Tag Archives: learning French


When people find out I’m a French teacher, most of them respond one of three ways: 1) “I could never teach high school,” 2) “Bonjour!” or 3) “Why?” In general, I’m sure people mean the third question benignly, but since humanities programs are slashed from universities like crazy of late, what I hear is, “Why the heck did you choose that?” In my French courses, in both college and grad school, the fact of being in a discipline that requires a constant fight for relevance was a frequent topic of discussion. It’s an increasingly prevalent opinion that students’ time would be better spent on science or math. So I tell my own students that the only reason our planet is of any consequence at all is that there are people on it. And the only way these people can get anything done is to communicate with each other. So since the brightest people in the world are not concentrated in one country, they speak different languages, and we have to learn them. That is the pragmatic argument anyway.

But that wasn’t compelling enough to 17-year-old Amie to make her choose French. I usually tell people that French chose me, in fact. It allowed me to major in reading, beauty, and travel — all selfish reasons, of course. But as I got further in, I discovered that learning another language isn’t about speaking so much as listening. Conversing with someone, when you think about it, is truly magical. Language, mere sounds your mouth makes or lines and dots scratched from the tip of your pencil, translates your feelings and thoughts into something others can understand. So the act of learning another’s language communicates, “Understanding you is important to me.”

If that hadn’t already hit home for me, it certainly did while I was in the hospital last week. One of my technicians was named Jacotte, a kind-hearted, lovely Haitian woman. On the second afternoon that she came in to check my vitals, she said, “You speak French.” Surprised, I said, “I do. How did you know?” She smiled. “The way you say my name. I said to myself, ‘Jacotte, that girl called me by my name. She speaks my language.’” From that point on, barely two words of English were exchanged between us. At one point Jacotte told me, “It feels so good to speak my language. I don’t get to do that much.” So Jacotte and I had a constant exchange of hospitality: she took care of me physically, and I let her relax into linguistic comfort for a few minutes each day. Following my surgery, Jacotte was the one who took me walking to keep my muscles in motion. She introduced me to everyone, saying, “This is my friend. This is mon amie.” And when my mom went to the desk to ask for Jacotte’s help, she said, “Yes, yes. Anything for mon amie.” I didn’t say anything special to this woman. I didn’t do anything extraordinary for her. But because she was able to communicate in her natural way, because I was willing to be at a linguistic disadvantage, Jacotte showed me every kindness she could.

I believe in studying math and science. I believe in studying organic chemistry and calculus and medicine and physics. But if we let go of language study—as many universities are now wont to do—vital lines of communication will be broken. International trust will be harder to win. Cultures will have trouble understanding one another. Why not study math and science alongside the way to communicate them? This way, we will continue to discover our friends, our amis.


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Don Miller tells a beautiful story in his work Through Painted Deserts about God’s provision. He’d climbed down the Grand Canyon with a friend, a feat of which the mental, physical, and emotional toll was nearly unbearable. After a particularly grueling day, his friend asked him, “If you could have access to anything right now, what would it be?” Miller replied, “Tortillas and scrambled eggs.” An odd answer perhaps, given his more immediate needs, but he went on to explain how strongly the meal reminded him of home and family. When the pair emerged from the Canyon, they resumed their trip but didn’t get far: their jalopy broke down near a diner. They decided to go in and eat, and guess what was remarkably available for breakfast? Yep, tortillas and scrambled eggs. And guess what was wrong with their truck? Nothing; it started up the moment they were ready to leave. Miller says it brought tears to his eyes, realizing how personal our God is. Even something as simple as breakfast food becomes important to God when it’s important to us. Knowing how much pleasure tortillas and scrambled eggs would bring Miller, our Daddy-God orchestrated a plan for him to have them.

