Je suis allée au cours

Last week, I attended the first week of a three-week French intensive program at a local university. 

Mostly because I've lived with a house full of  francophones for 25 years, I placed into Niveau 5, Intermediate Advanced, a horribly inaccurate assessment. When a thirty-minute homework assignment takes you four hours, that's a sign.

During the first week, I demoted myself twice, until I could find the sweet spot where I was challenged, but not losing ground every day: bienvenue, Niveau 3, Pre-intermediate.

Busting myself down made waves among my former classmates. They were in summer school either to ramp up their French for a new job (with tuition paid by the employer) or needed a certain level of proficiency to assure anxious parents that they were not strictly there to party through the Montreal summer's endless festival. (I'll never tell, Lourdes.) They looked at me curiously, enviously.

In Pre-Intermediate, class was mostly free from the nerve-wracking stress of dictée, and life improved immensely. I looked forward to class.

In four days, I felt the panic, confusion, sleep loss, self-recrimination and hopelessness that learning difficulties engender. Until I took myself into a class where I could cope, my mood of frustration spilled over to the rest of life. I'm glad that I–a star student in my youth–experienced this struggle; the empathy alone was worth the pain.

I thought of my son Jules, who coped with learning disabilities through school, and is today, at 24, intellectually curious and well-read. He had some modified classes and tons of tutoring; I've often said his high school diploma should have been issued by Oxford Learning Centre.

As predicted, his brain developed out of the most significant difficulties. I have a much more vivid sense of his struggles and achievement.

I'm enjoying Sonia, our teacher: think of a Quebeçoise version of Robin Williams in "Good Morning Vietnam" and you have her. Tiny miniskirt, rectangular prof glasses, swooping scarves and a clown's mimetic skills.

We dutifully read passages on the history of Quebec, then Sonia declares "C'est platte" and gets us to stage a mock fashion show, dressed as we are. Several middle-aged civil servants nervously smooth their Tilley shirts. The teen-aged Mexican chiquitas strip off the sweaters they wear to fend off air conditioning, revealing little camis barely perched on tanned torsos.

Everybody works it in French; a burly American doctor does a perfect supermodel strut, and we learn

What are you learning? How's it going? 

C'est formidable, Eddie!
And tonight, a treat: Eddie Izzard, performing here two nights in English, one night in French. Guess which one I'm attending?


I'm so proud of you! It seems like I've been studying French for my entire life, and nobody seems to grasp that it's really HARD and takes lots of work. Everybody just says I'm "good with languages" - a comment which makes me insane. We deserve credit for the effort!!!
JJP said…
Jamais facile d'apprendre une autre langue mais ça vaut vraiment la peine! Bonne chance!
coffeeaddict said…
Oh, I can so relate to this story. In my teens, my instructor pushed me to go from a beginners class straight to advanced intermediate and it was hell. I remember dreading going to class, "forgetting" to write homework because it was too exhausting. I ended up taking extra lessons and passing the course with a less than admirable 77% after a grueling two week long study sessions.
RoseAG said…
I just studied and passed an exam for a work-related skill. It reminded me why I didn't like school!

Happily, once I acknowledged it was going to take more work than I had planned, things worked out.

As to French -- good for you! I spent a vacation car trip with my husband listening to French tapes in preparation (his) for a trip. The business about how they do numbers was just crazy.
Susan B said…
Good for you for recognizing that you'd get more out of a lower level class. I took for granted when I was younger how easy it was for me to learn. It's much harder now, and the brain doesn't retain what isn't used daily quite as well.
Rubi said…
Sonia's got it figured out -- let your students play in another language, and they'll learn more. In teacher-speak, it reduces the "affective filter." One colleague in Madrid even went so far as to allow his students to create in-class alter-identities. The only rule was that they all had to speak English.

Studying for my Spanish exam this spring brought a lot of things back to me, not least among them how stressful the whole process is!

(Here's a funny thing -- my WV is "munie" -- a useful French word you can add to your vocabulary.)
dana said…
Eddie! I'm so jealous! Please share stories, and of course, fashion.
Susan Tiner said…
French is a great leveler. Good for you self selecting out of the advanced class -- you'll probably retain more of what you learn in pre-intermediate.

