Yes, that is French for “Do you speak English?”
I was awesome at French when it came to learning new groups of words. Vocabulary was easy because it was rote memory. You just repeat it enough times and eventually it sticks.
Where I got stuck was forming sentences, specifically going through different verb tenses. I had the same kind of trouble when we addressed this in English class. Distinguishing from past, present and future is easy, but when you throw in various “perfect” tenses, things get tricky. I stumbled with properly identifying these tenses in English.
Since it was difficult to keep these special tenses separate in English, it was even more challenging to apply it to French. Because in French, the verbs aren’t going to sound natural; you have to purposely conjugate the verb in specific ways to indicate the right tense. That requires doing a mental translation from English to French of what I wanted to say which often resulted in confusion.
It’s hard enough trying to come up with the right words to express myself in my native language. To add a translation process makes things infinitely more complicated. I’m not the only to struggle with this facet of a foreign language, I know that, but it sure feels like an isolated case in the moment.
Despite the struggles, I scored well enough to continue beyond the required two years of a foreign language. In fact, I took four years of French. Although I didn’t feel like I retained much beyond the vocabulary and simple writing or speaking exercises that I encountered that second year.
I don’t remember what prompted me to take two additional years of French. It was quite possibly that I lacked an alternative. Going to a small school means having fewer course options. I didn’t want to take a second year of biology, chemistry or art. Or the decision to continue French might have been a way to be more like my brother. He did very well with French and studied abroad three months after the typical exchange program experience.
I kind of wish I had taken a drama class. Not because it would have been easy but because maybe it could have helped me face the public speaking fears, helped me become a bit more comfortable in the spotlight. I could have learned more about theater: the history, the effort, the various responsibilities besides the stage actors. Or I could have been cast as shy, quiet background character and participated in that way. Those roles exist, right?
But I digress …
So, yes, I took a fourth year of French. This turned out to be more of an independent study because it was a class of two. We checked in at the beginning of each class with our teacher, received an assignment and then settled down in a neighboring classroom under the supervision of a teacher enjoying a planning period.
We read basic books in French and answered reading comprehension questions. We had tests but were fully able to refer to our French-English dictionaries or whatever materials we were working through. The equivalent of open-book tests.
That sounds more impressive than it probably should because we slacked off a lot and did the bare minimum, dragging out some assignments more than we should have. There wasn’t a lot of accountability. Or maybe our teacher expected us to behave in this way and it was more an exercise of showing some effort while working independently.
A few other things stand out from my experience with French classes.
I went to a few French club meetings as a freshman because my brother drove. These sessions were before school started, so we got a taste of a French breakfast. What’s not to like about croissants and crepes and Nutella? The idea was to establish a casual environment for practicing French dialogue, but for many of us it was about the food. I don’t think I practiced much French those mornings, honestly. It was uncomfortable and intimidating to be around a mix of students of different ages and proficiency levels. It felt awkward to use French outside of class.
There was a time, likely during my senior year, where I was asked to read a French prayer over the intercom in the mornings. For a week. I think this happened every year as a way of celebrating cultures or something. I forget the context, but I’m sure it was a week of prayers in French and then likely Spanish. So, yes, that was an anxiety-inducing experience. I stressed out about whether my accent was right, whether I was speaking clearly instead of mumbling the words, whether I was loud enough and the intercom actually picked up my voice like it was supposed to. All while thoroughly hoping that only a few people knew it was me in case I was making a complete fool of myself. But I did it! I have no desire to do that again, but I did push myself and followed through. And no one laughed or criticized.
The biggest challenge came during senior year. Apparently there was a yearly statewide oral competition that our school regularly participated in. A few students from our school were selected (enlisted/forced) to represent the school, with at least one person from each class level. Since French IV had two students, and my classmate had a legitimate schedule conflict, I got recruited.
The competition involved memorizing two poems in French and then reciting them before a panel of judges. While I enjoyed writing poetry, I had no real interest in trying to get behind this assignment. I procrastinated a lot, putting off looking at the poems or practicing anything. So when my teacher made a more pointed effort to find out how I was doing in preparation, I was a bit embarrassed to admit how little progress I had made. As a fourth year student it was embarrassing to ask for help, but she sat down with me and helped me translate the words so that I had a better idea of what I was supposed to recite. It’s really hard to memorize words that have no meaning. So we translated the words and then talked about what the poems meant. That was the game changer.
I remember the first poem seemed to resonate with me once I understood the words and meaning. And I spent a lot of time working to memorize the lines and my delivery because the competition is more than just saying the right words and pronouncing them correctly. But I wasn’t as prepared with the second poem.
On the day of the competition, I felt very good about the first poem. And I totally nailed the delivery! I knew that at the time. I knew I did it well, and I felt like I might have impressed the judges. So I left the room and waited for my name to be called a second time so I could recite the second poem. I’m not sure why they didn’t do both at the same time. But I went in to do the second poem and I totally unraveled. I knew the preparation wasn’t strong and it showed in the delivery. I might have transposed two lines or something. I don’t remember the specifics.
I left the competition that day without placing in any way. I think I was the only student from our school who didn’t place to some degree. I left disappointed and upset with myself. Upset for procrastinating so much and not taking it seriously sooner. I wasn’t even happy that, had the competition only required reciting that first poem, I probably could have placed.
Instead my focus was on not winning. I let the end result dictate how I felt about the overall experience. (In desperate need of broadening my view!)
I should have been proud of competing, of learning these poems, of getting one of them down so well that it was possible to even feel confident walking in the room to recite it in the first place.
And yet it happens time and again where I judge the overall experience off the negative moments, even though there were more positives. Students were not tripping over themselves trying to be chosen to participate in this competition. I should have been proud of myself for actually showing up (not claiming to be sick on a Saturday morning) and that I finished at all. I rose to the challenge of reciting two poems in a foreign language. How often can people say they’ve done that?
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