First Days

I’m writing a series of posts on a trip I took to France 15 years ago. This is the second installment. See the introduction here and the first entry here.

My flight arrived in Paris the next morning, my third visit to Charles de Gaulle airport. The first two visits had brought me to tears, so excitement over my arrival was tinged with a touch of dread. I’d splurged on hiring a driver through the school for transportation to my host family’s flat. I exited the one-way doors into the waiting room where people clustered near the door, several of them holding signs. I spotted the sign with my name and the name of my school, held aloft by a large brown man wearing a dark suit and a broad smile.

I smiled back and approached him, then nerves got the best of me. My brain was muddied from lack of sleep and the sudden realization that now I had to use my French. And I couldn’t, in that moment, remember anything. Even the basics. So I pointed to the sign and then pointed to my chest, Tarzan-style minus the grunting.

He nodded and his grin broadened. He said something in French that I didn’t get, then took my two huge suitcases (packing light was a skill I had not yet developed) and led me to his car. I settled into the soft leather back seats and watched out the window, eagerly scanning for my first glimpse of Paris. Early morning grey skies hung low. The two-lane freeway heading south toward the city could be a freeway anywhere, yet was distinctly French with all the Peugots and Renaults, the squishy little vans (camions), the narrow long license plates with the large “F.” France.

Parlez-vous Français ?” The driver tilted his chin to peer at me through the rear-view mirror.

Oui. Un petit peu.”

D’où venez vous ?” He asked me. Where are you from? 

“Je viene de Californie.”

“California! Arnold Schwartzenegger!” He laughed a deep, rich laugh.

I couldn’t help but join him. We were all still laughing about our recently elected Terminator-turned-governor. Our Governator.

Et vous? D’où venez vous ?” I asked him. His language was sing-songy – not the typical French accent.

Vous parlez bien ! Avec un accent tres jolie !”

It was fun being the one with the pretty accent, and being able to understand what he was saying to me. I could feel myself blushing, though, because in that one sentence, I’d just spoken one of the easiest phrases, one of the first every French student learns, and had now nearly depleted my arsenal of French conversation. I knew a few hundred random vocabulary words and a handful of phrases, but no one ever responds to your textbook questions with the textbook answers, leaving the typical traveler stranded before a conversation can begin.

De Martinique.”

Huh? “?”

“The Caribbean. My family move here when I have three years.”

“Oh! You have a lovely accent.”

He laughed, again that rich, warm laughter. We passed over another small rolling hill and the industrial outskirts of Paris came into view.

“How long in Paris?” he asked me.

“Three months.”

“Three months! Your French will be completely current! Completely current!”

I smiled. “Couramment” was a French word for “fluent,” I assumed that was what he was getting at. It was an endearing mistake and an easy one to make. I wasn’t laughing at him – his English beat my French by far.

“I hope so,” I said. Fluent in French. What would that be like?

We entered the outskirts of the city. He pointed out Sacre Coeur perched on a hilltop and I caught a glimpse of the tip of the Tour Eiffel before he could point it out to me, jutting out of a maze of narrow streets and tall buildings. I sat up straighter in my seat. Paris unleashes a vitality in me. And here I was.

He exited le Périphérique, the freeway that forms a circle around Paris, and we dove into the city’s streets. It was still early on Saturday morning and the streets were nearly deserted. We sped through the seventeenth arrondissement, past brownstone buildings that hugged the narrow streets and drew me into an intimate welcoming embrace. I quickly lost all sense of direction but I knew we were heading in general toward the center of the city. I scanned the street signs – placards on the corners of the buildings. We moved from the seventeenth into the eighth arrondissement: getting closer. He turned onto Boulevard Malesherbes: my street. I leaned forward to better see the place I would be calling home for the next few months. I willed the car to keep going, wanting to be closer, closer, closer to the center, the heart of the city. The further we went, the closer we would be to the Paris I knew: The Latin Quarter, the Louvre. Keep going, keep going…. The numbers continued to count down and then the driver slowed and stopped. He pointed to one of many sets of wooden double doors embedded in the walls of the buildings.