I have never climbed the Grand Canyon and completely lack the desire to try. I do, however, understand the concept of an experience that reduces you to a helpless mass of flesh dependant on a great big God. The last two years have brought enormous challenges in every area of my life: academic, relational, physical, personal, spiritual. One such challenge was my master’s examinations, which I successfully completed yesterday. Spaced over a two-week period, there were four parts, two written and two oral, based on a list of more than 200 works in French. The most terrifying component of the exam came last: the orals. The panel could ask me literally anything from any work on the list, starting with the Revolution. To say this is “terrifying” is an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Not only are you worried you don’t know enough about the individual works, but you’re also wondering whether you know enough historical context, whether you can remember what you’ve read, whether your nerves will hinder your mental capabilities during the exam, and so on. In a word, it’s nerve-wracking.

It’s no wonder, then, that I woke up Friday morning with a stomachache and tears in my eyes. And a huge craving for doughnuts. Huge. You’d think I was pregnant. My brain and heart were so worn out from the stress of the previous two years—and, of course, the task in front of me—that all my nervous energy zeroed in on one desire: a doughnut. Irrationally, I thought, “The only thing in the world that could calm me down right now is a doughnut.” When Jeff asked what he could make me for breakfast, I said, “A doughnut. I want a doughnut.” I didn’t get one. It was almost more than my distressed self could take. “No doughnut?” it asked me quietly. “But that’s all I want.” I tried to calm it, saying, “Some way or another, I will get you a doughnut. But you have to shut up now with this nonsense so I can practice my presentation.”

As we were heading out the door, Jeff realized he had to make an emergency run to work to drop something off for his boss. “Want to come?” he asked. I’m always up for a drive, even if it’s only fifteen minutes, so I happily obliged. When we got there, he promised to return quickly so as not to make me late for my appointment. I was surprised, however, when he returned in less than five minutes, knocking on my window. I rolled it down and was handed…a still-warm glazed doughnut. “I don’t know where these came from, but they were sitting out on the desk,” he said with a shrug. Tears sprang to my eyes for what must have been the eighty-eighth time that morning. I gratefully ate my doughnut and was reminded of Don Miller’s tortillas and eggs. God was providing for me, something so silly and so irrelevant, but something that showed me how personal he can be. Right then I knew that if my desire for a ridiculous little doughnut was important to God, then my need for success on the exams was that much more so. I knew that, as Isaiah promises, he’d be with me and would help me and hold me up in his victorious right hand (41:10). My human weakness doesn’t matter in the face of such an almighty God.

One July night in 2009, a week before Jeff and I moved, I was telling God how nervous I was about what lay before me. He showed me the first chapter of Joshua, and I knew in my spirit the words were for me too.

Wherever you set foot, you will be on land that I have given you…I will be with you. I will not fail you or abandon you. Be strong and courageous, for you are the one who will…possess all the land I swore I would give…Be strong and very courageous…Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything in it. Only then will you prosper and be successful in all you do. This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (1:3, 5-9).

God had already prepared the way for me to succeed. Nothing that I was asked to do at school surprised him. Nothing about my program or my professors or my exams came as a shock. God never had to reconfigure his plan for me because something didn’t happen the way he expected it to. In fact, he was and is so much bigger than anything school could throw at me. And if he was on my side—which the whole Bible promises me—then what could ever cause me fear? So I went in the exam room being strong and courageous, knowing that God had already given me the “land.” And a doughnut.

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A Little Less Lonely

This was my philosophy of language teaching, written for my pedagogy class in Fall 2010 at the University of Virginia.

French markets are famous for vibrant displays of every imaginable alimentary substance. The best part, though, is the bread: French bread is sinfully delicious. And of all this delicious bread, one man in Lyon makes it better than anyone else. His chocolate chip loaves in particular are moist, buttery, slightly sweet—perfection itself. The first Sunday I was in Lyon, I stopped just to admire his wares, but his charm quickly converted me into a patron. Over the next four weeks, I stopped by his station weekly for a mouthwatering loaf and a bit of conversation. Despite the fact that our acquaintanceship lasted a mere month, and despite the fact that we never spoke longer than ten minutes, my eyes welled on my last visit to the market when he smiled with disappointment in his eyes and pronounced the final “adieu.” That moment demonstrates why I chose language education as my career. To connect to others, to form relationships, to break stereotypes—these are the most important human functions, the ones that make our time on the planet a little less lonely. All of them are possible only with language.

