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Authentic PD: An American Teacher in France

By Rajiv Mahajan — August 14, 2013 7 min read
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“Mesdames, Messieurs, nous atterrissons à Paris Charles de Gaulle, veuillez attacher vos ceintures.” (Ladies and gentlemen, we’re landing in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, please fasten your seatbelts.)

That comforting phrase marks the start of my annual spring pilgrimage to France and Belgium. My itinerary is simple: enjoy an escape from New York and indulge in the delicious food. My larger objective, though, is connected with my job as a foreign-language teacher: I want to recharge my skills in French by landing in awkward situations that force me to think on my feet and take me beyond classroom vocabulary. As with my colleagues who take professional-development workshops in the summer, my jaunts to Europe keep my subject-area knowledge current. I always return to the United States refreshed and armed with a range of new ideas for my classes.

The original inspiration for my jumps across the pond came from a colleague who candidly admitted, “I’m sort of forgetting my French even though I teach it every day.” I understood her feelings of stagnation all too well and wondered if I had fallen into a similar trap. As a firm believer in foreign-language immersion, I’ve always made every effort to create an authentic French-speaking environment for my students. But my knowledge of French has its limits. Often I sound more like a textbook than a Frenchman. So for me, traveling to France is a matter of gaining authenticity and spontaneity in the language. When in France, I am no longer the French expert in the room. Like a gold fish out of its bowl, I am swimming in an ocean where anything can happen.

Cultural Studies

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Language Lessons

As I remind my students, diving into unfamiliar surroundings can reveal a lot of about cultural perspectives and vocabulary in a foreign language. For example, when my travel partner’s passport and wallet were stolen in the Paris Metro, I had to dig deep in my knowledge chest of French to explain the incident to the police and file a report at the station. I knew the word cachet for stamp, but what did the officer mean by tampon the report? It turns out that tamponner means “to stamp” a document. So I got a mini-vocabulary lesson out of the ordeal, though admittedly I’ll have to be very strategic about introducing this verb to my students. (I still recall the field day they had when they learned that the French word for shower is douche.)

In a fonder memory, one year I got a crash course in the art of degustation when I traveled south to a wine exposition in the village of Macon. After sampling 30 or so wines, I was expected to give an informed opinion to the eager merchant. I soon discovered that describing the lovely taste of Gevrey Chambertin in a foreign tongue wasn’t easy, especially after all that sampling. When you talk of palette, nose, and bouquet, you are heading into complex linguistic territory. Inspired by this experience, I created similar cheese and chocolate tastings in my classes back home, for which my teenaged connoisseurs wrote foodie critiques in French using much of the same vocabulary I learned in Macon.

Traveling in a foreign land also reveals the hidden cultural nuances that textbooks often miss. For example, the French passion for equality, rooted in the Revolution, informs all aspects of daily life, including customer service. Democratic as we Americans aim to be, we tend to expect a high level of congeniality, if not deference, from our service providers. But as I have learned, the French believe that both client and provider are on equal terms. In class, I had taught my students always to use the polite forms of speech when addressing a customer. So a recent experience in a seafood restaurant in France threw me off completely when the waitress gruffly asked me: “So you’ll have what?” “Uh, excusez-moi?” I thought. Turns out that her straight-to-the-point tone was an invitation to drop the formality and speak casually. Très folksie, n’est-ce pas? We subsequently chatted about Paris, New York, and President Obama. It turned out she was from West Africa, so I learned a bit about émigré culture in France as well.

I often hear Americans gripe about French rudeness, but could this be a cultural misunderstanding? Perhaps we demand too much. On my last trip to Paris, a hotel clerk rebuffed my request to make a reservation at a posh restaurant, saying, “You have a phone in your room to call the restaurant. Does it not work?” This seemed rude at first, but I soon realized she really didn’t understand why I was asking her to do something I could clearly do myself and was genuinely concerned about the state of my room phone. She even offered to have it inspected. I suddenly regretted bothering her in the first place.

Themes for our speaking activities in class draw heavily on my humorous encounters with French notions of equality. The challenge I give my students is to maintain politeness even when the other person may appear rude.

Maximizing Interaction

In my experience, a little humility goes a long way when trying to master the art of authentic French. Apart from the numerous grammatical and structural errors I make, I have never come to grips with cultural differences in French-speaking areas. How many times do you kiss on the cheek when greeting a friend? Why is it three times in Montpellier and only once or twice elsewhere? Does four times in Belgium mean something else? Did those five smooches I gave go perhaps a bit too far?

The differences in regional terminology for the same items also frustrate me. Why don’t the French call a baguette French bread, or pain français, as Belgians do? I learned the answer to that one when I asked for pain français in a Parisian bakery, and the baker shot back, “You are in France, Monsieur. All the bread is French.”

And bread aside, every French-speaker surprisingly agrees that “baguettes” are both drumsticks and chopsticks. At least, no one calls them tampons.

Even the classic pain au chocolat, or chocolate croissant, has several names depending on where you travel. Whether locals call it chocolatine in Bordeaux, petit pain in Geneva, or couque in Brussels, I always mix them up.

And some terms have to be said right. The traditional French café is really an espresso, a bit small for my liking. If you prefer a real cup to a thimble, you would order the “café allongé” or as the Belgians call it “un grand café.” Once, my attempt to show off in a Parisian café backfired when I accidentally ordered un grand café arrangé or a “big arranged” coffee rather than the authentic café allongé. The waiter smiled and replied in English, “Sure, I’ll be right back.” How would I own up to that in front the class? Quel horreur!

Besides grappling with the curious argot of the French-speaking peoples, I have learned that analyzing current issues in French brings a worldly element to my classroom and broadens my students understanding of the language. Over the past years, events such as the bans on smoking and religious symbols in public and France’s crackdown on Internet piracy have provided me with engaging lessons for my classes. This year, I arrived to find Paris engulfed in massive protests against a controversial gay-marriage bill. I wondered why the protesters chose the colors pink and baby blue to showing their opposition. At first, I have to admit, I mistook the protesters sporting pink t-shirts and holding pink signs for the supporters of the bill. Later, I learned that the preponderance of pink and blue alluded to “girl and boy,” or members of a traditional couple. I wondered what my students would make of this schema when we discussed the debate in class.

My experiences abroad have the effect of making my classes more enriching and interesting. Each trip encourages me to explore new domains in the French language. In addition, the knowledge I attained from being abroad has given me a higher level of confidence in my teaching.

Over the years, I have introduced my students to the latest topics, pop songs, films, and TV shows, but my travel experiences have inspired me to maximize my students’ interaction with the language. For example, I’ve created a French club, brought in guest speakers who are French, and launched a pen-pal program whereby my students can correspond with their peers in two schools in France. These efforts have helped my students understand French beyond textbooks and homework assignments. Now, they are the ones who introduce me to new music and films that they have heard from their camarades. So my travels to Europe have forged connections for them as well.

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