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High school French is a massive wasted opportunity

Posted on 9 October 2012

I am once again attempting to learn French.

This is something I’ve done sporadically over the past eight years or so, in my quest to learn to speak another language at a level that goes beyond the tourist’s “hello” “good-bye” “thank-you” and “how much?” And French, being a language I took classes on from grades five through eleven, seems like something that should be obtainable.

But here’s the thing: despite seven years of regular classes on the French language in which I was quizzed, tested and assessed at a consistent A or B grade level, I speak virtually no French. I have a decent vocabulary and can pick up key words and phrases, but I am nowhere near fluent. Not even on conversations about weather or where I work.

And at the risk of absolving myself of personal responsibility, I blame the system. I think back to hours spent memorizing how to conjugate various verb tenses or making sure I knew which way to face the accent on the “e” when spelling out words and I think “what a waste of time.” All this effort and focus on spelling and grammar when even my pronunciation of “au revoir” is terribly mangled by an Anglophone accent.

Imagine if we taught kids how to talk this way? As soon as they can muster a “Mama” we focused on their ability to tell us where the pronoun goes and that they aren’t using to many “m”s when they write it out. It makes no sense. Instead, we speak to them in simple sentences, gradually building up their vocabulary, pronunciation, and ability to actually communicate with those around them. We give them at least a year of this before we start throwing writing at them, and grammar doesn’t come until much much later. And it works. So why do we completely ignore this tried and true method when it comes to learning a second language?

This is not a new problem. My mom recalls a story of when after years of getting “A”s in French class she took a trip to Quebec, only to find she could neither understand nor communicate with a bus driver in the language she was supposedly mastering. Years of making sure we don’t mix up our “vous” and “tu” and when confronted with an actual speaker of the language, we draw a blank because in all our learning, we’ve had no actual conversations in that language.

And I feel pretty confident it’s not just me who has this problem. Virtually everyone English speaker in this country takes French classes in school, but bilingualism west of Ontario is still a relative rarity. How many hours have been wasted over the past four decades or more with thousands and thousands of students toiling away over spelling exercises that could have been spent actually learning how to SPEAK the other official language of this country? Maybe if instead of learning which way the accent faces we learned how to pronounce that accent in a convincing way we’d be a lot closer to what was envisioned.

Filed under: Best Of, Canada, misc

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