To this end, my classroom encourages genuine, respectful interaction; everyone’s voice is heard. Every class meeting begins with informal conversation: I greet students and ask what has occupied their time since I saw them last, what they are working on, and how their lives are going. Students eagerly respond to this invitation to share their lives with others. The relationships we form early on are of utmost importance to me personally and as a foundation for our language study. In no time, rapport builds to the point that students no longer hesitate to discuss their childhood, likes and dislikes, or hopes for the future. They learn to trust the other students and me with glimpses into their lives. However, rather than always talking about ourselves, I routinely ask students to adopt the perspectives of others, which simultaneously raises their affective awareness and vocabulary base. Regardless of the assignment, the goal in my classroom is the same: to foster real communication in as authentic a situation as possible for the students’ current linguistic level.

Even when presenting grammar and vocabulary for the first time, I try to take a learner-focused approach. Rather than give rules and immediately expect output, I ask students to look at or listen to authentic texts that feature the concept, and then we work together to construct and test hypotheses about the form. This way, my role can shift from lecturer to guide. In my experience, language students who are guided stay engaged; those who are inundated with new information quickly become overwhelmed or apathetic. A typical lesson in my classroom, then, follows the PACE method, allowing for extra support when the students seem to need it. The extension component of the lesson always consists of thoughtful communication with others while reinforcing the new linguistic form, often via “info gap” activities. This communication might be in written form or spoken, presentational or interactive, but the goal of all language, sharing information, is always at the forefront.

This belief about sharing information leads me to include as much authentic text as possible. Language classes are not about words: they are about speakers. Words alone do not make a language what it is; emotions, traditions, and people do. Consequently, to introduce my students to French is to introduce them to its speakers. We consider questions such as, “How do native speakers wield the words we learn in class? How do the words interact with the cultures in which they are born? How does the language reflect the voices that use it?” Of highest priority to me is that my students see the French language as a dynamic space in which life takes place. It is not merely a phenomenon occurring within our classroom. Authentic text helps students come to this realization. Music videos, film clips, news articles, photographs, theatre programs…these are all vital in my classroom. Not only do these instruments allow us to see the grammar and vocabulary in action, but they are also launching pads for culture discussions. The vast majority of students I have taught, regardless of age, are intrinsically motivated to discover new things about the cultures that share our world. By weaving cultural information with linguistic information, students begin to see the full picture of language and how it works in tandem with the people who speak it. Their comments in class mature from, “That’s so weird!” to “I can see why they do/believe that,” or even, “That makes sense.” As these new points of view are accepted, students’ interest in the language itself tends to increase, which makes the classroom experience a powerful one for all of us, myself included.

I hope to continue learning ways of maximizing the linguistic and cultural interests and abilities of my students, particularly as it relates to bringing down the affective filter. It is my firm belief that as the affective filter is dissolved, language learning skyrockets. When students are no longer intimidated by the language itself or by the teacher, they engage more voluntarily with the material. And as they become more comfortable with the others in the classroom, they find it easier to use the language to discover each other. In the future, I want to work with others to research and develop classroom materials and practices that encourage the affective filter to dissolve as much as possible. The more positive associations a student has with the language, the more likely she will be to study the language in depth. What can teachers be doing to reach and appreciate their students as individuals, rather than viewing the entire class as a single entity? What types of activities work to quickly dissipate the natural reservations students bring to the subject? How can teachers build motivation and creativity within the short space of a class period? These questions fascinate me: I am eager to learn more about how students learn so that I can become a better teacher and servant for them.

