I Try and I Try and I Try, Try, Try

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Remember the last time you started a new project full of enthusiasm and energy, only to see it going downhill fast while you faced defeat at every turn?  Remember how crushed and confused you felt as you saw success slipping away, until all you wanted to do was sit in the corner and suck your thumb?

Thanks to a recent experience trying to tutor kids “learning” English, I can report that there’s a good reason that so few French people speak English with any great amount of skill or joy.  The French system of teaching English totally sucks.  And when I say it sucks, I’m hoping you’ll visualize sucking something really dreadful and practically impossible to swallow.

I’m normally not one to give up easily, but after spending only four hours with seven French kids between ten and seventeen years old, I quit my volunteer job almost before it began.  It’s hopeless.  I can’t help them.

Sure, I speak perfect English, even if I do say “suck” from time to time.  And I have a lot of education under my belt along with those extra pounds, having spent about 22 years of my life as a student.  You’d think, as I thought, that I’d easily be able to teach English to anyone willing to learn.

But here’s the truth.  A kid who’d studied English for SEVEN years, for at least one hour a week and maybe more,  couldn’t get out a single intelligible English sentence on his own, couldn’t even read a phrase in English with anything resembling the correct pronunciation, and had no idea what he’d just read.  A normal kid, a nice kid.  As you can imagine, the kids who had studied for only three or four years were even worse off.  And why?

Because they are forced to study English in French.  The book’s in French, with English examples.  They don’t speak English in class.  They copy phrases by rote, are tested on memorized passages, and are expected to understand grammar, as opposed to meaning.  For example, the oldest kid had this sentence to complete:

“This is the Irish man ___ pierced my nose with an unsterilized needle.”  He was supposed to fill in the blank with either who, which, that, or whose.  He wasn’t supposed to laugh out loud, as I did, until he cautioned me that “c’est sérieux.”  It was serious for him, because he had to be able to fill in more stuff about “teens ___ are considering piercing must find a piercer ___ uses disposable needles”  and “the man ___ daughter died of AIDS is suing the piercer ___ tattooed her.”  But he couldn’t understand the text, let alone the grammar, so it had to be explained in French. 

Of course one can’t fault the message of his text.  If he’d understood it, it might have saved him a lot of trouble in life.  But until I explained it to him, in French, he didn’t get the message at all.  The message he got, and that all the kids get, is that English is “too hard.” 

That’s how it goes, you have to speak French to the kids so they can “understand” English.  If you explain the English in English they shrug hopelessly.  You know I’m not making this up, because how could I?

And so, because my language skills aren’t good enough to explain the fine points of English grammar in French, and because I think it’s the totally wrong approach, and because I could see that I’d never succeed no matter how hard I tried, I gave up.  But there was one kid, about twelve years old, whose first language is Arabic, and whose second language is French, and who really wants to learn English, and who’s doing pretty well.  A kid who might someday master the differences between whose, who, and who’s.  A normal kid, a nice kid, a kid who somehow is making the system work for him.    I’m letting him down by being a quitter, I know. 

Marwan, I’m sorry that I won’t be there to see it, but against all the odds, I really hope this can be you:

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2 Comments on “I Try and I Try and I Try, Try, Try”

  1. Margo Says:

    The correct answer, of course, is “The Irish man what pierced my nose…” And let me say that my native English-speaking college students don’t reliably use the right choice among who, whose, and who’s.

    Hello Abra, I’m Margo, I followed you over from eGullet. Between bouts of envy, I am thoroughly enjoying your blog. Thank you for sharing.

  2. jessica Says:

    I sympathize with your tutoring efforts. Don’t worry too much about Marwan, he will do well in English anyway. He probably has a satellite dish at home. A Moroccan friend of my son’s in Uzes learned quite creditable English by watching basketball games and hanging around a camping ground in the summertime … Unfortunately it’s too late for the others, they have to be caught while still very young.


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