I was recently invited to a school reunion celebrating 10 years since leaving the shady suburban haven that first taught me Greek, Latin, and French. Thanks to a fitting twist of fate I was unable to attend the get-together because I was busy teaching English to French pupils 10 years my junior. And although I wasn’t too bothered to miss a rendezvous with people I hadn’t seen since we were fresh-fledged teens, it was impossible not to smile at the cyclical process of learning a language. 10 years isn’t so long. Might I be teaching undergrads 10 years from now? Naturally any milestone is surrounded by a bit of retrospection and speculation. My contract in the collège has run its course and my pupils departed for seaside holiday destinations, most likely never to see me again. After all my PowerPoint presentations, the discussions and debates, will they, too, be enthused to continue the pursuit of English? I hope so.
I was lucky that my specific assignment within the English department was to give oral lessons. This meant I could do away with tedious written exercises and lectures on irregular conjugations. I was allowed complete freedom to choose whichever topics of conversation I thought appropriate and I tried to pick subjects that were beyond the school curriculum and linked to Anglophone culture, idiosyncrasies, and current affairs. Of course, I made sure that the content of each class aligned with the pupils’ grammatical capabilities; and the discussion would often be a practical application of grammar learned (but not often mastered) in their other classes. My ultimate aim, however, was to ensure that the pupils enjoyed speaking a foreign language, as I know from experience that this is the key to success.
But unfortunately, enjoyment seems an afterthought during the early stages of learning a language. Having got to know my pupils better I was struck by how arduous English lessons had become for some of them. I accept that being a compulsory subject there would inevitably be some who had long since decided that Anglo Saxon wasn’t their cup of tea. But there were also many who, had I asked them what the point of learning English was, wouldn’t be too certain of the answer. With a curriculum where grammar is put on a pedestal above other elements of the language, it was hardly surprising that some pupils had become demotivated. In some cases, pupils showed me test papers for which they had received discouraging marks. This was generally because they had made minor errors within sentences that were otherwise fine and in any case, fully comprehensible. But they were penalised by a harsh mark scheme so that their ability was not reflected by their grade.
Now I understand that grammar is the foundation of language and the tool to mastering it. But it is only a tool and the end-goal of learning it is to be able to communicate with different people and to appreciate a different culture. By itself grammar is useless. In fact, if we had to privilege a single linguistic ingredient, communication would be better served by learning vocabulary rather than grammar. The thousands of mistakes I made speaking French this year were evidence of this. However, linguistic imperfection didn’t prevent me from expressing myself or from being understood. I should admit that my results for the Erasmus language test taken after the year abroad were, overall, the same as those from 10 months ago. In listening comprehension, vocabulary, and key communicative phrases I have advanced. But my grammar will need some brushing-up in September to get me back to university level. Yet after a year of predominantly spoken French, this was to be expected. Furthermore, I am happy to know that I have improved in the areas that for me were most important. My enjoyment of the year abroad depended far more on communicative skills and a broad vocabulary than a faultless grammar.
I don’t want to criticize unfairly the French system; so long as languages are learned in a class environment, a cultural immersion that favours the spoken form remains impractical. But I’m certain that, where possible, an emphasis on speaking will focus the learning process on real situations rather than the theoretical and, in doing so, make the whole experience far more enjoyable: which is to say, more effective. With this in mind, I hope that my pupils will continue their studies with a spirit of curiosity, unafraid of making mistakes that beyond the classroom are inconsequential. I, too, will bear this in mind as I tackle the worst that French grammar has to throw at me in my final university year.