parlez-vous francais?

Unless we move to Quebec or France, I don’t expect my children will learn French fluently.

When we lived briefly in Kenya, we came prepared with a travel language book on Swahili; but even the locals didn’t speak as the book suggested. I sat with the housekeeper at the end of her workday and had her teach me the basics. The basics came in handy when purchasing mangos or collard greens, dried beans or lollipops at the fenced entry to the hospital compound each afternoon.

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Before landing in Paris, I confessed to my children that my schooled French training didn’t do more for me than teach me to conjugate a few verbs…etre comes to mind. Generally, state of being verbs don’t help me much in purchasing croissants or ordering cappuccinos.

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Again, I brought the travel language book. I don’t know about you, but I find studying a few phrases on the plane helpful, but when it comes to actually engaging a stranger, I am not quick to open that book in public…minutes spent searching for just the right phrase mean that the person I was talking to has already walked down the block. If I didn’t know how to explain something, I learned that ‘pointing and grunting’ was a universal language…world traveler Rick Steves has that approach down cold, he acknowledges. Just point and grunt with a smile on your face, he encourages.

For a couple years, we experimented with the Spanish Rosetta Stone computer program. As non-cross culture language training goes, this is a useful program. No one teaches you the translatable word for anything. You simply see a picture of someone waving as she turns to head into the airplane and get a quick sense that she’s saying goodbye when you see “adios” flash on the screen.

This is Sesame Street for adults. And it works to input a handful of phrases or words into the computer of our brain. Functionally engaging in a new language though requires one-on-one conversation, regularly, and so your life depended on it…like finding an Orange internet card in a third world country.

Though in our regular study time I am presently flashing cards of nouns or verbs at my children and acting out scenarios with mild amusement from the littles; I recognize these approaches are my only present option, until said time that we move to the Quebec countryside.

Chatting with a French-fluent family recently, I was given other ideas that might help the process significantly.

  1. ESL classes. There are second-culture people looking for interested conversationalists to discuss the weather, learn each other’s names and talk local politics all for the purpose of learning a new language.
  1. French immersion school. Yup, I can see how this would work fast, especially as one might be penalized for speaking English after the first couple days. I’ve understood that other subject areas might suffer for the first few years as their little brains are focusing hard on the second language. But this certainly is a tried and true approach to learning a second language.

Since I continue to teach French in the comforts of my home, I have tried a few other approaches too.

  1. Books, cds, and videos. These are available in the library and do help to hear the accents, to hear the language spoken from native speakers. There are endless resources available and all of them useful in introducing new vocabulary. Kind of important as I’m not fluent; I’ve learned all this secondhand too.

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To my children’s surprise I could indeed say a few things in Paris. I had no idea what they were saying in return, obviously at the mercy of the cashier to hand over the right Euro coins. Still I can’t say I didn’t learn anything in my five years of conjugating verbs.

  1. Apple apps…one more excuse to get their hands on the iPod, iPhone, or iPad…if the kiddos aren’t accustomed to having free reign with screens, they’ll enjoy playing these games. There are endless games and many are free.
  2. YouTube…another screen with clever ditties and short songs that kids can learn their colours, or watch others discuss the location of the library.

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Overhearing a conversation between a French-speaking person and an American on a recent flight, I was intrigued how this obviously American young woman was able to converse as easily as her southern drawl communicated her interest in grits (okay, she didn’t really talk about grits).

So I asked about her ability when I got a chance (minus the mention of grits).

She had spent a year in France as an extension of her post-secondary program. She learned because she was immersed in the culture. Yup, once again, true immersion has the quickest impact.

She also suggested matter-of-factly, as though she’d suggested buying my groceries at Sobey’s instead of Cooper’s, that until my kids are college aged, hire a French nanny.

Yes, this sounds unlikely for me too—I certainly didn’t start homeschooling to hire a nanny. Though some days…at least a few days a month, this might be an untapped, clever solution.

I can see it now: me with my cappuccino sitting on the verandah, book in hand, while the kiddos have just finished their morning chores, readying themselves for 9 o’clock studies with the French nanny–a modern-day version of a Jane Austen novel. La vie est belle!