Lessons All Around

I’ve been unintentionally quiet this semester. I find it funny that I’ve gone back to thinking of the year in terms of semesters – but such is life when you are in school! That’s right, I’m back in school, because apparently a doctorate degree in physical therapy just isn’t enough. I’m enrolled in one class this semester at University of Colorado, Boulder, an upper division French literature class. As a person who both loves to read and loves to write, I thought literature classes would be right up my alley. Ha! It’s kicking my butt. Despite years of read and critique sessions with my writers’ groups, analyzing literature has not come naturally to me. I think it’s because so often, we try to find deep meaning in every word written, and I’ve listened to enough writers’ reactions to interpretations of their work to know that choices can often be quite arbitrary: “I used that word because I like it.” “The curtains weren’t blue because the main character is horribly depressed or longs to sink into the ocean or fly off to a place far, far away. They are blue because my grandmother’s curtains were blue.” “Really? That’s what you got out of it? Huh. Cool!”

That said, I have to admire my professor, because I find her persistent questions to be quite thought provoking and they’ve made me a better reader, a better analyzer, and a better speaker. She doesn’t let us get away with a pat explanation – we have to defend our opinions and answer a series of “whys” before she’s satisfied. So now, I feel like I can hang in there better when I get into a heady discussion in French. And I have concrete knowledge of Sartre, Molière, Hugo, and several other depressing French writers. Okay, not all of them are depressing, but I need a healthy dose of Will Ferrell or Vince Vaughn after some of my homework assignments.

In addition to working on my French, I’ve started private lessons for my kiddos. We finally decided to try it, because while they understand everything said to them, they are becoming passive bilinguals – not using the language, and unfortunately, even resisting it. I felt they needed someone aside from Mom and Papa speaking French with them, giving them a gentle nudge toward speaking in French. At only 45 minutes a week, I’ve seen huge improvements. My son sang “Sur le pont, d’Avignon” the entire time we trick-or-treated (while wearing a Winnie the Pooh costume – too adorable). He’s been much more resistant to French than his big sister, so seeing him sing – even if it’s screaming at the top of his lungs “POMME DE REINETTE ET POMME D’API!” brings a huge grin to my face. Certain words have stuck themselves in his brain, and he now uses those French words rather than the English ones. Turns out my daughter has a really broad vocabulary – she’s spouting off words I don’t know, and ones that I didn’t know she knew. They are starting to respond to us in French more often when we speak French to them. But best of all, sometimes, when they are playing together, I hear them go into French.

My professor made this comment the other day: At our level, intermediate, progress is much harder than any other level. She advised increased exposure through reading and movies rather than studying grammar (which I tend to pound myself with, hoping those conjugation and “petit mot” mistakes I make will be beaten out of me). She pointed out that progress won’t be in leaps and bounds. The huge epiphanies I experienced as a beginner haven’t happened in a long time. It was a good reality check, because I’ve been frustrated with my slow progress and blaming it on any number of things: age, not working hard enough, maybe I’m not gifted in languages, perhaps the only answer is living in France for a while…. So, lessons all around, and small steps forward. The bilingual journey continues.

10 thoughts on “Lessons All Around

  1. Lovely post, Carol. Awesome that you’re taking a French literature course. I’d love to do that again some day.

    Nothing quite so uplifting as reading Sartre, eh?

    I love your point about small progress being the norm. It’s difficult when I’m looking up ‘to hatch’ for the thirtieth time (éclore!) to recognize how much better my French has gotten over the last 3 years of speaking to my children. As I won’t be moving to France anytime soon I’ll just have to accept picking up what I can, when I can. And hoping that my kids continue to speak a little bit more day by day.

    • Yes – I find the idea that it’s baby steps from here so hard to accept, but I suppose that’s the reality! Glad to hear you are still on the bilingual journey with your kids – I admire your effort!

      And yes, Sartre. Wow. Such a great writer, but not exactly a beach read, huh!?

  2. By the way, Carol’s too modest to mention that she also has the highest grade in the class!

    Analyzing literature in French and writing essays about it is so far removed from the daily French we speak with our kids–yet it sounds like it still transfers well. Which makes sense–even though we don’t debate symbolism or scan the feet of poetry with toddlers, it’s still all about vocabulary, fluency, communication. You can also now read them Victor Hugo at bedtime to put them to sleep!

    What classes are you taking next semester, then?!

    • Well, I don’t know that I ended up with the highest grade, but I will say that I’m pleased with the grades I got. I worked hard for those!!

      And yes, analyzing French literature is a whole different realm, but I definitely see an improvement in my French because of it. Reading and writing forces us to examine our French at a deeper level, and hopefully to start weeding out those bad habits.

      Next semester – more literature, and an online French history course. Looking forward to it!

      • Carol, congrats on the good grades! Through which school are you doing the online French history course, CU Boulder? That sounds great, I’d be interested in doing something like that-and online is about all I think I could commit to at this point.

        I’ve actually starting blogging in French as a way to ‘practice’ my French. Since my only active use of French is with my kids that really limits how much I push myself to learn new vocabulary or sentence structures. It’s been fun to write in French again and it really helps my brain because I’ve always had written French as the foundation for my speaking.

        And maybe the beach is the best place to read Sartre as it will help to fend off the encroaching pessimism!

  3. Sounds wonderful! I am hopeful that I’m reaching that intermediate level since I am also not making the big leaps of progress anymore. But at least I have had a few improvements lately. As for my literature – I just finished reading a Paddington book in french 🙂

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