Category Archives: Teaching English & Other Languages

Ready for my Rentrée

By   September 10, 2009

School starts in 11 days and I’m so excited! I love my job and being on vacation for nearly 5 months was getting a little old. I can’t wait to get back in the computer room and audio labs and play with the technology teach students English. Everything will be so much easier this year since I know what to expect and I’ll have a lot of the same students because I teach first and second year classes.

Plus there’s a new American lectrice in the literature-based/future teachers language department that I’ll probably be sharing labs with. (I teach in the business/international relations-oriented language department.) My schedule for the semester is almost finalized. I have six pronunciation labs, four translation labs, three vocabulary classes, and one class of “soutien” for the exchange students from the Aosta Valley in Italy. I love these students. They are so motivated! They’re studying their 3rd (English) and 4th (Spanish or German) languages and their English is usually quite good already.

Luckily I start at 1:30pm everyday Monday-Thursday, except for Wednesdays when I have one lab at 9am. It really sticks out on my schedule. I guess I can always run home and go back to bed afterwards during my 3.5 hour break. And there’s really no way around it. I’ve already looked over all of the schedules hoping to find any other hour to put it in, but no luck. At my university, and a lot of French universities I think, the schedules are made for the students so they don’t actually get a choice when their classes are. When you sign up (and I do mean sign up, not apply, because anyone with a high school diploma can go to a public university in France) to do a program, you basically choose your “major” right then and you take classes with the same people every semester. There are no electives or general education requirements, and with our program, you must start in the fall because the winter semester is just a continuation of the fall semester.

It’s going to be so nice being less than 10 minutes from campus instead of 50. I will save so much money on gas and tolls. And I might actually use my office this year! I already cleaned out my closet to make sure my work clothes still fit. I’m so geeky for school that I even bought a pencil case for my whiteboard markers. I always giggled a little when I saw my high school and university students set out their pencil cases on their desks because to me, pencil cases are for 5 year-olds. But in France, every student and teacher has one no matter what age they are. So when in France…

She who studies during summer vacation.

By   July 4, 2009

Now that I’m not working and the apartment is almost finished (Why does it take soooo long to get furniture in France?!?!), I have a lot of free time on my hands. I have been working on my website a little – just uploaded a few lessons from Foreign Service Institute Italian FAST – but sitting at the computer all day when it’s unbearably hot is not ideal. And now that I’ve finally put all the books back on the shelves and I can concentrate on linguistics with few interruptions, I’ve been starting to do research again that I hope will lead into my eventual PhD.

Second Language Acquisition has always been my favorite part of linguistics since I study and teach languages, so naturally I’m interested in how humans actually learn them and therefore, what is the best way to teach them. Too bad I have such a broad range of interests, which is evidenced by the hundreds and hundreds of scholarly articles on my hard drive…

Vocabulary Acquisition: Learning vocabulary is the most important part of learning a language, because even if you know how to conjugate verbs and which gender a noun is, you still cannot actually say anything until you know the WORDS. Concrete words that can be visualized, the most frequently used words, and cognates with the native language are the easiest to learn; so the focus should be on abstract words and words that are the most phonologically different from the native language.

Listening & Repetition: And how do you learn the words? By listening to the language as much as possible. There is a strong link between the phonological properties of a word and how easily it can be stored in long-term memory. It is difficult to access and produce a word from your memory if you do not know how it is pronounced. And even though it sounds clichéd, repetition really is the key to remembering. Repetition helps make up for the lack of exposure to the foreign language, especially when you don’t live in the country where it is spoken. And without enough comprehensible input (i.e. without ever listening to the language), receptive skills cannot be learned and acquisition cannot occur. This is also the reason why it is nearly impossible to learn how to speak without learning how to listen first. How can you produce something from nothing?

Authentic Language: Slang is often ignored by language textbooks because it is seen as too informal or too vulgar. And since textbooks are often concerned with teaching the formal written language, usually for academic purposes of analyzing literature, informal language has no place in the curriculum. But for those students who just want to speak to French people, especially to their peers, it is very frustrating to have never learned the most common slang words or reductions in speech, even after years and years of study in school. Students need to hear the real language as it is actually spoken in everyday life in order to be able to reproduce it and sound more like a native speaker.

Classroom Materials: Textbooks seem to be written based on introspection rather than empirical research. There is a real need for corpora of written and spoken language to be taken into account when creating vocabulary lists so that the most frequent words are included. There is also a need for more independent listening materials since classroom time is woefully inadequate compared to the time needed to be devoted to listening comprehension. By using properties of computer-assisted language learning (CALL), we could develop useful audio and video components and exercises that students can do in language labs or at home. And by using the internet and realia, we could expose students to informal language in both its written and spoken forms that could also be used in or outside of the classroom.

