[For those of you who don’t follow my every move: For the last nine months I’ve been teaching English in a state school on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.]
When I first suggested starting a French club to my co-teachers I was met with silence and a blank stare followed by awkward side glances. Shocked, I replayed the last thirty seconds in my head, wondering if I’d actually zoned out and accidentally suggested teaching pole dancing classes to year 9 instead. After conferring quickly in Spanish, they turned back to me and started tiptoeing around the fact that actually, they would rather I didn’t.
This was bemusing for two reasons; firstly it was the first time I’d ever witnessed Colombians trying their hand at tact (and unsurprisingly there’s room for improvement) and secondly, their reasons seemed to reek of pettiness (this, as I would soon learn, they are well versed in.)
So I stood and listened while they painstakingly explained that after I left there would be no one who could carry on teaching French. Almost relieved but definitely baffled by the triviality of this issue I laughed and explained that I wasn’t under any delusions that I would be able to teach them a whole language. I mean seriously, we had just been battling to get our year 9 students to respond to ‘how’s it going?’
I tried to explain that the idea was to spark their curiosity and teach them a little bit more about the world. This was still met with an ominous pause, and then the final coup de grâce; I shouldn’t waste any valuable time that could be spent teaching English.
Now I’m sure this would sound reasonable to an outsider who hadn’t, say, just planned a Women’s Day presentation that she hadn’t been allowed to give because it was deemed more important that the (female) students clean the auditorium and wipe the plastic chairs during their double period English the week before. Or to someone who hadn’t even been given a schedule for the first two weeks because the school was in full carnival preparation mode. Yes, both of these things (and many, many more) meant that my patience was already wearing pretty thin.
So I did what I always do, strained a smile and scuttled off crying (mostly figuratively) to my co-coordinator. She supported me, agreeing that if I was already volunteering my free time to do more extra-curricular English then there wasn’t much they could do to stop me.
So voilà, French Fridays were born.
Now I know what you’re thinking. When I’m clearly only one more “I-have-fifteen years-old’s” away from a breakdown, why on earth would I want to create more work for myself?
Well, guess what? I’m actually passionate about it! Like really passionate, and not just in the bollocksy way that it says on my CV, or in inspirational Instagram quotes, but as in it makes me stupidly irrationally happy.
I’ve already written about how my English club revives me every break time, well French is even better. Seeing students that I had never met before come and seek me out because they were excited about learning something completely new was so reaffirming. Especially as the general culture of apathy was starting to wear me down.
In my first French club I was surprised (and slightly mortified) to see that almost 20 students turned up. Word had spread, and there were some year 11 students that had already been teaching themselves French, one of whom could actually hold a conversation. I taught a class on introductions, and at the end of the first half an hour period, some of my students could hold a better conversation than most of my 9th grade could in English.
Seriously, these girls are amazing.
Now I know this is natural considering only the brightest most motivated students come to the club, and they know they only have a limited time with me. However, this wasn’t the only surprise. I found that students who are quite frankly (get it?) bad at English, either have more of an affinity for French or just relax more about their English when they start learning French.
I’ll explain. When I’m teaching new vocabulary in French, I teach through the medium of English. Even though the vocabulary in question is pretty simple (food, likes, dislikes etc.) I know that year 9 have yet to cover these in English, and some of those who have are too shy to speak up or are unconfident in their pronunciation. However, when I point to a French word, something happens where they’re so much further out of their comfort zone that English then becomes the slightly less uncomfortable zone. They fall back on English because of all of a sudden its familiar to them. I’m literally tricking them into learning English while I teach them French.
Another great thing about teaching French to Spanish speakers is that there are so many cognates. (words that are the same in both languages)
A few weeks ago I wrote the words of a song on the board so that the students could see that they could deduce most of the meanings from their similarity with Spanish. I’m trying to encourage this skill in English but the majority of students don’t seem to make the jump even with words that to me seem obviously linked. Hopefully, by drawing attention to this in French, I can help them bridge this gap.
More than anything I try to use these French lessons as an opportunity to get my students excited about the world outside of Colombia. It’s nice to teach them something completely different and to have the freedom to teach in a variety of formats. We have played childish flashcard games, done restaurant role plays with full French menus, and had a presentation about the tourist attractions of France with a real live French person (Merci, Simon!)
My biggest win, apart from the never dwindling enthusiasm of my students, has been my co-teacher’s volte-face. During a meeting to mark the beginning of final period she congratulated me on the success of my extra-curricular clubs, particularly my French club. She admitted that while she initially had reservations, she is glad that I persevered, and impressed that I managed to do so in a respectful and diplomatic manner. Considering how strained our relationship has been at times I took this as a sign of how much I have learnt from this experience. Quelle surprise!
So has it been worth it? While half an hour a week is no time at all to learn a language (not compared to the 5 hours of English a week that still doesn’t seem to be getting some of them very far) we have covered a fair amount of ground over the course of the year. My students can now introduce themselves, count, sing cringey songs about the days of the week, and hold a basic conversation about themselves. They can tell their Boeuf Bourguignon from their Confit du Canard, and they can even tell the waiter that they would like all of the deserts, s’il vous plait. Most importantly they can sing Edith Piaf. So, oui I’d say it’s been worth it. Je ne regrette rien!