each of which would involve us having to ask people in the streets for help so we could answer questions or take photos of certain things. For our first stage, my team and I had a sheet of paper with eight photos on it, which we had to replicate, as well as going to one of the school’s other offices and taking a photo of someone who worked there.

My team and I identified the first few images, and suddenly the other two girls started running for the targets –

How many students can you get into a phone booth - second attempt

I don’t remember the last time I saw that kind of enthusiasm at school. When we went to the school and took a photo of one of the teachers giving a class, I was politely explaining what we were doing as I took the photo, while one of my team mates had already run back to the front door and was calling out ‘hurry up Jolie – we’ll lose!’

Now, I’m all for winning, but it was a hot day and I was in a skirt. And it was just a class activity – it’s not like there were any prizes (go on – ridicule me for being soulless and for having forgotten how to be childlike).

Other challenges included finding a museum and getting photos there, fitting as many students as we could into a phone booth (see the photos – entertaining, but very sweaty), taking a photo with a child, getting the brochure from a chocolate shop and matching shop names to pictures of products that they sold. It was fun, but it was in the low 30s and most of us had tired of the activity before the three hours were up.

The ability to communicate (or lack thereof) is the other childlike aspect to learning a foreign language as an adult. Grown men and women start to act like eight-year-olds, being attached to their ideas, but not knowing how to express them. I did a month of language school in Vichy at the end of 2006, and I grew incredibly distressed when I couldn’t say what I wanted (one time I was close to tears). This time I’m more detached, which makes it more amusing to watch other people get increasingly passionate about little things. There were two girls in my class in particular – one of them clearly felt very strongly about a number of issues, but because she couldn’t say everything she wanted to, her volume would just increase and her gestures would get bigger as her monologues continued. The other would get extraordinarily attached to grammatical structures, or he said/she said debates, and because she couldn’t use many words she would just keep repeating the same couple of statements – it didn’t seem to matter how many times the teacher said he knew, she would keep saying the same thing until she realised she was just saying the same thing.

Do I think the week at school helped my French? Yes, in the sense that it got me speaking again. However, I don’t think I was there long enough for it to stick, and the fact that I speak English at work means it will be a while before I start having in-depth conversations in everyday life.

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