I was early. Very early. I’d told my host family to expect me between ten and eleven, anticipating trouble at Charles de Gaulle. The thought that things could go smoothly there had never occurred to me. But here I was, and it wasn’t even 8:30 a.m.

“I’m really early,” I said. “I told my host family 10:00 or 11:00.”

The driver looked at the clock in his car. “Yes. You are early. A minute or a minute and a half.”

He put my suitcases on the curb and flashed a brilliant smile. “Welcome in Paris.”

I thanked him and he left. There was no way I was going to barge in on my host family that early; not the first impression I wanted to make. So I settled onto a bench near the building’s entrance with my backpack tucked under my arm and my suitcases pulled close to me. There I sat, exhausted, but unable to keep the smile from my face, for this wonderfully strange street was to be my home. Soon it would be familiar. A woman walked by with two tiny, white, curly-haired dogs on leashes. She wore a long wool jacket and a shimmering scarf around her neck. She gave me a curt nod and eyed my suitcases.

A few minutes later a man walked by, cigarette pressed between his lips. He, too, eyed my suitcases. I began to feel self-conscious and wondered if my host family could see me from one of the windows overhead. Children with backpacks ambled by, some accompanied by adults. Many French schools – lycées – don’t hold classes on Wednesdays so the children go to school for part of the day on Saturdays. I saw a jogger, which gave me hope that I might find a place in the city to run after all. I could see that I was in a quieter arrondissement populated with locals, families, and no tourists.

It began to drizzle. The people on the streets quickened their paces or pulled out umbrellas. My umbrella was buried somewhere in one of my bags, along with my jacket. Funny how the same weather back home would make me cold and irritable. But here – I was so excited that even the drizzle seemed novel. The naked trees lining the boulevard offered no protection, but I didn’t mind. While the Parisians scowled at the rain as though it was beating them down, for me it was a baptism, a new beginning.

A man opened the wide double doors from the inside then disappeared. A moment later, he squeezed out the narrow stone corridor in a Peugeot. I looked down the street and realized that all those double doors that I’d assumed led directly into the buildings were actually driveways that sloped down to the street. He drove away, leaving the doors propped open.

I grew groggy there on the bench, waiting for enough time to pass so that I could politely enter my new home. Activity began to pick up around me – shops were opening, more people were out on the streets. The drizzle stopped, but only for a moment, then it began again with a renewed vigor. I eyed the doors for a moment then made up my mind. I gathered my things and walked through them. Inside was a small courtyard where the clouded daylight shone in. One hundred and fifty years ago, when these buildings were constructed, this would have been where the carriages stood. Now it was filled with a half-dozen cars. I stood in the entrance, a modern glass door on either side of me. To my right the door seemed be to a small office. To my left, a wide curved staircase with maroon carpet hugged a small elevator. The old kind, open, constructed of metal bars. A panel near the door had names with buzzers. I found my family’s name, took a deep breath, checked my watch one last time, and pressed the bell.

Immediately I heard a buzz and opened the door. Above me on the landing – the first floor – a large double door opened, spilling out two young teenage boys and a woman in a bathrobe, her hair in mild disarray. The boys called something to me that I didn’t understand at all, but finally realized they were pointing at the elevator. Ascenseur. Feeling every bit the awkward American with a serious overpacking problem, I struggled to fit my two suitcases and myself into the elevator. One of the boys ran down the steps and helped me. I could feel my face turning red – I’m a redhead, so this happens with regularity – and a sheen of sweat dotted my forehead. I arrived on the first floor and the two boys each grabbed a suitcase for me, despite my protests. I was so embarrassed to have so much stuff with me, even though I was staying for months that crossed three seasons. I didn’t want anyone else to feel how heavy my bags were. The two of them – Thomas and Antoine* – crowded around me firing out questions, but when they realized I couldn’t understand them, they disappeared into the bowels of the house. I found out later that they went to school on Wednesdays, so they had their weekends free. My host mom, Juliette, greeted me with a small but kind smile and showed me to my room. I caught only a glimpse of the front rooms – a foyer the size of an oversized master bedroom back home, a dining room with a full formal table, and a living area the size of my apartment in San Diego, with couches and chairs all in Victorian style.

