Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Beginning French

We've been talking about beginning to study a foreign language with N. for at least a year. We encouraged N. to focus on Spanish and had even arranged for him to have weekly tutorials this fall with his best friend next door, whose mom is a Spanish instructor and whose dad is from Spain. But he insisted on learning French, thanks to Eloise in Paris and his love of French cathedrals. I studied French for many years and nominally have a reading fluency in it, so I'm in charge of this portion of our curriculum. Last year I didn't do my job very well; we had a couple picture dictionaries from the library but only cursorily glanced through them. This year I've vowed to make our French study really happen.

First I ordered a textbook, Discovering French, because I recognized its authors from my own studies of French in 8-12 grades. I bought a used edition of the textbook and a new workbook, but as soon as they were delivered I knew I'd chosen poorly. The books are meant for older students in a formal classroom setting and the lessons depend on a DVD or CD that was not included. N. looked them over and was turned off by them; they seemed intimidating to us both.

Then I ordered a copy of Madeline in French, thinking we'd use familiar picture books as an entree into the language (although buying numerous picture books would quickly get expensive and our public library's French language children's fiction collection is minute -- again, a good argument for studying Spanish!). I had some vague notion that Madeline was originally written in French, but it was not. When the book arrived, I discovered the translation was tortuous and wrought with difficult tenses that I wasn't even sure how to pronounce. This was not going to serve our purpose, and I sent it back.

After fruitlessly trawling Amazon for beginning French texts oriented toward younger children and being unable to differentiate among them, I finally remembered that Charlotte Mason advocated French study (although modern CM adherents are not limited to French). I looked at Ambleside Online and found a useful informal collection and review of resources for foreign language study in homeschool settings. I chose a curriculum written by the Canadian Norma Allen specifically for homeschool use, and I bought a used copy of a French-English picture dictionary she recommends published by DK.

We've just begun using the first level of Allen's curriculum, called L'Art de Dire, which focuses on speaking rather than reading French and is geared for K-2nd graders (it includes downloadable MP3 files). What I especially like about Allen's approach is her encouragement to use the French you are studying every day throughout the day, not only in a discrete lesson context. At first I was a bit freaked out by this; I suddenly was all too aware of the insufficiency of my French fluency for actual everyday speech. The commitment it is going to require to teach my child French staggered me momentarily. But we're falling into French pretty easily so far and taking it slowly (or, I am taking it slowly anyway; N. is eating up French words!*). N. has been poring over the picture dictionary and reading the phonetic pronounciation guides quite well all on his own, so he's adding vocabulary faster than I am. I'm trying to use the words I hear him saying in simple sentences so he hears pronouns and verbs even though we haven't gotten them in Allen's lessons yet. Tim is getting in on the French too, though his pronunciation is atrocious; yesterday he had N. looking up the words for hard-boiled and scrambled eggs while he cooked lunch. I've been trying to make sure we spend an hour or so at least once a week concentrating on French, but the more we can scatter it throughout our lives, unschool-style, the more effective our learning will be. For this approach, using a homeschool-oriented text rather than one designed for conventional school is especially crucial (and I'd love to hear about more resources for learning French that have worked for other homeschoolers).

We know two families in town who are raising their children bilingually in French and English, so one of my eventual goals for this year is for N. and I to have some French conversations with them. It's exciting to put your knowledge in action. This morning after N. and I had a short conversation he shouted "Daddy, I'm speaking French!"
*Bonus reading: This absolutely incredible, thought-provoking essay and video about the experiences of the 3 Brooklyn-born children of Clifford J. Levy and Julie Dressner immersing themselves for 4 years in a Russian-language-only school in Moscow. It's a fascinating meditation on children and language learning, approaches to schooling, autonomy, and resilience.


Anonymous said...

(Bravo *N.* d'avoir insisté sur le français!)

Fanny Harville said...

Bonjour, chere EB! J'espere que tu nous aideras avec cette enterprise!

Anonymous said...

Avec plaisir!

Megan said...

Have you tried the Nicholas books by René Goscinny? They are available in French and English. I read some to David in English and always thought that if I got around to teaching him French I would use them. But I think we're going to have to outsource the French, since I'm sure my accent is no better than Tim's.

Fanny Harville said...

I haven't read those books but they sound good. Thanks for the suggestion.