Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Drowning in French

Tonight we are going to the home of French friends for dinner. I feel honored to be invited into a French home, but I am scared to death because I know that I will be expected to converse in French. I spent the morning reviewing flash cards and cramming for our evening out as if I was preparing for a final exam in French. From past experience, I know that by the time that dinner is served, I will be drenched in sweat from the stress of trying to understand what is being said and the strain of trying form a couple of intelligent and coherent sentences. By the end of the evening I probably will have given up the goal of saying anything intelligent, but I still will be exhausted from the concentration required for me not to lose the thread of the conversation. (If I am not paying attention, in a misdirected attempt to be polite, somebody always seems to direct a question directly at me to try to reengage me in the conversation.) If I survive the ordeal of a "casual dinner" with friends, I also know that I will spend the night tossing and turning while internally reviewing my mistakes of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and etiquette.

My fear of speaking French is not entirely without basis. In an earlier blog (Why Learning French is like Loving a Beautiful Woman),  I confessed that my French teacher gave me a passing grade in French only on the condition that I never disgrace the French language again. My French teacher was justifiably concerned that my butchery of the French language would cause and international incident or otherwise sully her reputation. One of my goals while living in France was to prove her wrong. I dreamed of knocking on her door and speaking fluid French. This is unlikely to happen.

French immersion class in Paris
I had hoped that living in France would somehow make it easy to learn French and prove that my previous failure to learn French was mainly due to a lack of effort. Unfortunately, learning French at age 57 has not been as easy as I had hoped it would be. I feel like I am drowning in French. I am flailing my arms wildly in a sea of French verbs (in 14 different tenses), French vocabulary, and French pronunciation, not to mention a dizzying cloud of exceptions to every rule. A three-week immersion French class in Paris and five subsequent months of traditional French classes at l'institut municipal d'Angers made me more cognizant of the many ways in which I am butchering the language. My difficulties learning French have prompted me to spend many hours pondering the best way to learn a foreign language. Surely there has got to be a better way!

For my first month in France, I took a half-day immersion French class. Immersion French was definitely more fun than traditional French classes, and it was easy to develop bonds of friendship with other upper middle-class tourists (from the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina and Mexico) who were all just trying to learn tourist French. Initially, I felt like the classes produced great results because we spent our time in class actually having conversations with each other in French rather than doing verb conjugations in workbooks. The problem with the immersion classes was that there was little continuity from day-to-day or week-to-week. The students changed daily in accordance with each person's travel plans. The instructors and classes were constantly being reshuffled to accomodate the changing student body. A new instructor on Friday might unknowingly repeat the same material that we had learned earlier in the week. Due to the influx of new students arriving each week, we tended to cover the same basic material and expressions repeatedly.  As a result, we never seemed to learn enough to move up to the next level. 

French immersion class in Paris
When we moved to Angers in September, I decided to resume French classes. For the past five months I have been taking French classes three days a week at l'institut municipal d'Angers. The good news, which would shock and surprise my Junior High School French teacher, is that I am probably one of the two best students in my classes. I do my homework, I pay attention in class, and I take copious notes. (I did none of these things in Junior High School.) I typically spend 4-6 hours preparing for each class. I complete the assigned pages in the workbooks, I anticipate related questions that will be asked by the teacher, I prepare flash cards, and I review prior assignments. This hard work has produced good results in the classroom, but in casual conversations my progress is less obvious.

The bad news is that I continue to be unable to engage in any sort of normal conversation with anybody in French. All of my hours filling in workbooks and reviewing flash cards have not enabled me to communicate with the average person on the street. When asked in class to conjugate the verb pouvoir in the future simple tense, or transform a paragraph from present tense to passé composé, I am a wiz, but figuring out the proper tense and conjugation on the fly in normal conversation is completely different. Similarly, if we are assigned to read a passage in French, it is possible to anticipate likely questions and be prepared to respond. However, conversations on the street are less predictable. Anticipation of an upcoming social encounter in French causes me to worry incessantly.

Social events where we are invited into a French home and expected to make polite conversation in French are particularly uncomfortable for me. I find myself bathed in sweat as I struggle to remember basic French etiquette, to construct rudimentary sentences in my head and to instruct my mouth to utter the words in way that sounds like it might be French. If my concentration lapses for an instant, I tend to lose the thread of the conversation. Usually, by the time I feel ready to say something, the conversation has moved on (so I say nothing). When social awkwardness forces me to say something, my utterances in a thick American accent are usually met by baffled looks. The more that I try to carefully enunciate each individual word, the less my words sound like French because French words only sound right when all of the words run together. After the French speakers make a few attempts to decipher what I was saying, which usually results in me pulling everybody else around me into my drowning pool, the victims of my verbal flailing typically pretend to understand what I said and quickly find a graceful excuse to move to a different part of the room while casting looks of pity in my wife's direction. I am sure that they wonder how my wife can communicate so well in French and yet be married to a complete idiot. Dinner table conversations can be particularly painful and exhausting because my neighbors have no easy excuse to move to a different part of the room.

My agony does not end when the social event ends. As I lay in bed at night, I review the conversations in my head and break into a sweat as I realize that I accidentally pronounced a seemingly innocent word in a way that sounds like coarse sexual expression, or committed some other faux pas. As I replay the video of the evening in my head, I relive the awkward silences and embarrassed expressions a thousand times as I try to decipher where I went wrong. 