So, from the best way to teach vocabulary and the importance of listening and authentic language to how to use corpora and CALL to design materials and break away from textbook reliance, how am I supposed to narrow that down to one little research topic for a doctoral dissertation???

Thoughts on: Trip, Apartment, and Conference

By   June 5, 2009

Trip: Of course my trip was amazing. We saw so many places and I took far too many photos. The weather was mostly hot and sunny and we didn’t have any major traveling problems. I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of all the wonderful sites France has to offer, and I’m dying to see more of this country. Spending time with Michelle & Jason was a blessing as well. I’m glad they got to see three regions of France and hope they come back someday.  Meeting up with David in Montpellier was a nice treat, as I obviously don’t like being apart from him. I won’t have time to get all of the photos on my website until after my Istanbul trip to visit Martha, for which I leave at 7 AM tomorrow morning!

Going back to Italy after 10 years was long overdue considering how close it is. Chambery to Milan is only 4 hours by train, and it should be shorter than that within a year when the high-speed track between Turin and Milan is finished. I still can’t understand much of Italian, but I was able to remember the basic words and phrases to buy things, like gelato and more gelato.

The Côte d’Azur was full of beaches and tourists, which I expected. I’m glad I finally went there, but I don’t think I’d like to live there. Monaco and Cannes were very crowded because of the Grand Prix and Film Festival, but Antibes was much quieter. Provence was lovely, as usual, and very very hot. But I love the heat, so it didn’t bother me. Especially because we were staying at a rather nice hotel just outside of Aix-en-Provence (Kyriad Mas des Oliviers) that had air-conditioning, unlike our “hotel” that was really a hostel in Nice.

Languedoc didn’t seem as hot, but maybe it was just the wind, which was strong almost everywhere! There were a few times I had trouble walking because of it. Montpellier was incredibly nice, just as I had imagined, and I really liked Nîmes too. Pont du Gard was impressive, Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer was cute, and La Grande Motte was a bit strange because of the architecture that I have never before seen in France. I loved walking through the cité médiévale in Carcassonne – I just wish it hadn’t been so cold so we could have stayed and enjoyed it more.

The only thing I didn’t like was the car we rented. It was a Citroën C3 Sensodrive that can be driven as an automatic or manual. Except the automatic mode was scary to me because I’m not used to the car rolling backwards when I’m stopped, or the car turning off when I’m stopped (Eco function), or the fact that shifting into reverse did not work sometimes! What are you supposed to do when you’re stopped on a hill and need to back up so you don’t hit a parked car in front of you, but reverse doesn’t work???

Apartment: Even though I left from our apartment in Annecy in May, I came back to the new apartment in Chambéry with Jason. We’ve tried to put things away as much as possible, but there is still a serious lack of storage/shelves/drawers in the kitchen. It almost feels like home to me though, if only David and Canaille were here and we had all the furniture we needed. Being able to walk downtown within 10 minutes is convenient, and I can run most of my errands without needing a car. Living in the city has its advantages, I must admit, but one day I’d like to be back out in the countryside.

We’ve only got one bedroom, but the living room is large, and the entire apartment has been repainted. We’re currently having a problem with the water heater (auto doesn’t work), so I have to turn it to on at night and off in the morning. There are two balconies, one on each side of the building, that look out onto the main road and the parking lot behind it. We have a nice cross breeze through the living room and kitchen if we open both balcony doors. I figured out where the cave was, and it is quite possibly the creepiest, most dungeon-like storage space I’ve ever seen. We still don’t have the keys to the garage we rented for my car, because the agency can’t get a hold of the landlord, who initially gave them the wrong keys or something, so my car is parked on the road for now.

Here’s the view of the Alps from the kitchen balcony:

The only thing I’m worried about is Canaille falling or jumping off the balconies. We’re only on the 2nd floor (3rd floor American), but I’m afraid he’d seriously hurt himself if he did fall. And there is a nest of birds in the tree right next to the front balcony. I’m hoping that since he is a such a scaredy-cat, he won’t actually step foot on the balconies, but we’ll see what happens next weekend when we bring him home.

Conference: The previous 3 days I worked at an International English Pronunciation Conference at my university, and got to sit it on many presentations since I was the tech person in charge of computers. It was exhausting, but fun and interesting. I was Miss Powerpoint the first day, making sure all of the presentations worked properly, which many didn’t… Then I had to be a subsitute chair for a presentation while also being the tech person, which of course was the ONE time there was a problem with the computer.