She led me down a long narrow hallway and into a small cozy room. It had a single bed on one side with two large cupboards overhead. I made a mental note to be careful to not whack my head on it, knowing full well that I was destined to whack my noggin with regularity. She pulled a desktop down from the wall, pointed out the wooden wardrobe, the TV on an arm high on the wall, and the phone, all the while talking in what might as well have been jibberish for all I was getting from it. She then led me further down the hall to point out the bathroom. Actually, the shower and sink room. The toilet (without a sink) was at the other end of the hall that was a good 100 feet in length. The kitchen opened just off the end of the hall, and she invited me to sit down and asked me if I’d like something to drink. That much, thankfully, I understood, and asked for some water. We talked for a bit, the easy stuff that I could easily answer: where are you from, how long have you been studying French, how long will you be staying. I could pick up words here and there, and an occasional phrase – enough to know when I was being asked a question, at least. She complimented my French, which made me feel at once proud and insecure. Proud that I’d impressed her, and insecure with the knowledge that soon the façade would crumble and she’d discover the truth: as I sat there nodding and smiling, I really didn’t understand much of anything. I gave her the gift I’d brought: A San Diego travel book, with ridiculously outdated photos: I hadn’t seen haircuts and swimsuits like those since the eighties. But it was one of the best I’d seen. She thanked me and later I found it in a stack in their living room along with similar books from all over the world. She introduced me to the student staying in one of the other bedrooms off the hall. Katyana, from what I could gather, came from Russia and was studying law at Sorbonne. She had a fresh, bright face and a tight smile, and spoke in rapid fire French to me. I faked it as best I could.

Charles, my host dad, arrived. He was large with a cherubic face and booming voice. He handed me the key – a heavy chunk of metal with real teeth – old school. He beckoned me to follow him to the front door, where he demonstrated how the key worked and spoke in the same rapid-fire French that Juliette had. I watched him and got from his demonstration (and certainly not from his words) that the door knob didn’t actually turn, and once the key rotated and clicked, the door was unlocked and I could just push it open. He handed me the key and looked at me expectantly, so I nodded and thanked him.

Non,” and he said something else while gesturing to the door. I realized then that he wanted me to try it. It seemed overkill, but I humored him and was embarrassed to find that I couldn’t get the door open. I rotated the key first one direction and tried the door, but it didn’t budge, so I went counterclockwise and still nothing. Luckily, he laughed heartily and said some French gibberish, re-demonstrated, then had me take another turn. I got the door open that time – I hadn’t turned the key far enough before.

So, I was set. I had a key, I had a room, I had a home. I settled in – unpacked my bags and washed up. Then, armed with a city map and a drawn map from Stéphane, I found my way to the metro to go visit his parents. When I got there, his mother was intent on feeding me, then his mom and dad took me to find a cell phone. Stéphane’s mom cooked me a delicious dinner and then they drove me back to my host family’s place, assuring me that I could call them if I had any problems, and if I did have a problem it wouldn’t be a problem, because they would help me. I felt immediately at ease being so welcomed by both my host family and my boyfriend’s parents.

That evening, the sun finally peeked out of the Parisian cloud cover. The window in my room looked out over the enclosed cobblestone parking area, and just beyond the building my window faced, I could see the tips of the gothic spires from the nearby church.

The next day, I explored Paris, found my school, didn’t find the crêpe I so desperately craved – it was Sunday and not much was open. I explored the book stalls along the Seine and got caught in the rain. I realized I was talking to myself in simple French phrases all day, narrating my every move: Où est la rue ? Je traverse le pont. Je prends le métro. Je trouve l’école. I encountered a few French people: A flirtatious man who saw me studying my metro map and asked me first in French and, upon realizing I couldn’t understand, in thickly-accented English, “You are looking for me in the metro?” then pointing at my legs and telling me I’m very nice. One friendly girl in the metro saw me studying my map and stopped to show me how to get to where I wanted to go. I was consistently amazed at how well everyone spoke English. I kept trying to speak in French, but they all responded in English, even as I stubbornly continued in my broken French accented by hand gestures.

