Tomorrow marks the end of 10 weeks of French — not yet halfway to the finish line, but almost.
My mom (hi Mom!) was asking me the other day just how much French Andy and I speak. ”I mean, can you have conversations?” she wanted to know.
“Coherent ones?” she continued. (Thanks Mom.)
Honestly, it depends on your definition of coherent.
We speak much more slowly than native speakers. And we stick to simple or at best intermediate grammatical constructions. And we still make the occasional grammatical error. And we evade words we don’t know by using the ones we do know awkwardly (or creatively, if you want to be more generous).
For instance, when trying to tell Andy to snap the stems off the green beans, I told him to break the green beans at their ends. Hey, it got the job done. [Addendum from Andy: I actually had no idea what she was talking about - I just smiled and nodded like I do in class and eventually she stopped talking.]
But still, we’ve gotten pretty darn coherent, if I do say so myself. Last weekend we spent five hours driving in northern Minnesota to a friend’s wedding.
During the trek, I — much to Andy’s chagrin — instituted a French-only rule. And we stuck to it. So, yes, we can go five hours at a time communicating everything we need to using only French. [Another Andy addendum: Once again, I had no idea what she was talking about. You'd be surprised how far "oui" and "je suis d'accord" can get you, especially with dames.] Of course there were errors. And of course it was exhausting. But it can be done. Which I for one think is pretty amazing after 10 weeks of instruction.
My mom’s next question: “So are you further along in French than you ever were in Spanish or Zulu?”
Spanish? Yes and no. But really, yes.
Let me explain. After studying Spanish for four years in high school and two semesters in college, I was pretty familiar with sophisticated grammar; I knew probably three times more verb tenses than what I regularly use in French. So in that sense, I was further along in Spanish. However, if you asked me to say anything — even something very simple — I turned into a bumbling fool.
Studying at FSI has shown me how misguided high school and university language instruction is, at least in my experience. I’ve chatted about this topic with a few high school language teachers, and they always take issue with the accusation that high school language instruction is sub par. But it has nothing to do with the teachers. Teachers do the best they can with the time they’re given; it’s just that the time they’re given isn’t structured appropriately. Sure, you can memorize grammatical rules and vocabulary when you devote an hour a day to language learning, but you can’t learn to speak well. Because learning to speak requires building reflexes, and building reflexes requires repetition. And an hour a day in a class with a dozen or two other students, a set-up that doesn’t allow for much speaking at all, and is then followed by a 23-hour break… well, that just doesn’t cut it.
So here’s what I propose: instead of four years of high school language classes, we should send our students on immersion trips for a summer. I’m certain they’ll learn more in three months than in four years, and then maybe we’ll be able to finally put this joke to rest:
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.