Friday, January 12, 2018

How to teach French if you are not and never will be Inès de la Fressange

A decade ago, I began teaching French classes. Also began teaching, period. I was 24, and arrived at the role petrified. I was, most importantly, Not A Theater Person. Language-teaching, I learned, was a performance, above and beyond how teaching is generally. How was I going to do this?! How was I - someone who had applied to history grad school but gotten into French grad school instead (long story), who had not specifically sought out the job of French teacher but who had somehow landed on the track where studying French history involved funding gained through teaching conjugations - how was I going to not just teach conjugations but do so in a way that would wow an audience? That anxiety sorted itself out easily enough, and more quickly than I'd have guessed. I just sort of go into teaching mode, not sure exactly how I do this, but it happens. All that my natural non-theatricalness means is that I need to sort of zone out in a chair for a while after doing so.

But my big anxiety, early on, was that I'm not French. Not a native French speaker, but also, not French. At NYU, it was my impression that there was a lot of value placed on being French. (Why did I have this impression? Neurosis, maybe, but also: A professor once told me how good the French was of one of my classmates... a classmate who happened to be - as we both knew full well - French. As if my own then-deficiencies in ease with the language could be fixed, if only I followed that classmate's example.) French classmates with perfect French and shakier English were (or this was my impression) revered for the thoroughness of their Frenchness. Ease in English was like white sneakers (pre-Phoebe Philo): not chic.

I, meanwhile, was in a bit of a bind. I'd gotten into grad school on the basis of being good-enough at the French itself and stronger on writing papers in English about texts I'd read in French. But all attempts at improving my non-nervous-breakdown-having while speaking French were impeded by the fact that I associated the language with an unrealizable goal: being and having always been French.

This sense of failure as a non-French person manifested itself most dramatically in my feelings re: teaching. While the job title was TA, it was always either teaching or co-teaching a course, and here was my big fear: What if a student asks me something I don't know? There's nothing like fixating on this, and more specifically, fixating on how if this were to happen, it would be the end of the world, to guarantee that when students would ask me about words I did know, and I'd freeze and suggest they consult the dictionary that they were ostensibly meant to use in class in cases like that regardless. (The great "poubelle" incident of 2007. How do you say garbage can? How indeed.)

It's only in the past year or so that I've come to realize the following: There are advantages to teaching a language as a non-native speaker. I know, I mean I know, that French proficiency is a skill that can be learned. I know that there's no shame in arriving at French not knowing the gender of new-to-you nouns. And I know that it's entirely possible to communicate in French while still sounding identifiably, to a knowledgeable ear, like a non-native speaker of the language. Yes, pronunciation is important. But the end goal - at least in most French language classes - isn't to turn everyone, no matter their ear, into one of the handful of people who can speak a foreign language and genuinely convince everyone, including the Académie Française, that this language was their first.

I credit this revelation to a bunch of things, but partly to the fact that I'm now teaching French in Canada. There's no expectation here that someone teaching French - native speaker or not - is from Europe as well as give-or-take Inès de la Fressange. That, and working in a French department in a bilingual country means I'm actually using French, at work, to an extent I never was at NYU. In any case, these days, when I teach French, I no longer feel the emotional need to apologize to the class for having not grown up in the 7th Arrondissement.

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