I decided, that Sunday, that each day I needed to try something new. Visit a site, wander down a street I didn’t know, eat something weird. Something, anything, as long as it was new.

I got back home early that evening, exhausted and wanting nothing more than to crash in my little bed and snuggle under the covers with a book. But when I arrived, the double wooden doors were closed and locked. Shit. Or merde. Whichever way I looked at it, it wasn’t good. A panel to the left of the door, inside the archway, was obviously for entering a code. A code I didn’t have. Added to the urgency was the fact that Paris is distinctly short on public bathrooms, and I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to wait on the street. I looked up and down, but no one was anywhere in sight. I paced back and forth in front of the door and thought briefly about calling out to the windows above the door, which belonged to my host family. I settled for pacing in a spot where they’d see me if they happened to look out the window. Lucky for me, a kid on a skateboard skidded to a stop and punched in a code. In half French, half English, and a lot of hand gestures, I tried to ask him what the code was, and if I could follow him in. His expression didn’t adjust to acknowledge me in one way or another, but he did let me follow him through the doors. My host family was gone, but Katyana was in her room studying. I grabbed my French-English dictionary and went to her. I looked up a few words and then asked her for the code. After a few tries and a lot of hand gestures, I finally asked her if she spoke English. She looked annoyed, but nodded.

“Charles didn’t give you the code?”

“No. I was locked out for a while just now.”

She raised her eyebrows, then wrote it down for me.

Merci beaucoup,” I said. I went to my room and crashed.

 

 

*Names of most people in this story have been changed.

Springtime in Paris

Fifteen years ago, this month, I quit my job and set off for Paris. On March 19, in fact.

It was everything I dreamed it would be. And more.

A lot led up to that trip. Like many who work in the health care field, I was Burnt. Out. I was angsting my way through a quarter(ish)-life crisis. I hated the idea of turning thirty and being in a situation that felt closer to hamster-on-a-wheel than to the bright future of a rewarding career and the balanced life that I’d envisioned in grad school.

In high school, I signed up for French as my second language but my mom refused to sign my electives form until I changed it. “You live in southern Arizona. You’ll never have any occasion in your life to use French. You need to learn Spanish.” So I did. And then I married a Frenchman. I like to remind her of this.

I’d long been fascinated with the French language and with France. Before I went to graduate school, I’d taken a month to backpack through Europe. France had been one of the best parts of my trip. Later, while living in San Diego, I met a bunch of French exchange students who I bonded with, and so I picked up a language CD and started trying to impress them. My French, then, was decidedly not impressive.

Mostly, I ached for adventure. Other than my month in Europe, I’d been living a nose-to-the-grindstone sort of life. My employer at the time considered a three-day weekend (where I clumped my work into four 10-hour days to get Friday off) a vacation that he had benevolently granted me, despite the hardship it entailed on his business. This was better than my first job where I was told a few weeks in that while they couldn’t authorize any vacation time as they were much too busy of a clinic, they would gladly consider allowing me to take an hour or two of my vacation time, as I earned it, if I needed to see a doctor or dentist.

It didn’t take long for me to realize something needed to change. I’d worked since my senior year of high school – all my summers and spring breaks were filled with jobs, and by the time I was a junior in college, I was working 20, sometimes as many as 30 hours a week while taking a full load of classes. Spring Break partying on the beach had never been on my calendar.

The French exchange students I met were having the time of their lives – traveling, learning a new language, experiencing a new culture, meeting friends from all over the world. Some were in college, some were older and learning English to help with their careers. I did some research and saw that I, too, could do something similar, in France. In Paris.

To get there, I threw myself into work: I spent more than a year working two jobs (plunging myself into even higher levels of burn out, exacerbating the very problem I was trying to escape), diligently saving, eating cheap, wearing worn-out clothes, and doing whatever I could to maximize my savings. I was determined to be doing something amazing for my upcoming thirtieth birthday.

