Sunday, February 01, 2009

Life as a series of French classes

My friend Tim tagged me for a "25 random things about me" meme on Facebook.  I don't spend much time on facebook, so if I wrote up a list there it would probably be the first thing people saw about me for the next year or two and I don't know if I want that.  Besides, it gave me so many good ideas to write about that I want to write more about one or two at a time.  And finally, I owe Brian a letter this week, but I couldn't think of anything to write (Rachel always sends him the weekly SP), so this is for you, Brian.  Thanks, Tim!

(Uncharacteristically, perhaps, any errors or hyperbole in this post are accidental.  I'm sure my family will chime in with corrections.  We are nothing if not pedantic.)

I grew up with a father who wished he lived in a French-speaking country.  I don't remember him ever coming out and saying that but I'm pretty sure it's true.  I remember that by first grade he'd taught me a few words -- pamplemousse is the only one I remember from that era, before we moved to New Jersey -- but he didn't really dig in with a vengeance until Christine was born when I was 11.  He decided that he would speak only French to Christine, a resolution he kept until her adolescent anguish over being "different" got him to stop.  Although it was too late for the rest of us to pick up French purely by osmosis -- Telitha, the next youngest, was already six -- he instituted French Mornings so the rest of us could get some practice too.

This is how stubborn my father is: not only did he speak French to us every morning, he insisted that we reply in kind.  "En Français!" he would say, if we used English with him.  Often he would first have to tell us how to say it en Français first, but he was patient.  The rest of us, however, were not, and mostly spoke to each other in English.

Fifth grade was my first experience with public school foreign language education.  I don't remember the teacher's name.  I do remember tests about passé composé and other parts of speech.  If it weren't for Dad I would have quit right then: you don't learn a foreign language by memorizing grammatical rules, as proven by the millions of Americans with as much as 8 years trying.  Nor is it any fun.  But you can test it, and there's a certain kind of command-and-control personality that, having learned the wrong lessons from the success of the assembly line, insists that measuring (and optimizing for) a bad metric is better than measuring none.  This is flat-out wrong, both in software engineering and in education.

So what I really remember from fifth grade French class is an unctuous boy named Chad teaching me that "trojan" was another name for "condom," and "rubber" denoted a small one.  Ah, public education: reducing culture to the lowest common denominator, and not even completely accurately at that.

I also remember the teacher having us choose French names to address each other by in class.  Most of us took French analogues of our American names -- I chose Jean; William chose Guillaume, and so forth.  But the more flamboyant personalities chose wildly different names.

Sixth grade I was home schooled.  Then I convinced my parents to let me go back to public school for good, because it was so much easier.

For seventh and eighth grades I had Mme. Pinelli.  She spoke both English and French with a heavy accent, which from her surname I assumed was Italian.  More grammar drills.

Mme. Pinelli wanted us to assert, "Je sais!" [I know] when we raised our hands to answer a question.  I reported this to Dad, who pointed out that "Je le sais" was more correct.  There is enough of my father in me that I couldn't stand to knowingly practice the wrong form, so I marked myself by saying it differently than my peers every time.  I don't think the teacher appreciated being implicitly corrected, either, although I was not dumb enough to actually tell anyone else they were saying it wrong.

As a high school freshman I almost got into the advanced French class on the strength of actually being able to make myself understood in French, to a point.  But less than a week into class, the bureaucracy noticed, and I was sent to M. Gendaszek's freshman class, while the senior I had been sitting next to stayed, despite being unable even to pronounce the advanced teacher's name.  Not that I am bitter. (He pronounced Poncin roughly the same as "poisson," much to M. Poncin's dismay.  But I'm sure he knew his grammar.)

I have no strong memories at all of M. Gendaszek's class.

I really enjoyed sophmore and junior years with M. Poncin.  (This is a difficult name for Americans because its phonemes are not found in English -- it's pronounced like the French words pont and sein, if that helps.)  He was a native of Lyon, and had a delightful French accent.  He was a rebel who actually wanted to teach his students some French, so while he went through the motions of testing grammar and so forth, he spent most of his classes trying to get us to practice his language.

On Fridays, M. Poncin would show us an episode of French in Action, or as he called it, Mireille et Robert.  (Still possibly the best French tutorials ever produced.  My father meticulously recorded them on VHS when they aired on PBS one year; they are very expensive to buy officially -- they target schools, not individuals -- but you can watch them online for free now.)  I remember M. Poncin remarking that he was always amused by how fascinating high school boys found Mireille: not only was the actress who played her pretty, she did not wear a bra.

I've forgotten the name of my last French instructor, in college.  He had a terrible American accent (sensing a pattern?) but he genuinely loved French language and culture.  He spent a year in Paris scraping out a living as a street guitarist.  I still wish I'd done something cool like that.  Sometimes I think that it is not too late, but three kids requires a pretty huge activation energy.

So there's #1 for your list, Tim: 10 years ago, I spoke pretty good French.  The next 24 should be shorter.  If not, I'm sure Brian won't complain.


jeremy said...

I took Français for a few years and Jérémie didn't seem very common as a French name at the time, so I used François because it sounded cool. Two years of Spanish, then three years of French, then a mission to Italy.

Anyway, just thought I would mention the kind of different French name.

Speaking of romance languages though, Andrea and I were talking the other day and wouldn't Romantic America sound cooler than Latin America?

abby said...

I never heard the official story of why the Ellis family spoke French. I just figured your dad really loved his French speaking mission. He is quite the francophile.

I was beginning to pick up French while hanging around the Ellis dinner table for awhile. I always thought it was ironic that only one of you served a French speaking mission. The rest learned Tagalog. I also saw French as the Ellis's secret language so no one could understand what they were up to.

I am one of those people who took eight years of a foreign language and can't really speak it. I never really practiced it and the BYU program was actually pretty good. I wish I took more advantage of it. I'm always afraid I'll mess up when I speak Spanish.

My Spanish name was Abriana or Ana because my teachers didn't think Abigail translated into Spanish. It is biblical and is not an uncommon Spanish first name. I didn't learn that until later. It's pronounced Avi-guy-al en espanol.

You're right about needing to reform the foreign language learning system in the US.