I have benefited through the years from excellent instructors from whom I learned the value of a teacher’s enthusiasm and passion for the material. As I have gained experience teaching for myself, I have learned more practical lessons: keeping students in their seats for long periods of time is counterproductive. Lecturing about grammar rules tends not to be effective. Listening to students’ specific needs as it relates to language instruction raises productivity and confidence. Every day I enter a classroom, whether as a student or a teacher, I learn something brand new about the profession. My primary career goal is to continue this process forever, so that each day my students have an increasingly effective teacher in the classroom. Nothing is more beautiful to me than the moment when a light bulb clicks on for a student, when she discovers yet another way to use language to make her neighbor a little less lonely. If I can continue finding ways to make that happen, I will feel that I have been a success.

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French, like English, offers its speakers a number of ways to say goodbye, most of them dependent on when you expect to see each other again.  A tout à l’heure has one of the smallest lapses of time between departure and reunion:  it translates loosely to “within the hour,” although in conversational French it’s just used for “see you very soon.”  There is the weekday staple a demain!, which means “until tomorrow.”  From there, you have your generic goodbyes of indeterminate length but with certain reunions, expressions like salut for your friends and au revoir for your superiors.  Then, there’s the scary one.  It connotes a forever goodbye, quite literally translating “to God,” as in “I commit you to God.”  This is a very certain goodbye, not one that had ever been said to me, not even mistakenly from a student, until today.

E and I were at the market for the last time this morning, picking up our final selections of bread, cheese, fruits, and vegetables.  On our way out, I stopped at the Bread Man’s stand because I just couldn’t pass up being his customer one last time.  Besides, he had my favorite bread, pépites au chocolat, which he hasn’t had since that first week.  It was a sign.

When we approached his display, he said, “Ah!  You were in Avignon, no?”  Surprised at his remarkable memory—he must see a few hundred people pass by every Sunday—we replied that indeed we were.  “You went to see the plays of the festival.  I remember.  I went there myself once, spent an enjoyable weekend there.  This is a good tradition of France.”  We agreed that we too had had a great time in southern France but that we were glad to be back in Lyon.  I ordered my pépites au chocolat loaf and then informed him that it was our last market visit before returning to the States.  “I had to come back once more for your bread!” I said with a smile.

He raised his eyebrows.  “Your last market?”  He shook his head.  “When do you return?  You are American, no?  Going back to America?”  We told him he was right and that our planes for America would leave on Saturday.  “What city will you go back to?”  For simplicity’s sake, E and I just gave him our home states.  “Well, I must take my breads to America then!  You have nothing like this in America.  All factory breads!”  We all chuckled as he handed me my box.  “Well, I guess this is adieu then,” he said with a regretful expression.  “Yes, adieu.”  I nodded, tearing up, and echoed his goodbye.

It’s amazing that someone I spoke to for only a few minutes each week could cause such emotion in me.  But this, this is why I chose language for my career.  You learn a language so that you can hear other people speak:  their stories, their joy, their pain, their fragility.  You learn a language so that you can appreciate the Godlikeness of other people.  You learn a language so that you can laugh with them, understand them, be welcomed by them and welcome them in return.  That’s why it’s so close to God’s heart.  He said at the dawn of mankind that it’s not good for us to be alone.

The Bread Man and I never spoke more than ten minutes at the time.  We don’t even know each other’s names.  But for four weekends, we looked forward to seeing each other and exchanging a few words of conversation in his native language.  He clearly enjoyed regaling E and I with brief stories of traveling to Avignon and America and with proud claims of the superiority of his bread to anything else at the market or across the ocean.  I enjoyed hearing it.  That, if you ask me, is a little bit of God showing up in everyday life.

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Professeur Douzou

You can’t turn off being a teacher.  It doesn’t matter if it’s your first year or your last:  if you really love it, it’s just there all the time, coursing through your body.  Anything is fodder for the classroom, from merchandise you come across in hole-in-the-wall shops to the stories you live each day.  Anything might be an illustration, prop, or aid. This is admittedly my personal experience, but I suspect my World War II instructor is affected by the same condition.


