Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Teaching French

The current school board goal for students continuing in French language classes past the mandatory level of grade nine is 2 out of 36.

This statistic stopped me in my tracks.

For the school board itself to have such a low opinion of this subject begs the question: how do educators see the relevance of this subject? The truth of it is, almost every student (and many of their parents) believe the entire subject is a waste of time, irrelevant to their education and their life experience.

And yet students between grades 4-8 receive 200 minutes a week of French instruction. The only subjects in which they receive more are math (300 minutes) and language (500 minutes). Most students have a full period of French everyday for 6 years, and almost none of them have any real competence in communicating in the language. I may come across as harsh here, but I have made a habit over the past four years of informally polling those I come in contact with wherever I am. The fairly universal opinion of French class is that they learned very little and found it completely uninteresting.

A dear friend and mentor jokingly referred to French class as an "old dead van on the side of the road." He had good intentions; as he listened while I struggled through how I could reinvent French class, he assured me that if you walk up to an old dead van on the side of the road and ask to tinker around and change it, no one will look twice. It's already of no use to anyone, so how can you do any harm?

I balked at first at my friend calling my new and burgeoning career an "old dead van," but I've come to appreciate the analogy. The harsh truth of it is both inspiring me with its possibilities and chaffing me with its realities.

I have spent two years of teacher's college attempting to reconcile the place of French education in our schools today. I passed most of that time unable to see how my passion for project-based learning and the need for my skills as a French teacher might work together.

And then...a light.

I'll admit it's a small flicker, that I have been unable to fan much bigger as of yet. But I have a hunch that once I can grow the flame it will illuminate a relevant and engaging application of the French language.

Leaders in education are highlighting the importance of 21st century skills. Known as the 4 (or 6) C's, they are skills that are becoming more important to teach to students than the traditional content model of the past century.

Critical thinking
Creativity
Communication
Collaboration
Citizenship (global)
Character

I posed the question to myself: what is the relevance of learning French today?

What I alighted on was this: learning a second language is about two things, communication and global citizenship.  It's true what students and parents say - there is no real purpose to learning French. It is not a highly spoken language in the world. Most French speaking people also speak English. 6 years of core French will not be sufficient to get a Canadian government job. Few businesses would look for French as an asset for business relations. If they visit Quebec or the eastern provinces, most likely they will be able to use English. Although I adore this language, perhaps more than my native English, the truth is it isn't important on a global scale.

But what is important is the ability to communicate. Global connectivity has linked people all over the world, people who speak countless other languages. According to babbel.com, only 1.5 billion of the 7.5 billion inhabitants of the world speak English. But of that, only 360 million speak English as their first language.  The privilege for my Canadian students is that they happen to speak a language that most people in travel, tourism and business seem to favour. But the reality is that many of those people are doing it in a second language, with all the difficulties that come with such a challenge.

What I can teach in my French class is what it means to need to communicate with someone who isn't using their first language. I can teach patience and understanding for those with a million ideas in a first language but limited means of conveying them in a second language. I can encourage innovation to help people communicate across language more easily. I can teach empathy to understand what it feels like to be lost in a conversation. I can create global friendships and understandings so my students see they are not the centre of the universe. I can show them that language is not a barrier to friendship and that we are more similar than we think and that our differences are beautiful. I can give them the confidence to converse in any situation. I can give them the keys to unlocking a third, fourth, fifth language in the future.

In this setting, with a focus on communication and global citizenship, I'm no longer just teaching French. French simply becomes the vehicle through which I connect my students to the realities of the 21st century. It becomes a way in which I can prepare them for their future in a global workforce. Yes, I will still use French because of the history in which it is tied to our country and because the rolling sounds are music to my ears. But understanding the purpose of second language learning in a larger context is what will give real life to my classroom and relevance to this old dead (beloved) van.

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