I had missed being in an academic setting, with professors and researchers talking about things that I am interested in (linguistics, phonetics, technology, etc.) I am still thinking about doing my PhD in France, but I have no clue where or in what subject. I just can’t imagine narrowing down my interests to one topic and researching it for 3 years. I want to learn everything about everything!

And I loved the three plenary speakers! John Wells talked about the polling carried out for the new edition of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, and he also gave a presentation on using intonation to change meaning in English. (Also check out his Phonetics blog.) Helen Fraser spoke on Cognitive Phonology and its implications for teaching pronunciation, which I had never really thought about before.  Yvan Rose introduced the Phon software and PhonBank database and explained how they can benefit research on second language acquisition of phonology.

I also discovered a book edited by Marie-Jo Derive, who works at my university, that will be extremely useful to learners of French. It’s called Mots étranges pour des étrangers and it’s a corpus of idiomatic and slang expressions that foreign students learning French at the university had to learn the hard way (i.e. not understanding because no book ever taught them, and having to ask a native speaker to explain the meanings). Here’s the summary from the publisher’s site:

Il s’agit d’un recueil de mots étranges compilés par des apprenants de français. Tout le monde sait que, même lorsqu’on a atteint un haut degré de compétence, le plus difficile à maîtriser d’une langue est sa chair idiomatique nourrie de ces mille et une expressions intraduisibles et souvent éphémères de la communication parlée. L’apprenant ne les trouve que rarement dans les manuels et cet apprentissage doit se faire “sur le tas”. C’est cette pratique “de terrain” dont le volume se fait l’écho à partir de l’expérience de plus de cent étudiants étrangers sur six années consécutives. Plus qu’un simple dictionnaire, qui de toute façon est très vite caduc, l’idiomatique étant aussi changeant que la mode, il s’agit d’un témoignage qui, grâce aux commentaires des intéressés sur la façon dont ils ont entrevu le sens de l’expression en contexte, éclaire sur les processus de l’apprentissage en milieu naturel. Ainsi le livre sera utile aussi bien à l’étudiant étranger – non seulement comme source de référence, mais comme incitation à l’acquisition active du lexique – qu’à l’enseignant de FLE, en France et surtout hors de France. Il intéressera également le lexicologue qui y trouvera un portrait sur le vif du lexique des étudiants.

Semester is over and vacation is here. But why am I still so stressed?

By   April 28, 2009

I finished my last class of the semester on Monday and I am now on vacation. Technically I don’t work my regular contract hours again until mid-September when the next school year begins. Though I am working extra hours in June at a conference and proctoring the make-up exams for the other English lectrice who is returning to the US tomorrow. So I should be relaxed and happy and carefree and all of those other wonderful emotions that people feel when on vacation, but I am not.

I suppose it’s just the long “to do” list, to which I endlessly add things, but never accomplish. You would think having all the time in the world to run errands means that those errands will get done, but that is not true. Most of them involve making appointments, which I am too lazy to do, and/or spending money, which I do not want to do. So the only things I accomplished today were mopping the floor and making zucchini bread. But I WILL go to the préfecture on Thursday morning to get my new carte de séjour (they’re closed on Wednesdays, of course).

Plus I am still baby-sitting and doing private lessons this week, so I can’t really say that I’m not working because watching two young boys and teaching English one-on-one is hard work. Those will be finished by the end of this week, and David finishes his current job on Thursday, so we can finally focus on the apartment search this weekend. I’m really hoping we can find a place on the ground or first floor (so Canaille won’t die if he falls from the window/balcony…) that is within walking distance to the university and also David’s job downtown, but we’ll see. I haven’t been impressed so far with any annonces I’ve seen online.

In the meantime, I’m trying to catch up on responding to e-mails. I’ve only got 67 left. If you’ve sent me an e-mail or private message in the past 2 months, I most likely have received it and you will get a response within another, um, 2 months?

Avis Favorable

By   April 3, 2009

I officially received word that there was an avis favorable for my renewal, so I will definitely be a lectrice again next year! I’m set until September 2010 at least. Then I’ve got to figure out what the heck to do with my life. Continue teaching English? Get a Master and a completely different job? But in what? I suppose it all depends on where we’ll be living, which the French government is in no hurry to tell us…

I’m not going to worry about that now, though. It’s actually spring here and the sun is shining, so I’m going outside!