The whole idea defied the puritan nature I’d been raised to have: work hard, and play, maybe, if you have time. When I told my parents my plan, they were… unimpressed. My Dad’s first comment: “I don’t understand why you’re doing this. How is this going to help your career?”  I answered, “It won’t. That’s not what this is about.” They were concerned, I get that. After all, I’d gone to grad school and had a good job that payed well and offered a promising career. I’d arrived. Right? My parents worried I was throwing that all away. As a physical therapist, I knew I wouldn’t struggle to find a job when I returned (I didn’t). I knew I’d be okay. I also knew that I wouldn’t be okay if I continued on as I was. I was exhausted. I needed more than the day to day grind. I needed an adventure. I needed to find some joie de vivre.

To complicate things, the dollar sank rapidly in value against the Euro during the first year after France adopted it, so my plan for a six month trip had to be pared down. I also had a new boyfriend – a French guy who by our third date I was pretty sure I was going to marry (he’s now my husband). Still, giving up this chance of a lifetime, this dream, wasn’t a consideration for me.

I quit my job. I sold most of my furniture and moved the rest of my stuff into storage (i.e. my sweet new boyfriend’s apartment). I left my car in the care of my parents. I consolidated my student loan bills and left a series of checks and payment stubs with my boyfriend who had kindly agreed to mail the checks I’d pre-written to pay all my bills while I was away. This was before online payments, Facebook, smartphones, and all sorts of other technology that makes this sort of stuff a breeze now. I didn’t even have a digital camera – I was still using film. And a dial-up modem. And a flip phone that had no chance of working in Europe.

Then; I did it. I went to Paris. I studied French. I traveled. And I had the time of my life.

I also kept a journal and wrote long emails home.

So, in honor of this 15th anniversary of that amazing time in Paris and beyond, I am doing a series on my trip, using excerpts from my journals and emails, as well as some photos – presuming the scans come out.

I’m looking forward to reliving this trip, and to sharing it with you!

 

 

 

Paris, je t’aime

Last summer, we bravely traveled with our 4-year-old and 3-year-old to Iceland and then France. Drumroll … it was fantastic. They proved to be amazing little travelers: movies and a steady stream of snacks, toys, and duct tape (okay, kidding on the last one) kept them, and us, happy on the plane, jet lag didn’t last long, and they met different beds, foods, and activities with enthusiasm for the most part!

Hundreds of articles with tips on how to travel with kids exist and are easy to find. We mostly follow the basics and it works great. The nice thing about visiting a place that you’ve visited before, like Paris for us, is that we didn’t have a huge list of things we had to do or see. We hit the streets with no agenda, really, other than to make sure our kids had a positive experience. We cut the list of what we would normally try to see in half, or more, plugged in a fair amount of downtime, and when the kids were interested in something, we stopped and let them check it out without rushing them. Too much.

Yet we still managed to show them many of the major must-see-on-your-first-visit-to-Paris sites.

Here’s one of my favorite pics:

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Captioned: Whoa.

Here’s us at Notre Dame (which is one of those names that I struggle to pronounce in both French and American English… growing up hearing about the Noder Dame – long a – fighting Irish has left a lasting imprint on my brain)

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HERE IS PARIS, BEFORE KIDS:

Us at Chez Lyon; not the Parisian cuisine one salivates for, but a fun tradition we started on our first visit to Paris together (make sure to appreciate my hubby’s sideburns):

600 and of course, moules et frites at Chez Lyon in Paris

PARIS, NOW:

When asked about their favorite parts of Paris, the kids site these posts and the metro:

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What you can’t hear are the whoops of pure joy.

My husband went to high school here. Seriously.

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Rose gardens at the Parc de Bagatelle:

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These two were doing everything they could to attract the attention of the female peacock between the two of them. Like a good French girl, she feigned indifference and sauntered away.

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We only spent a couple days in Paris… as much as I love Paris, with kids it isn’t the easiest place to be. Especially with Colorado kids, accustomed to large open spaces for free-ranging it, and especially for my two kids, who have two volumes: loud and louder. We spent most of our time in our beloved Bretagne …. more photos to come!

To Hug or to Kiss?

I certainly didn’t intend a two month hiatus – thank you all for sticking with me!