The night before classes began, E and L and I, the grad students, looked over our schedule and saw that we were to show up at “IEP” at 1:30 for our World War II course.  What’s the IEP and where is it? we wondered.  The first two professors we asked also had no idea.  Finally, we were able to find someone who explained somewhat more concretely, but the idea was still vague in our minds.  All we knew is that “IEP” was the abbreviation for the name of an entire school.  So, the next day we struck out in plenty of time to master the situation.

Unfortunately, we got sufficiently confused early on and had to take out a map.  The directions we’d been given weren’t especially helpful anyway, and certainly not after several hours had passed.  When we finally found our destination, we entered, only to find that the buildings were comprised of only offices.  Slowly turning in circles in the middle of the courtyard, we tried desperately to find a building that looked full of classrooms.  Nothing.  Finally, L stopped a straggler and asked where all the classrooms were.  The woman pointed us in another direction, and we took up the search again.  Upon walking in, we became convinced that we’d found the right building, but still had no idea which room was ours.  We looked at room numbers, peeked in windows, and cocked our ears toward doors, all in hopes of receiving some helpful information.  Finally, E located what she thought was our room.  Sure enough, as we tentatively walked in, a professorial-looking man in his late fifties or early sixties greeted us.  We spoke briefly of our difficulties finding the room, and he seemed genuinely disappointed that no one had communicated with us any better than that.

When the others came in, he gave us all a more official greeting.  He introduced himself as Professor Douzou and wished us the “warmest and kindest of bienvenues (welcomes)” to his native country.  Then, the speech that followed was one I simply had to write down because I felt so calmed and welcomed, almost to the point of grateful tears.  It was like I was in the presence of a divinely beatific Santa Claus who understood my student self perfectly.

“There are two things you must know before we begin.  First of all, I know that it is so very difficult to speak a language not your own.  After years of practice, it is still difficult for me to speak English, and I am old!  And for you, I can’t imagine the bravery you have to speak French in this room with me, a native speaker.  It is hard, I know.  When I go to America and visit my American friends, they always laugh when I pronounce certain words.  It is very difficult to pronounce th and r your language.  And they laugh and say, ‘Oh, we love your accent; it’s so cute!’  That makes me feel foolish, makes me feel embarrassed.  That makes me feel not very smart because I cannot pronounce the words the way they do.  Let me say this to you:  I will never make fun of you, never.  I know this is hard, and I want you to try, and I promise that if you try, you will not be made fun of by me ever.  You understand?

“The second thing you must know is that to learn a language, you must speak it.  So speak French to me to learn it.  And if I say something you do not understand, you have the right to stop me.  Do you understand what I’m saying?  You have the right to stop me.  This is your class.  Sometimes when I start teaching, I get so excited, so enthusiastic, and I speak very fast.  My foreign students sometimes look at me with open mouths because they do not understand me any longer.  Yes, stop me when this happens.  I can talk about World War II forever and not stop for breath.”

Here was a man I’d never met who made me feel more confident in a French classroom than I had in most American ones.  And I was halfway across the world.  Immediately, I felt at ease.  He understood:  this second-language thing was difficult and tiring, but he would be patient with me.  Of course, I never expected a professor to ridicule my pronunciation; nonetheless, it so put me at ease to actually hear someone say it.  Here was a place where my floundering French was welcome and desired.

I’ve only had Professor Douzou’s class for two days (a collective seven hours), but those two days have been packed with radio clips, examples and illustrations from his life, and lots of quickly passing lecturing.  My notebook has about as many notes on his teaching style as it does the information itself; I feel like I’m constantly writing things down.  I consider it a blessing to be under the direction of Professor Douzou, even if it’s only for four weeks.  Here’s to the development of many more teachers worldwide just like him.

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