It has been a while. (For me, anyway.)

By   February 13, 2009

I suppose I’ve been too tired and sluggish to do anything on my site or blog since we still have no heat in the apartment. It’s been snowing most of the week too, so double yay. I also recently discovered that the building where my office is located on campus does not have a heating system either. The entire building. Three floors of classrooms and my office. Am I the only person who thinks this is crazy?? Every time I walk past a class in that building, the students are shivering in their seats with their coats on. I feel so bad for them. And this means that I can never use my office since it’s hard to type with numb fingers.

Wednesday evening began my 11 days of winter vacation. So far I’ve done nothing but finish up lessons for my various classes for the rest of the semester so I will be tranquille later on in March when I know something bad will happen. Let’s face it, something bad always happens in March and it stresses me out and makes me curse the fact that the month even exists. Hey, remember last March when my car broke down on the highway on a Friday afternoon while it was raining and snowing? And remember how I had to pay 1200 euros to replace the engine? Man, that was awesome.

Though perhaps the strikes and manifestations happening at other French universities will catch on at mine so I can have a longer vacation, or time off in March… I wonder if that was the plan all along… So far, my classes haven’t been affected, though I do have a lot of absences. But I think my students just like to skip. But hey, when you can retake the final exam and retake the classes even if you fail miserably, why not?

Anyway, since I’m always working at my computer, I decided to move my desk because I was tired of being in the dark corner. Now I’m in front of the window so I can always see when the dark clouds full of snow are approaching.

So what is on my desk? My computer, a book, and a cat.

P.S. A lack of heat and sunlight makes me incredibly cranky.

Thoughts and Ramblings

By   January 18, 2009

I’ve only worked one day in the past thirty, and it has given me a lot of time to think, contemplate, and get bored and frustrated. My first semester as a lectrice d’anglais ended just fine, and then Christmas came and went along with my homesickness, and lately I’ve been reading and cleaning a lot since I have nothing else I need to do. Maybe it’s because I’m used to working way too much, but I really don’t like having so much vacation – especially since it’s not really vacation when I don’t actually go anywhere or enjoy it. I’m saving my money for this spring and summer, and the weather here is too bad to actually go outside and do anything. I’ll take freezing temps and snow over chilly and rainy any day. And sure, it’s nice to still be paid even when I’m not working, but I’d much rather be working!

I’ve also been checking apartment ads almost daily because I’m seriously fed up with where we live. But who knows when we can actually move or to where. Everything depends on David right now and the results of his concours, which we won’t know for months and months. I just know that something needs to change. I’m hoping it’s mostly the lack of heat in our apartment in addition to the boredom, but I have been really tired and cranky lately and I hate it. I’m constantly complaining about living here, and being poor, and basically everything about France that drives me crazy. I’ve always known that I wouldn’t like living in France, but I did it anyway because I thought it would be better than in the US. In some ways, it is; but overall, I know in my heart I would prefer to be in Canada. I’m still trying to make immigrating to Quebec happen, but it feels like an uphill battle that I may never win.

So I go back to work tomorrow for the beginning of another 12 week semester. I’m interested to see how many of my students actually remember what we did in semester 1 and if anyone really learned the IPA.  I’m feeling more at ease in the job, learning how everything works (or doesn’t work) at French universities, and I’m excited to be able to use my office during breaks this semester. I think I went there about two times last semester because I was rarely on campus outside of my classes. I may even check out the library and the gym, as soon as I figure out where they are… This is another reason why I want to move closer to my work. I feel so disconnected from the school and my co-workers because I’m never there.

While I adore my job, I would like to work more so that I can earn more, but that’s not really possible (regardless of what Sarkozy says). I know my job will end in September 2010 and that it would be a temporary job from the very beginning. I suppose all of my previous jobs were that way as well, and for someone who thrives on change, I don’t understand why I’m now yearning for something more permanent. I’ve never wanted to do the same job, day after day, because it’s too boring. And that’s probably why I like teaching so much – it constantly changes, with each new student and new semester and new material… I could completely rewrite a course if I wanted to, completely change how the students learn and what they learn. Except I can’t exactly do that until I have my own class. As an assistant and even now as a lectrice, I’m still not completely in control and a part of me really wants that.

