Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Lesson One

There's much chatter here about education reforms and the offer of free "intensive" English courses for French schoolchildren during the summer and February holidays. Apparently the aim is to make sure they are all fluent in what they call here "the language of Shakespeare" by the time they hit the workplace. I was talking to one of France's most respected linguists about this and I could tell he thought it was a really bad idea. He came up with all sorts of cultural, historical, colonial reasons for French apathy and antipathy towards the English language but his trump card was that English is too difficult because it is so idiomatic "How do you explain to someone you can hedge your bets but not hedge-bet" I nodded in agreement because he is respected and obviously very clever and respected for being clever but afterwards, when I thought about it, I wasn't so sure. About the hedging bets that is, not his cleverness.

I think French is quite hard but that's because although I have a deceptively convincing accent - or so I'm told - I frequently say something stupid. Sometimes it's because of faux amis and sometimes because I don't think and out pops something like I am "sur le train" a literal translation of "on the train" when what I mean is I am "dans le trains" or "in the train" and "sur le train" conjures up Charlie Chaplinesque images of me clinging to the roof of a TGV screaming silently while some black and white villain with "VILLAIN" on his shirt and a curly moustache beats my knuckles with a monkey wrench. Then again that's more idiot than idiom.

La Fille will certainly be having intensive school holiday courses in English; with me - or her grandparents - in England. Today's English lesson was watching Mary Poppins. "I don't think this is my kind of film," said La Fille two seconds after the opening credits when she realised there were no lions, zebras, monkeys, mammouths, bees, elephants, penguins, insects, one-eyed mutants or amorphous blobby things in it. "I don't care, we're watching it. It is in English," I said. I am at least consistent. "Besides it's a classic." And it is, in spite of Dick Van Dyke's lamentable accent, the stuffed robin that looked as if it was nailed to Julie Andrews' finger and the moral messages as subtle as silent film captions. A classic, despite being sugary and twee and set in 1910 so you know in a few years Mr Banks will be packed off to a European trench never to return just as he's getting to know his children and Bert will get lung cancer because he keeps sticking his head into belching chimneys and no amount of jolly nanny nonsense will magic these things away.

La Fille soon gave up trying to copy Bert's tap dancing on the 200-year-old Hungarian point parquet, became bored and spent the rest of the film telling me to "shut up singing" and trying to poke me in the eye with a sharp stick. Later as I put her to bed she asked me to tell her the "new words" she'd learned. "Which new words?" I asked thinking Cat, Hat, Bat, Rag, Sag. She said: "The ones you were singing really loudly." (Perhaps she said badly.) "What? Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?" "No, no the other one." I racked my brains: the other one, the other one. "Chim Chiminey?" "Yes, that one. Is it English? What does it mean?"

There is a good reason I am not a teacher.


Cimon said...

Films like Cars or Ratatouille work very well with my son. Why not try pixar films, which are obviously easily available in English.

I am surprised you are surprised by the "langue de Shakespeare" stuff, as we do it with our language (Molière), German (Goethe), Italian (Dante) and so on...


I have some questions for you, though :

- do you find the French are that bad at English ? I mean I am not sure we are really worse (nor better) than our neighbours, and no one seems to notice that the French language imposes the last syllabus of a word to be stressed, which means that it is difficult for us to correctly stress the words ;
- would yoyu appreciate non dubbed films on TV ?
- do you think it is a good idea to have English lessons for kids that young ? I mean there are 29 kids in my son's class, and I'd better have money spent in lowering this number rather than English lessons...

Jaywalker said...

Uh oh. What if she starts talking like Dick Van Dycke? "Meeery Poppinz"

Does La Fille watch Minuscule? God, I love Minuscule. Ok that is totally off topic since it has NO dialogue at all. Sorry.

Nicol said...

I loved Mary Poppins and I never did think about Mr. Banks heading off to war a few short years after (in movie land). It made me take a step bank that the perfect world that is represented when Mary Poppins is there will disapear.

I also read your post on La Fille's school day. I'm glad she is doing so well. I say whether the schools decide to teach more English or not, that it's great that she is learning from you. I feel language is important. My dd is off with her grandparents today for "Spanish time".

