On learning and teaching

I cracked open my French vocabulary books after a much-too-long break from them, and rediscovered why I love learning new words. Vocabulaire expliqué du français; niveau intermédiaire begins with a chapter on prefixes and suffixes, which are mostly the same in English thanks to Latin. But there was one prefix I didn’t know in French: para- which means against.

Finally I understand why umbrella is parapluie in French (in Italian, it’s ombrello). It literally means against rain! Then parachute makes sense, which English borrowed directly from French. Against fall! And parasol – against sun! I love that learning more French helps me understand more English.

Atterrir makes more sense now as “to land.” Somehow I never noticed that the word terre was inside of that verb. Duh. Even avenue has a more distinct meaning than I thought. It was originally reserved for the streets that led directly to a castle, for example, and it’s called an avenue because that’s how people came (venu) to the castle. And why do we walk dans la rue, but sur la route? Because a rue has houses and buildings on both sides, so you are walking among them; whereas a route leads you through open land, with no obstructions on either side.

Sometimes I get so frustrated at the French language and all of its illogical rules and annoying borrowings from English (like every “French” word that ends in -ing!), but I get so excited when something becomes more clear. I usually have to know why something is a certain way in order to understand and remember it well, so if there’s no real reason – like why French borrowed le brushing to mean blowdry or le catch to mean fake wrestling – it drives me crazy. I need order and logic!

I’m only 50 pages into this book and I already feel like I’ve learned so much. I’ve actually been really lazy about studying French lately (or any language for that matter…) and I’m not sure why. At least I’ve been doing exercises online for the TCF (Test de Connaissance du Français) on their official site and on RFI’s site. I should be fluent in French by the time I have to take this test in order to immigrate to Quebec, but I just want to be prepared… even years in advance. And apparently the TCF for Quebec only lasts 45 minutes – it’s just 30 listening comprehension questions and 6 spoken expression questions! No grammar or reading comprehension, which is what I’m best at, of course.

I’ve also been attempting the Exercices PDF at Amélioration du français and trying to read more in French. I recently bought Hélène Berr’s diary (she’s being called the French Anne Frank) and even though I know it’s going to depress me, I’m really interested in reading about her life in Paris after the German occupation. Plus I already learned a new word just in the second sentence: giboulée, which sounds like part of a chicken, but it actually means a rain shower.

But because I’m not content with just studying one language, I’ve also been trying to memorize more irregular verbs in the simple past tense in German. I’m still teaching irregular verbs in English to my private student, and I’m beginning to see why it’s so difficult for her. Sometimes there are just no rules for the changes (why does sein become war; why does go become went??)

I always try to incorporate methods that I use for learning languages into my teaching. Obviously just studying grammar does not help you become fluent, or otherwise I’d be fluent in so many languages now. Having exposure to the real, authentic language is the only way to learn. Listening comprehension is so underestimated in language classes. I’ll never understand why teachers insist on speaking all in French when they are trying to teach their students to speak in English. How are you ever going to learn correct pronunciation, stress and intonation if you never hear the actual language?

Currently, the bulk of my assistantship job is helping Terminale students to pass their oral bac exam at the end of the year. The students will receive some sort of visual document that they’ve never seen before, have 10 minutes to prepare a speech about it (describe it and analyze it), and then they must talk for 10 minutes. It’s actually quite hard, especially if you don’t practice for it. Luckily, I found all of the documents used on the 2007 exam online, as well as a certain formula to follow when constructing the speech.

So my students have learned how to prepare for their exam, but they haven’t really learned what to say. Even after several years of English classes, their vocabulary and pronunciation need a ton of improvement. I feel like I need to teach them the basics of English, which they should have learned in middle school. But that’s not even what bothers me most about teaching Terminale students – it’s that I’m teaching them how to pass an exam, not how to speak real English. Sure, they’ll be able to explain a black & white document, but if they went to an English-speaking country tomorrow, could they survive? I highly doubt it.

P.S. I love that the Quebecois say dormir comme un ours instead of dormir comme un loir.

P.S.S. If you look at page 7 of the documents used on the 2007 exam, you’ll see an ad from the Michigan State Police. LOL

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  • French for a While

    OK, I don’t know whether this entry encourages me or discourages me. I’ve been here since September and feel like I’m never going to learn this language at the level I want. Of course, my problem (like yours perhaps?) is that I work in English, speak English at home, and don’t have enough situations where I am FORCED to use French. But we’ve started lessons now so that should help –and I’m going to check some of the sites you mention.