We tried a French class a few years ago and found it impossible to keep up with the pace of the class. It's really hard!
LPC said…
So fun to see your boy:). How does he feel about young red-headed American girls. I'm learning, poorly, to be a less involved mother. Ha! Good for you finding a way to make it fun. Why suffer?
MJ said…
Google translate can't understand "c'est platte" - I'm assuming it means something like that's enough, but can you teach us what I assume is an idiom?
Lorrie said…
I'm working on a French degree just now - almost completed. I just wish I could use it more. Such a beautiful language. You're right. Language learning is hard work!

Bon chance!
Toby Wollin said…
Learning anything becomes almost impossible if a good piece of your brain is tied up with the "OMG - I can't keep up!!! This is so humiliating!" stuff. I had the same experience with calculus, where I hid behind a giant football player from Tennessee, wallowing in his accent, as he asked the professor how to do 'nummmer seven-TEEN'. i somehow got through without failing but took it again later when my brain was not in such of a panic.
Joan said…
We just saw Eddie in Paris. He performed six days a week for six weeks-- totally in French! He's phénoménal!
Duchesse said…
Vivienne: IMP significant progress in actively using any language is not possible without living in an environment where the language is spoken.

JJP: Merci!

coffeeaddict: I realize how many kids face this every day, in just that standard educational process.

RoseAG: Congratulations! No matter what the skill, it's usually work.

une femmer: While it is harder, I also think it's important to use the brain as we age- but now I'm reminded of how hard I actually worked in school.

Rubi: Love it; maybe that is Eddie's trick for being able to perform in French. (But- heard he is not cross-dressing n performance these days.)

dana: As I respond, one hour from curtain time and getting my knickers in a twist.

Susan Tiner: A leveler for what? I am guessing I have only fair talent for languages.

LPC: He loves redheads- just like Maman!

MJ: Platte: Familiar Quebec slang for "it's boring" or more accurately "it's a drag".

Lorrie: Uh, who am I to correct your French but it's bonne chance, et merci!

Toby: That's right ,the anxiety cancel out a big part of your brain. As my teacher says in Frangish, "ne stress-toi pas". I remember that same deer in a headlights feeling in math, too.

Joan: I cannot wait, and Le Duc says he might try to pick up a ticket for the French performance too.
frugalscholar said…
I just wrote about French too. I will be trying to get my French back in the coming year, so when I return, I can get past the fourth word in a sentence.
Mom (Míriam) said…
Je pensais que tout le monde au Canada étudiait les deux langues à l'école.
Quand j'ai commencé à étudier le Français, ici, au Brésil, j'avais du mal de tête tous les soirs. Il faut donner un peu de temps au cerveau pour qu'il s'accoutume...
Bonne chance!
Duchesse said…
frugal: It's very different IRL than in a class or language lab!

Mom: I was educated in the US, where I lived until age 22. French language education is not compulsory in Canada outside the province of Quebec, and the majority of Canadians are not bilingual.
Duchesse said…
Joan: Eddie was in top form, as mad as ever, with lots of local references and wild discursions. Laughed till I wept. He says 4 or 5 years from now he's quitting to go into politics, what will we do?
laurieann said…
The French intensive class sounds creative, challenging and just what you need. I'm glad you found it and that it's available. I tried to sign up for the once a year French 1 class at my local community college but am so far down the registration priority list that I couldn't get in. California budget cuts have not been kind to students of any age or course study preference here. Maybe next Summer I need to find a program in France! Until I leave I'm putting in a few self-study hours every day and am trying to locate a private instructor.

As for the LD's I sure had them in maths growing up. My son has severe LD's in everything, especially writing. Patience and compassion with ourselves and our loved ones is certainly in order. A sense of humor helps as well.
materfamilias said…
We've been taking private french classes with a tutor, just to keep our fairly decent levels from deteriorating too much between visits. I can't get over the difference between days -- some the words are just there, others, it's like reaching through molasses to search for a tiny button at the bottom of the pail . . .
Duchesse said…
laurieann: I'd look into Rosetta Stone or other self-instructional packages if I lived in CA. There are many, many language schools here, I could spend my life in class.

materfamilias: I have a resident tutor (when he feels like it) for conversation and vocabulary, but what I really need are drills and grammar exercises, which Le Duc understandably will not provide for me. Right now every day is like a tiny button in that pail.
Mardel said…
Good for you for taking the classes, and for moving yourself to the right level. At the same time, despite the stress of it, I think a little bit of heaven would be pushing oneself and always taking new classes.

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