As a result of all of my angst, I have come to three conclusions (really an excuse and two conclusions) about learning French:

1. First, the excuse. My old brain and ears simply do not seem to hear some of the critical sounds that the French use in ordinary language and that the French use to discern the difference between different words. To the extent that I can hear the sounds, the muscles in my mouth seem unable to create those sounds in a way that the French recognize. This excuse is not quite as pathetic as it sounds. There actually is some scientific basis for the idea that your brain prunes the neural pathways that would allow your brain to discern the difference between sounds used only in French, but not in English. This is why older Japanese, who have never been exposed to English, are notorious for their inability to distinguish "lock" from "rock." When they were young, their brains never needed to distinguish the "l" sound from the "r" sound because they were only exposed to Japanese, therefore their brains pruned away the neural connections that enabled them to distinguish the sounds. Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. The science suggests that teaching people to hear the different sounds of a new language through immediate feedback before attempting to teach them vocabulary and grammar enables people to learn to distinguish the sounds necessary to understand and to speak the language.  But that is not the way that French was taught to me. (See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-teach-old-ears-new-tricks/.)

2. To learn to speak French well, you have to be willing to speak French poorly. I know that this is true, but I have difficulty exposing myself to potential ridicule. It was instilled in me from an early age that if you do something, you should do it properly. This philosophy enabled me to be successful in school and in my work. Unfortunately, the techniques that I used to be a successful student and lawyer (hard work, over-preparation for every conceivable contingency, and a desire to do the best job possible) work well in the classroom, but seem to work against me in normal day-to-day interactions.

My desire to be successful in speaking French causes me to avoid situations where I know that I will do poorly. I would rather study the material until I am ready to perform well than demonstrate my poor French by actually speaking French.This may be the most difficult thing for me to change. Unless I can learn to accept that speaking French poorly is a necessary step to speaking French well, I will always choose to study my workbooks and to attend the traditional French classes, where I appear to be successful, rather than actually trying to speak French in everyday conversations.

3. Both the immersion method of teaching French and the traditional teaching style have drawbacks. The immersion approach made it easier for me to accept my ineptitude and to dare to speak poor French (because most of my classmates were almost as inept as I was), but unfortunately the program was not designed for a year-long resident of France. In the immersion program, I quickly reached a low plateau of knowledge that I could not escape.

On the other hand, the traditional method, which focuses on book learning about grammar and vocabulary, may work well to teach immigrants the French that they will use daily for the rest of their life, but it probably is not the teaching style that is best for somebody who just wants to be able to communicate during a one-year stay in France. In my traditional classes at l'institut municipal d'Angers, we rarely converse with each other in French and we spend a lot of time learning to correctly spell a lot of verb forms that all sound the same (e.g., mangerai, mangerais, mangerait, mangerez). We also spend a lot of time learning tenses of verbs that are primarily used in literature, but not in common speech. The truth is that I rarely write anything in French and when I do, I am normally using a computer with a French dictionary that corrects my most egregious grammar and spelling errors. For a visitor to France, oral communication is much more important than the ability to write perfectly. If I was redesigning the program, I would ask the teacher to spend less time conjugating verbs, learning the intricacies of French grammar, and reviewing the workbooks, and more time having the class speak to each other.

Of course, I can't really blame the teaching method or the teacher. My classmates at l'institut municipal, many of whom are mostly poorly educated immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, Turkistan, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Syria, Iraq, and various eastern European countries seem to be learning to communicate in French faster than I am although most of them do not do their homework, rarely conjugate a verb correctly in class, and are generally confounded by the teacher's questions relating to conjugation and grammar. In fact, many of them have not purchased the workbooks that we plod through in every class.

My classmates are learning French faster than me although some of them face challenges that appear to be overwhelming. For example, although there are lots of French-English dictionaries in every bookstore, and many software apps to translate from French to English or English to French, these translation tools are difficult to obtain for the native languages of many of the immigrants and I am told that they are often inaccurate. Furthermore, I am not sure that some of my classmates could read the dictionary translation if it was available and it was accurate. I suspect that some of my classmates are illiterate in any language.

Nonetheless, most of these immigrants have learned to speak a pidgin-French that enables them to communicate fairly effectively with the French. Learning French has been necessary for them because most of them do not speak another language (such as English) that can be used as an alternative way of communicating with the French. I've asked my classmates how they have learned to speak so well, and their usual response is that they have no option and that they watch a lot of French TV. My teacher claims that many of immigrants come from cultures" that place a much higher emphasis on oral learning than written learning. While their version of French may not be pretty, it works, and they certainly are better at communicating in French than I am.

What would I do differently if I had it do over again?

I certainly know a lot more French today than I knew 9 months ago, but in hindsight, I know that I would be much better at communicating in French if I had done the following:

First, I should have familiarized myself more with the sound of French before I waded too far into the deep pool of French grammar and vocabulary. It doesn't do me any good to know how to conjugate a verb or to have an extensive vocabulary if I can't recognize the words in normal conversations and I don't know how to pronounce the words in a way that others can understand. To correct this deficiency, next time I would listen to more French radio and watch more French TV shows and movies to develop an ear for the language. Although I watched all of the Pink Panther movies and tried to emulate Inspector Clouseau, perhaps Inspector Clouseau was not the best role model. Most importantly, next time I would find a person or computer program to help me hear and discern the differences between sounds that are used in French, but sound similar in English.

Second, I would try to find classes that involved a combination of the immersion method of teaching and traditional method that focuses on grammar and vocabulary.

Third, and most importantly, I would force myself to spend more time informally speaking the language, no matter how painful it was, even though that runs contrary to my desire to not do something unless I can do it well. Although a certain amount of traditional grammar and vocabulary is essential, if I did it again I would take less of the traditional formal French classes, which are designed for people who want to master the written and spoken forms of the language, and spend more time seeking out native French speakers who are willing to spend a couple of hours each week talking to me in French in return for me helping them with their English.

It is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. We will be leaving France in two months and it may be too late for me. Perhaps others can learn from my mistakes.

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