  • French for a While

    OK, I don’t know whether this entry encourages me or discourages me. I’ve been here since September and feel like I’m never going to learn this language at the level I want. Of course, my problem (like yours perhaps?) is that I work in English, speak English at home, and don’t have enough situations where I am FORCED to use French. But we’ve started lessons now so that should help –and I’m going to check some of the sites you mention.

  • French for a While

    Sorry, me again. Meant to say that I also teach terminale students — but I teach them History/Geo and I have a few who could use your help!! :)

  • French for a While

    Sorry, me again. Meant to say that I also teach terminale students — but I teach them History/Geo and I have a few who could use your help!! :)

  • Tammy

    You don’t know me and I don’t know you! (my famous first phrase to those I’ve not met before!)I spent many of my childhood years in France and learned the language by rote. I was in French schools, I played with French kids, and we shopped at the French market. . . where else?! My parents, on the other hand, went to language school, learned passe compose, shopped in the French market, (etc. . . ), but weren’t as immersed in the ‘culture’ as we kids were. I would come home from school just buzzing in French about things that happened, and my mom would say, “Stop! Tell me in English!” I couldn’t, I said, because it happened in French. Since that time, my own daughter has taken high school French, and I’ve seen both sides to this story. Grammar is good, but to know how to really communicate, immersion is better! Keep up the good work on both sides of the language!

  • Tammy

    You don’t know me and I don’t know you! (my famous first phrase to those I’ve not met before!)
    I spent many of my childhood years in France and learned the language by rote. I was in French schools, I played with French kids, and we shopped at the French market. . . where else?! My parents, on the other hand, went to language school, learned passe compose, shopped in the French market, (etc. . . ), but weren’t as immersed in the ‘culture’ as we kids were. I would come home from school just buzzing in French about things that happened, and my mom would say, “Stop! Tell me in English!” I couldn’t, I said, because it happened in French.
    Since that time, my own daughter has taken high school French, and I’ve seen both sides to this story. Grammar is good, but to know how to really communicate, immersion is better!
    Keep up the good work on both sides of the language!

  • Emily

    I love how French helps me understand English too! I love looking for the relationship between words and where they come from, and thanks for sharing what you learned! I never made the connection between para- and against. Very cool. :)

  • Emily

    I love how French helps me understand English too! I love looking for the relationship between words and where they come from, and thanks for sharing what you learned! I never made the connection between para- and against. Very cool. :)

  • Justin

    Thank Jennie, great post. I checked out that Vocabulary book and found it be amazing… so I ordered it right away from Amazon (along with the beginner level, plus both for Grammar). My french lessons have been going well, but I think these books are exactly what I need. Like you I need some logical written explanation from time to time.But I will have to say, learning French has improved my English grammar and word comprehension a lot. Unfortunately, at the same time I seem to be losing a lot of English words. Oh well. :-)

  • Justin

    Thank Jennie, great post. I checked out that Vocabulary book and found it be amazing… so I ordered it right away from Amazon (along with the beginner level, plus both for Grammar). My french lessons have been going well, but I think these books are exactly what I need. Like you I need some logical written explanation from time to time.

    But I will have to say, learning French has improved my English grammar and word comprehension a lot. Unfortunately, at the same time I seem to be losing a lot of English words. Oh well. :-)

  • Hunkston

    I recently decided to broaden my horizons and decided to learn a new language; the question is what should I learn? I’ve asked a few friends and they were useless! Everyone was telling me something different, in the end I have decided to attempt to learn French. I studied French a bit during my time at school but have forgotten most of it! Does anybody know of any reasonably priced but high-quality language learning software?

  • Hunkston

    I recently decided to broaden my horizons and decided to learn a new language; the question is what should I learn? I’ve asked a few friends and they were useless! Everyone was telling me something different, in the end I have decided to attempt to learn French. I studied French a bit during my time at school but have forgotten most of it! Does anybody know of any reasonably priced but high-quality language learning software?

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Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In January 2010, I started focusing more on teaching and learning languages in general. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at the university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling (though now my trips are usually in Australia) and being an American abroad.

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