I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew in life, and these last few months were no different. I went back to work as a PT on a per diem basis, I continued to teach French to preschoolers, and I took three university level French courses. I look forward to blogging more about that soon…. Oh, yeah, I’m also taking care of two energetic preschoolers and ramping up my workouts for triathlon season. Life is busy. Life is good.

We are prepping for a French-filled summer! We will be traveling to Iceland and France and then spending a few weeks in San Diego where my kids (now ages 3 and 4 1/2) will be doing day camp at the San Diego French American School. I am so excited to see how their French progresses! We’ve fallen off the wagon a bit with teaching (pushing, coercing…) them to speak French, and I’m hoping these activities will get us back on track.

First up, a trip to France! The other night, as I was tucking my daughter into bed, I told her that in France, when we greet friends and family, we give them a kiss on each cheek rather than a hug. I’m a huge hugger – I love nothing more than to give people in my life a big enthusiastic squeeze. My kids, too, give the best hugs – big tight squeezes that I can’t get enough of. I learned the hard way that this does not always go over well with the French. I remember telling my husband once how awkward it felt to me to kiss everyone, pressing my cheek to theirs. His response: More awkward than pressing your whole body up to everyone and squeezing tight? I see his point… The two cheek kiss greeting no longer feels awkward to me, but my daughter was confused.

Among her questions:

“Why don’t we give hugs?”

“Why do we just make a kiss sound and push our cheeks together instead of really kissing them?”

“Why don’t we kiss them on their mouths?”

Excellent questions, all. Then, she melted my heart with this:

“So, when I see Mimi and Papy, I kiss them like this,” here she demonstrated kissing me on each cheek, “And then the kiss goes to their hearts?”

Exactly, my amazing child. Exactly.

Can’t wait to introduce these two to France. It’s fun to visit a place we know so well with very little agenda – we don’t have anything we absolutely must see, so we’re planning a vacation around activities like puppet shows, toy boats at the Luxembourg gardens, and then lots of beach time and crepes in Brittany. My daughter really wants to see the Eiffel Tower, but I have a feeling the most exciting thing we will do will be to ride the metro. At any rate, it will be a different kind of trip than we’ve ever had. Fingers crossed for good weather and good tempers (the latter being more about me than my kids, I’m sure!)

Are we bilinguals?

For a long time, I’ve held lofty goals for my kids and for myself. I wanted us to all be “completely bilingual,” which I defined as nothing short of 100% fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension. I dreamt of accent-free French for my kids, and for me – maybe every tenth word or so would hint that I’m not French and give me a sexy, subtle accent that would earn exclamations like, “Oh, your French is so beautiful! Where’d you learn to speak it so well!” or “Don’t lose the last eensy-teensy accent you still have, it’s so adorable.”

That’s what you get when you’re type A. And have a husband who meets this “completely bilingual” criteria (albeit with a bit more of an accent. Ooh la la.).

My views have evolved. Matured? Grown more realistic? And while at one time I might have seen this as giving up, now I see it this way: we’re still pursuing something pretty awesome. I’m just more sane.

“Bilingual” means different things to different people. We’re certainly not monolingual, but we also haven’t attained my previous definition of bilingualism. So what does that make us?

All of us understand most of what is said to us in French. My kids spontaneously speak the language, sing songs, and watch cartoons in French. When thrown into a situation with people who speak only French, I don’t hesitate to use the language, and I’d say I’m pretty adept at expressing myself. My kids are at the point where they are able to use full sentences in French without needing prompting. Perhaps the most important thing: we are actively working on improving our language, every day, and have no plans to stop this work.

So I’ve decided to give credit where credit is due. Next time someone asks me if we are a bilingual family, I’m going to say, yes. Yes, we are.

Fruit for my Labor

When working with preschoolers, it can be difficult to see if my efforts are making any impact whatsoever. I faithfully show up at my kids’ preschool each week (although this winter I’ve been sick more than not, so several sessions have unfortunately been cancelled, and my blogging has clearly suffered as well) hoping that maybe the children will greet me with a “Bonjour!”, sing along with me, count with me, and repeat after me.