Perhaps it’s also the fact that I’m turning 27 this year that makes me feel that I should have something more concrete in my life, like a career or even a house. I’m tired of feeling that my “real life” has yet to begin. And I’m tired of feeling like my real life cannot begin until I leave France. I can’t say with any certainty that things wouldn’t be better in another part of France. Maybe it is just Annecy. Maybe I can find an amazing job somewhere else in this country. I just don’t know. I’ve always thought that teaching French at a university was the only career I would want, so I need to do a PhD in French. But maybe just being able to use French and other languages everyday would make me happy. The tourism industry seems like it wouldn’t be too boring, and France receives a ridiculous number of tourists every year. But would I regret not doing the PhD? Or would I regret trying to do it in France and not North America, which is where I would like to teach anyway?

So I guess I’m trying to make peace and find acceptance with living in France for now. It still amuses me to no end that so many people think living in France is a fairy tale. It’s no different from any other country, though I do have to admit the health care is pretty awesome. Think about how many Americans say it’s their dream to live in France and here I am trying to get back across the ocean. People think I’m crazy for wanting to leave, but it’s not that I hate France, it’s just that I miss North America too much. I used to think that I was a big failure for not absolutely loving everything about France and Europe, but you know what? It’s just not for me. End of story.

Exam time… and now more vacation time

By   January 9, 2009

Today was the big phonetics final exam for my first year students, and I worked for 5 hours straight with a seemingly never-ending number of students. The actual test only took them about 5 minutes to do, but I was supposed to figure out their grade in the one minute before the next student started pronouncing words, which I always find a bit stressful.

The French grading system is based on qualitative scores instead of quantitative, so a 10/20 is considered moyen and passing and basically no one receives 18 to 20. To my American mind that is used to percentages, it doesn’t make any sense and it hurts my head to try to figure out grades. I seriously stress over if I’m being fair or not, because it seems like grades are based on the momentary whim and mood of the teacher and not on the actual work done.

Anyway, that was my first experience in giving final exams as a lectrice. It wasn’t too bad, especially since the time went by so fast with so many students to get through. And now I have yet another week off, because the second semester doesn’t start until January 19. And even then, it’s only 3 classes a week because my 8 labs don’t start until February.

Have I mentioned lately that my job is awesome?

Remember how I complained about English words in French?

By   November 17, 2008

Loan words are definitely not helping my students learn English vocabulary. They were supposed to write partitive expressions to make uncount nouns countable on the test last week. All of the images they had to identify were used in their daily lessons, so they should have known which words to use.

The correct answer is a loaf of bread. What did some of my students write? Cake. Which is understandable since most bread in France does not look like this and in French, un cake is this (whether it’s sugary, salty or fruity):

I would call this a fruitcake in English, but all the others I would tend to call bread, i.e. banana bread, zucchini bread, etc. because they look like small loaves of bread even if they’re not really “bread.” A cake to me is much larger (round or square), usually in flavors of chocolate, vanilla, cherry chip, marble, carrot, etc. and covered in frosting.

This is a bowl (or box) of cereal. If the students didn’t write cereals (because it’s plural in French), they would write cornflakes and I don’t think it was because of the barely distinguishable green rooster on the box (which was black & white on the test anyway). David tells me that you can use cornflakes to refer to cereal in general in French, even though it only refers to a specific type of cereal in English.

Other answers weren’t so wrong, such as a pack of chewing-gum instead of just a pack of gum. The chewing part isn’t said very often in everyday American English, and there’s no hyphen (which annoyingly seems to make its way into a lot of English loan words in French.)

Yes, my students should have learned the vocabulary we went over in class, but I understand how it’s confusing for them to think they’re using English words properly when they’re really not. If the word was borrowed from English, why would the meaning be changed in French? I hope they’re just as annoyed about it as I am.

Ship or Sheep or Disgust?

By   October 14, 2008

I’m preparing the audio files for our Phonetics labs at home, and I’ve been listening to the units in our book, Ship or Sheep?, written by two Brits about 25 years ago. I got to Unit 4 on the [æ] vowel sound and noticed the dialogue they had written using as many words as possible with this sound. The title is “A Bad Hijacker.” Oh boy.

Even before 9/11, I think I would have been very sensitive about this, so I don’t think it’s just because I’m American or what happened 7 years ago. You just don’t write fake dialogues about planes blowing up! Surely there are plenty of other topics you can talk about using words with the [æ] vowel. Who would find it appropriate to talk about a fat lady with a handbag who turns out to be a hijacker on a flight to Amsterdam? And then end the dialogue with a huge explosion as if it were real? Even the book has a little drawing of the plane exploding with the word BANG written across it. ::sigh::

I was liking this book because of their adorable, stereotypical British accents that no one actually speaks with… and then they had to ruin it. I honestly feel a little sick now.