Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ma Première Leçon

My first lesson was an exercise in frustration. I have to remind myself that in some ways it is ALWAYS this way.

When I started taking Italian, I was with a group of other American college students. All of us who didn't speak any Italian at all were put into an evaluation lesson, though they didn't tell us that was what it was at the time. We spent a couple of hours starting to learn Italian, and then the next day were separated into smaller groups. I was interested and excited to begin, but the teacher thought I was an idiot because when she told us that people usually used "babbo" for "dad" instead of "papa", she asked if anyone knew what "papa" meant. Well, I knew some Spanish. "Potato?" I asked.

My Italian teacher did not know Spanish. She looked at me witheringly and with astonishment that I could be so stupid. "Pope," she said. My classmates, who apparently also did not know Spanish, burst out laughing.

I was put into the "slow learners" class. My roommate, who was practically a linguistic genius and already spoke fluent German, didn't say a word during the intro class (preferring to wait until she knew something to speak, perhaps to avoid withering looks), was also put into the slow learners class. We quickly became the stars of our class, which didn't seem odd to us, but when we were informed by a classmate who had been placed into the "fast learners" class that ours was for "slow" people, we were furious. No one was going to call US slow learners, plus we didn't want to be held back in Italian. We went to our teacher and asked if it was true. "Nina, Wendy," he said calmly, very suave and Milanese, "are you happy with your test score?" We had both just scored 100% on the second weekly test. "Yes," we said, "but-" "The other class took the same test, and no one scored better than either of you."

Well, we loved our Italian teacher anyway, so we shut up after that. After a month when our Italian lessons changed to three days a week and half a day--the rest of the time we spent in art history classes--Nina fought to be moved into the intermediate class with the people who came to Florence already knowing some Italian, and did well there. I wasn't so ambitious (or so talented) and stayed contentedly in the beginner's class, where, to the scorn of the classmate who told us we were slow, all the beginners were mixed together again.

When I went to my first Spanish class in Guatemala (one-on-one, five hours daily), I felt like I would be all right; I'd studied Spanish for three years in high school, and even though the placement test I took in college still had me at the very basic level, that had to be good for something, right? What I found was what most people find when they begin a third language: whenever I tried to speak in Spanish, it came out in Italian. I hadn't even been to Italy for six years, but the words seemed lodged in my brain. I liked my teacher, but I was frustrated at her refusal to speak any English. I'd always heard about that as a language-teaching method, but never experienced it, and it seemed as silly as I'd always thought. "Why talk when you know I can't understand?" I wondered.

We switched Spanish teachers every week, and frustrations were ongoing; they wouldn't let me look at my notes, they spent time on things I didn't care about, they made me write paragraphs when I didn't care anything about being able to write in Spanish. But I had to admit that I was learning Spanish. I got used to their method.

Which brings me to French class yesterday. I can tell that Roosevelt, although he is well-educated and has several other French students, is not as accustomed to teaching a foreign language as the other teachers I've had. In all situations, including my public school experiences, we started out with certain things. Interrogatives. Basic classroom needs ("repeat, please"). Phonics. Roosevelt was a bit scattered, starting an irregular verb, then moving over to vocabulary, then members of the family, and so on. He taught me the forms to answer some questions (Do you have ____? Yes, I have ____.) and seemed surprised when I didn't have the vocabulary to answer the question, even when I had the format down. And I had to ask him how to say "I don't know what you're saying" and "Repeat, please" and "How do you say ___?". (Which was a little slapsticky. "How do I say 'I don't understand'?" I asked. "You don't understand?" he asked, and then he repeated the sentence he'd just said in French. "No, I want to know how to tell you I don't understand." He repeated the sentence again...)

I think things will get a lot better when I know more, but I'm going to go ahead and do some independent study on these phrases that I know I need. (I always say "I don't understand" a LOT.) For the first time I get why so many bloggers are anti-formal instruction. But I do think these lessons are the right choice for me. I can already read a certain amount of French, and primarily using computer resources would probably--because of my natural dislike for anything difficult--just let me keep reading French, and maybe understanding better, but not really speaking.

Je vais persévérer! (Tiens, j'ai appris "je vais" à ma première leçon.)

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