Bonjour !

Je suis toujours un peu nerveux, quand j’observe un cours de français. C’est normal que le prof me demande quelque chose pendant l’heure et je sais que mon niveau de la langue n’est pas très bon pour les quinze ans que j’habite en Suisse romande. Mais voilà, c’est comme ça. 

“On commence,” says the teacher, as the screen comes to life. Students take out notebooks or tablets. The assignment is to connect a phrase in the left column with its logical continuation in the right column. Un terrain ー de sport, for example. Une école ー privée. There are a few questions about vocabulary as the students complete the activity. The teacher writes on the whiteboard facultatif ≠ obligatoire. I’m pleased that he runs the class in French, far too often world language classes are conducted in English, with the result that leads many of us to say,  later in life: “I had three years of French, but all I remember is “bonjour” and “ça va.

One of the students to my left has a beautiful French accent. There must be a story there. Lived in France? Mother is French? She entered the classroom speaking Polish with her friends, the school is run entirely in English, she’s well on her way in French and who knows what other languages. These students are really something.

There’s a chance for a vocabulary twofer that we missed. A student asked what améliorer means. The teacher explained, in French, making a connection with the word meilleur, or best. But ameliorate is a nice, highbrow English word, too. The high falutin’ words in English are so often connected to French. I remember studying for the graduate records exam before learning any French. The fancy words I learned, like ameliorate, keep popping up now as I read and hear more French. The word fenestration came up just last week in an art class. Listen for them, English is full of them: rendez-vous, coup de grâce, promenade, coup de grâcedéjà-vu. See what I did there?

The students listen to a recording of young French voices explaining why they like cultural exchanges. Then the teacher gives everyone the transcripts and the students, in pairs, find and correct the errors. Now they are ready to move on to an exercise in the textbook. (Except that one student asks to go get his textbook, he didn’t bring it to class today. He’s gone for a few minutes to fetch it.)

The students turn to a cloze exercise. It’s about exchange programs again, the teacher is working this theme from different angles, but this time words are occasionally deleted from the text, leaving just a blank space. The missing words are provided, randomly, at the bottom of the page. Cloze exercises were first described by Wilson Taylor in 1953, but you can bet the basic strategy here is a time-eternal way of learning a foreign language. 

Tutor: “So the girl picked up a …. 

Tutee: Pen! 

Tutor:… and took out a piece of 

Tutee: Paper!” 

At least, that’s how it sounds when the tutor is working with an informed tutee. If the tutor picks vocabulary that is too advanced, or if the tutee doesn’t really care to learn, you are left with the tedious:

Tutor: “So the girl picked up a …. 

Tutee: [silence]

Tutor: …. a …

Tutee: [continued silence]

Tutor: pen and took out a piece of …

Tutee: [silence]

Tutor: … a piece of …

Tutee: [continued silence]

Tutor: paper. 

Luckily, in this class, the teacher is working at the right level and the students are applying themselves. The teacher assists when necessary, the cloze exercise seems helpful. I do the exercise along with them, in my head, happy that I don’t need the random cue words at the bottom of the page to get the right answer. In the study of French, small victories are important to celebrate, because there are so many ways to get things wrong. Just ask my own French tutor about me.

I wasn’t asked to speak, and now the lesson is done, so I don’t have to share my accented French with this group. There are always plenty of opportunities for that at home.

Au revoir !

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