Sunday, December 14, 2008

At last, a Foreign Language!

In collège Marc can learn a Foreign Language. Marc never had any choice about learning English and French. When people say how lucky he is to speak two Foreign Languages so easily he must wonder what they mean. It was no fun for him - especially with two parents who were determined that he would speak each language to a high standard. Poor Marc was the first child and the guinea-pig of the family. Right from day one he was blasted with English from his mother (and all her family) and French from Papa (and all his family). There was never any other option than to speak both languages. It’s not that he is ungrateful for the languages we chose for him; he just would have liked a choice in the matter.

Now age eleven years and eight months, he has a real choice at last. English is obligatory all through the four years of collège, but there is an option for a second language starting in the first year. This is where Marc has his wish come true. On the menu is German, Latin or Spanish. Marc discusses each language seriously and meticulously, questioning us on which one we think is the easiest, which one is useful, and which one will help him in the future. He picks German in the end. Jacques is happy since he speaks excellent German. In fact, his mother fought to get a German class established twenty years ago in the same school, rallying round parents to give the children more choice.

The German class is small and is run via webcam, so the teacher can cover four schools at the same time. I am a bit skeptical about this futuristic set-up, but the kids accept it as normal. Talking to the microphone or the camera has become second nature. It is a delight to see Marc saying ‘Ich bin Marc!’ and chanting ‘ein, zwei, drei…’ He is fascinated by the differences and the similarities between English, French and this new language. He is amazed that German has an extra letter (the ‘ss’ sound or ß) and that they use capital letters for so many nouns and enjoys the lack of pressure to become fluent and the slow pace of learning that beginners can indulge in. Watching him enthusiastically tackle his German homework I am glad that finally language learning is fun…

Low Marks in English

Marc is now in collège (French equivalent of secondary school/high school) and studies by subject now. Madame P. has been teaching English for at least 17 years (she taught my husband when he was at the same school!). You might think that she would be proud that one of her ex-pupils married an English girl, works for an English-language company and now has bilingual children. However, she doesn’t seem quite so happy to see the name ‘Hauwaert’ again.

The term started badly when she played a little ice-breaker game (as she always does). Each child’s name was Anglicized, to get the kids in the mood, so Francois became Frank and Amandine was Amanda. Half the class had a name that existed in both languages (Julie, Charlotte, Sarah, Thomas, Kevin to name but a few) which she could not do much about. Perhaps lacking suitable translations, due to French parents picking Anglophone names, she made the fatal error of re-naming Marc ‘Mark’. This is a sensitive issue, one he has battled with since he was four and started writing his name in an English school. He hates it mis-spelled and valiantly defends ‘Marc’ as an ‘English’ name too, saying it exists in America and England. But Madame P. firmly corrects his namecard.

Marc/Mark is furious and goes out of his way to correct her English expressions and criticize her choice of ‘baby songs’ for the French students to learn. For a dictation exercise he titles it ‘Too-Easy Dictation’ and sloppily answers as if he can’t be bothered. The level is so low he could do it with his eyes closed, he says. So at the Parents Meeting when I mentioned that Marc was somewhat bored she waved his exam paper at me, saying ‘Look, he only got 17.5 out of 20!! He can’t even spell Wednesday’. I agreed that Marc makes silly spelling/grammatical mistakes and told her that he is rapidly losing interest in the subject (an emotional issue as this is my language we are talking about). I asked what she could do to help. Madame P. said he could skip the workbook, and ‘help’ the other students. But assisting the beginner-level French students has lost any interest to him and he says he feels uncomfortable ‘teaching’ his classmates. What he needs is spelling and challenging reading, not singing ‘Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes…’

A week later Madame P agrees to give him more written classwork and moves him out for two ‘extra’ language sessions a week, along with the other four fluently bilingual kids in his year, who are also bored and sat sniggering in the back row. After a few hours of intensive study of the passé simple and English grammar exercises they are soon wishing they were back in Easy English again! These extra sessions are thankfully done with an English native teacher, Mrs. G, who is there to support the bilingual kids in their dual language use. She knows all about their unique combination of confident verbal skills and dreadful spelling. He finally has a teacher tuned to his needs and, most importantly, one who always calls him Marc…