Monday, May 16, 2011

Quoi j'ai appris, ici à Paris

The grammar final is Saturday (I have two others before that, for which I'm clearly not studying sufficiently) and I think, little by little, my grammar teacher is going slightly mad from our inability to retain all the teeny tiny grammar technicalities. I can hear it in her voice when she tries to patiently explain answers to us— she says something like "Mais non, c'est 'du,' pas 'son,'" but what she really means is "HOW CAN YOU STILL NOT KNOW THIS STUFF? How can you not have LEARNED that yet?!" The poor woman. This brings up a few things for me...what I'm going to remember about this experience, what I've observed about French teachers, and some thoughts on education.
Since about a year and a half ago when I started taking French seriously, I've wondered how French people can teach us and repeatedly listen to students butcher language...let alone do it with patience and understanding. With English, it seems to me as though there are already so many accents out there that it's almost difficult to butcher the sounds. But with French, there's such a specific sound to it that it takes a very particular way of speaking and mouth-moving, and sometimes it seems as though students barely even try. Granted it can sometimes be exhausting, but if you've made it all the way to Paris just to try and improve your French, you might as well put in some effort.
Of course, it can be pretty rough for students, too, and all the particulars of grammar don't help. But I still can't help but wonder what the teachers go through. My first grammar teacher seemed to go too fast; my current one usually goes at a better pace for me, and once in a while she has to go haltingly slow because of confusion. She finally told one girl, who spoke French the same way most of us did in high school (as in, seeming fearful of using the accent...actually caring about the language would have been uncool back in the day), that she really needed to work on her pronunciation. For me it was welcome; my pronunciation isn't so great but even I flinch when I hear someone speak French with, say, an American valley-girl accent or sounding as though they're speaking Spanish instead, or saying "par fett" when the teacher clearly says "par fay." Things like that.
Once, a few weeks ago, I was listening to a friend-of-a-British-friend (possibly my favorite accent when it comes to English-speakers, aside from the one Ya-Ya Sisterhood) recount a terrible experience she had when, in the middle of a French presentation (or exposé) the professor stopped her just a couple minutes in and said he couldn't stand her accent and would only give her a minute to sum up the rest of the presentation.
What a nightmare! It's scary enough giving a presentation, and scarier giving it in another language. I was shocked by her awful story, and yet...a part of me can't believe things like that don't happen more often. From what I've seen and heard, teachers here in France can be much harsher than teachers in the US (even those who have come from France). Coddling students isn't going to happen. One of my professors, after a student finished his presentation, told him in front of the class that it hadn't been very important or interesting. It was simultaneously terrifying and entertaining. Maybe if US high school teachers could say things like this to students, they'd be a lot less stressed out/prone to burn out. Or if they could just swear. I know it helps a lot of college professors.
There's also a great deal of announcing grades to the class, which isn't good for me these days because I'm less and less focused on schoolwork and more and more focused on eating bread and cheese by the Seine. Which, by the way, is a disgusting river. Beautiful, but disgusting, and filled with plastic bags and tennis balls and all kinds of stuff. And what's more is that it isn't just announcing a number, it's often accompanied by "What happened?!" It's hard to say with certainty whether this is better or worse, especially if you're an advocate of that Tiger Mother book— the tough love way of teaching might force students to do better. We lazy Americans can be just that, lazy. Maybe we need a push. Or maybe this way of doing things is more likely to form negative associations with education; fear, anger, pressure, stress....oh wait, we already have all that anyway. I've been having my doubts about the education system in general since...we, since the sixth grade, but also since I saw this video.

The version that I saw but was unable to find begins with a valedictorian giving a high school graduation speech, who admits that she's scared now that she's graduating, because she has been trained not to have a productive, thoughtful mind that retains information and rebuilds it in creative ways, but simply to succeed. To get good grades and be on top and memorize stuff only to discard it later and make room for new stuff. And then this part, with the drawing and elaboration came on. It's pretty interesting, and anyone who has recently attended high school can probably relate.

Teachers have to put up with a lot. In fact, it's amazing that they don't have more outbursts and breakdowns. And I'm not even going to get into what happens when teachers burn out and stop caring, or worse, when they stop caring about certain students. At least the civilization teacher who announces bad grades and boring presentations is equally indifferent/argumentative (I guess it's a French thing) to all of us.
Anyway, coming back to the whole not having retained enough French grammar's just like the valedictorian in the video I described says. I've been conditioned to hold information long enough to get a good grade...and then, it seems, I forget. And while there are plenty of students out there who remember much better than I, I have a feeling that there are more who toss information they don't care about once they don't have to use it anymore. I only remember stuff that I'm interested in (if I'm lucky), which means that what I remember from high school is limited to the adventures and relationships of my friends and me, which books I liked in lit classes, dropping an egg from the main stairwell for a physics course, and what happened on Lost. I also remember which teachers seemed to actually care about the students, and I remember the food I ate in French class, which was, by the way, one of the best classes with one of the best teachers.

So, here's a tiny bit of insight on this program I'm in, this experience I'm having abroad...

What will I remember learning here in Paris? The streets and how to get around, the food, the best things to see at the Louvre, maybe some history. I'll remember meeting really great people from all over the world. I'll remember the creepy guy who tried to kiss Sarah by the Seine, and the other creepy guy that Sarah and I saw pee on a tree in broad daylight facing traffic. I'll remember my first (and only) terrible, terrible hangover— hey, if you've got to learn that lesson, you may as well learn it in Paris. I'll remember eating way too much bread, chocolate, and for some reason, mentos. The places I've traveled to. Chasing the RER. Spotting Kanye West and Ben Affleck. Osama, Obama, Trump. Crêpes and gelato and coffee. I'll certainly remember speaking lots of bad French, and the culture? Of course I'll remember that. But I won't remember anything from French grammar, and it's doubtful that a lot of information on the European Union will stick, either. As far as I can tell, Paris is the best city in the world. It's a great city for all things French. But if you want to improve your French, it might be a better idea to take classes IN French that involve learning, reading, writing and discussion of subjects that interest you.
Of course, if French grammar is what interests you most, then you're in business.

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