Parisgirl said...

Cimon, La Fille loves Cars, Ratatoille, Madagascar the lot. We have quite a collection! Sorry, I didn't mean to give the impression I was surprised about the Langue de Shakespeare bit; I find it a lovely description.
Interesting questions:
1) It's difficult for me to say. As I speak French (however badly) French friends talk to me in French. I have the impression they don't like to speak English in case they make mistakes, which seems to be a French hang-up. Research from various sources including the OECD seems to show the French are falling behind. (In the recognised Test of English as a Foreign Language 2008 average scores were: French students: 85 out of possible 120; Germans 102; Estonians 97; Greeks 87. This is just a selection and there may be a reason of which I am unaware). That said, I was surprised when my stepdaughter took her Bac and told me there was no oral English exam.
2) Personally yes, but I believe this is a cultural thing. In the UK subtitles are used and preferred, in France it's the opposite. I suppose it's what you're used to.
3) The intensive summer courses I refer to are for lycéens, but as for language lessons for six year olds; if it is simply an introduction and fun, why not but if it formal and tested, no. I think emphasising English and excluding other languages is a pity. I am totally with you on class numbers. What is the maximum number allowed?

Jaywalker, I know. Dick Van Dyke opened his mouth and I thought: "This man is speaking English and I don't understand a word he's saying"! What is Miniscule?

Parisgirl said...

Nicol, Sorry, didn't mean to cast a cloud over Mary Poppins. Must have been my mood yesterday.
Hope the Spanish is going well. I'm convinced parental efforts are as important as what they do at school

Dumdad said...

"In the UK subtitles are used and preferred, in France it's the opposite. I suppose it's what you're used to."


In my experience, it's the other way round. Whatever.

Parisgirl said...

Dumdad, I was talking about subtitles being preferred to dubbing for VO (ie non English language) films in the UK. I don't think I've ever seen a foreign film dubbed into English, but maybe I haven't lived!

Cimon said...

I don't think any conclusion may be drawn from TOEFL results : the French school system just does not know what a multiple choice test is, and I guess results would be different if a dissertation had to be done. Anyway, a friend of mine was studying at Columbia University, and told me he had problems with the structure of his dissertations : as he was taught, it was three parts (thesis / antithesis / synthesis) or 4 parts (2 parts with 2 subparts). His teachers expected him to give his opinion (and explain why) while he was trying to show he had understood how difficult the subject was.

As far as the bac is concerned, it depends on the option you chose. But remember that real important subjects are written test, less important subjects are oral.

I am not sure there is a maximum number as school is mandatory starting age 6. But here is the maternelle program (yes, there is one !), but I didn't find any mention of the 30 kids in a classroom with a teacher and an ATSEM...

parisgirl said...

Cimon, I've heard before that the French not good at multiple choice exams and find this curious because in the UK multiple choice exams are considered an easy or easier option !
My stepdaughter did a Bac S with English as her first option "langue vivante". Some of her friend did the Bac ES and others the Bac L, again with English but none of them did an oral exam. I know official French exams are based on a written tradition but would argue that oral exams are vital in language learning.
Thanks for the link to the maternelle programme. Very interesting.

Jaywalker said...

Lovely funny short films featuring insects. Make a change from Barbalala et cie.

Cimon said...

I took TOEFL more than 10 years ago (my English was still OK, then), and I needed 2 attempts : the first one, without a training ended a disaster. 2 months later, after some training I got very good results withouth my English having improved much. I hust mean this kind of test can be prepared, and the French school system does not prepare you at all to it.

If you want another example of biased test, there exists in Catalonia a Catalogne government run language test (you need it to appy to civil servant jobs). From my experience, I can tell that it is far easier for french than Spanish to take it, because it emphasizes on what Catalan and Spanish have most distant, which, at the same time is what French and Catalan have in common (more precisely the "en" and "y" stuff, that you maight also find difficult in French).

I took a bac C (the ancestor of bac S) and English test was oral (so was latin, by the way). But it was long ago...