Several of them do seem to remember the songs we sing; it’s so fun when they sing along. After a session where we played hide and seek with plastic dinosaurs and the kids had to help me count them and sort them by color, one or two went home and surprised their parents with a little, “un, deux, trois,” and a “Do you know how to say ‘blue’ in French? Bleu!”

But this one made my day: Apparently a game of duck, duck, goose broke out on the preschool play yard last week. We’ve played it a few times together – I can’t resist going outside with the kids on some of these gorgeous Colorado days. It’s been several months since it was warm enough to play “Canard, canard, oie,” but still: a couple of students – and not ones biologically related to me – insisted that the game be played IN FRENCH! How awesome is that?

So – it’s working. Even with only 20-30 minutes a week, these kiddos are picking up the French I’m teaching. Best of all: they want to use French. To show off to their parents, and to play with each other.

That’s success, in my book.

In Support of Total Immersion

I grew up during the old-school era of second-language learning. We filled in the blanks, conjugated verbs, and memorized vocabulary lists. Entry level classes, and sometimes even intermediate and advanced classes, were taught in English. Speaking in the second language was a part of those classes, but not a huge part, and when we did speak, it was awkwardly and amidst classmates making fun of each other’s accents.

Today, language learning is (thankfully) progressing toward total immersion. In my college classes, and in the high school and junior high classes that I’ve observed, instructors use the target language to teach. Students are expected to participate by speaking, and by writing and reading in the foreign language. Oh, how far we’ve come! It seems so obvious that to learn a language, the best method is to be immersed in that language. After all, that’s how we learn our first language, right? Hearing it, using it, being surrounded by it, even bombarded with it (think of the way parents talk and talk to their babies, while the babies stare in rapt attention, taking it all in). So I was caught off guard when a parent in one of my preschool classes expressed concern that the class was being done all in French, without providing translations for the kids.

It’s uncomfortable to be immersed in a language you don’t understand. I get it. When I was in my 20s, I signed up for a conversational French class along with a friend. Neither of us had any prior exposure to French (other than “Lady Marmalade” lyrics; the Moulin Rouge version was very popular at the time). In the second class, our teacher started asking us questions. In French. I remember our reaction well: I looked at my friend and said, “What the hell?” and she muttered, “This is ridiculous.”

The thing is, we were able to find in our notes what our teacher was saying, and we were able to answer her questions by the time she came around the circle to us. As adults, we use resources (textbooks, notes, dictionaries) to follow along. A good teacher will be expressive and enunciate clearly, helping students to comprehend. For children, when they are provided with plenty of visual aids, gestures, manipulatives, and expressive use of the language, they will understand.

I’ve since become a big believer in total immersion. I do believe that for beginners, an occasional break into English to explain grammar rules or a difficult definition/concept can help. After all, as adult learners, we assimilate, compare, and use our first language to build on. But children don’t need this. They learn differently. They aren’t taking notes or trying to understand why we use le passé composé vs l’imparfait. They are making natural language associations in the same way they do with their first language.

The best way to learn a language is in an interactive exchange – regardless of the age of the learner. Lectures, vocab lists, conjugating verbs, all of these things have their place, but to learn a language, one must actively use it. By immersing in it.

A monolingual friend asked me if, when I write papers in French, I write them first in English then translate them. I know classmates who do this, but I consider this too difficult. Translation is no easy feat, and for me, it’s so much easier to write in French from the get go, to immerse my brain, my train of thought, my writing in the language that the paper must be written in. Learning by constant internal translation is a hindrance to language learning. Trying to formulate every thought in one language then translating it to another is far too much work. For so many things, no direct translation exists. There are turns of phrases, ways of expressing things, that are unique to each language. It’s not just a bunch of memorized vocabulary words: using a second language often involves a different way of thinking and approaching a problem, an explanation, a paper.

It’s uncomfortable at first, no doubt. But when you first realize that you are thinking in that second language as you use it, rather than translating from your native tongue, you’ve made a huge leap forward toward bi/multilingualism. And immersion is an essential component of this process.