Thursday, August 24, 2006


Again with the French lessons

So I'm still taking French lessons. Four hours a day, two days a week. I think I'm improving, because the voices in my head speak an endearing Franglais for a couple hours after each class, so that's got to count for something.

I've taken a LOT of French lessons in my life. Took it in school up to grade 10 or so, took lunchtime courses on and off throughout my career, took a semester of eight-hours-per-week lessons, and for the year before I failed my oral exam (twice) earlier this year, took two-hour classes twice a week. (Gah - I look back at all the lessons I've taken through the years, and am truly beginning to wonder if this second-language thing isn't going to be my Waterloo. How many times do you kick a dead horse, anyway?)

Ahem, though, my point was that I'm becoming a connosieur of language schools. Language schools proliferate in Ottawa, where there are juicy government contracts to be had and a surfeit of painfully anglophone public servants who need to learn a second language to survive in their government careers. (At least I'm in good company.) I think this time around I got stuck with one of the more colourful language schools in the city - kind of like the Island for Misfit Language Instructors.

I think I mentioned here that the first teacher I had with this school was a bit of a newbie - in fact, I was her first student. Ever. She's a lovely girl, and smart, with a journalism degree and a masters in French literature, but she doesn't quite get that I am no longer interested in the lofty goal of learning French - I just want to learn how to pass my exam. (I pass my exam, I get five years of grace before I have to do all this over again, and more importantly, I lock in the promotion I earned fourteen months ago that is now completely dependent on me passing my exam by the end of October. ) I really like her on a personal level, but she seems a bit intimidated by me and doesn't correct half the errors I hear myself making. Rather than correct me or redirect me when I get turned around, she simply says "It would be better to say XXX" and launches into beautifully constructed phrases that are both poetic and completely beyond my linguistic capability.

I had to change my schedule around, so I ended up getting a second teacher. I see Anie on Thursdays, and the other teacher on Fridays. The new teacher was absent for our first class two weeks ago, so I got a substitute - Denis the bitter expatriate Belgian. Denis is definitely the most colourful language teacher I ever had, and he's got some interesting ideas on language acquisition. He describes the various verb tenses as worlds - the indicative is the Earth, the passé is the Moon, and the conditional is Mars. The subjuntive, on the other hand, has something to do with a car with one driver, or a car being pulled by another car and the 'que' in a subjunctive phrase is the little trailer hitch. All of this is illustrated with detailed schema, which I dutifully copied., and which I can now make neither heads nor tails.

Quite frankly, Denis's approach was so unique and deviant from the norm that I actually got a lot out of it. I might have even asked for him to be my permanent teacher, except that in between all the little schema and illustrations, you had to listen to a big rant about how much he hates Belgium and Belgians and how hard it is for him to get a job as an IT professional here in Canada and how desperately he wants his Canadian citizenship and what a waste of his life this teaching thing is.

By the end of the four hours, I had a unique perspective on language acquisition and Belguim - but a massive headache. Oy.

I started with my other half-time professor last week. After the first hour, I was almost in tears because I hadn't understood more than a dozen words he'd said. Ahmed is from a little country in Africa that I was embarrassed to never have heard of: D'Joubiti. He speaks so quickly that by the time I figure out the first three words in the sentence, he's a full paragraph ahead of me. When I begged him to slow down, he just smiled and shrugged and told me it was part of the learning process to teach my ears to hurry up. He's right, of course, but it didn't stop me from grinding my teeth in annoyance for the next hour of the class. By the end, I had learned to listen a little quicker, and found that I was gazing blankly at him after only every third or fourth phrase instead of constantly, so I'm taking comfort from that.

It's quite vexing, this whole second language thing, but I've become stubbornly determined to master it. What happens when an irressistable force (my determination to pass) acts on an immovable object (my inability to internalize this crap once and for all)? Stay tuned for that, and more dispatches from the Island of Misfit Language Instructors...