A Call from France: Learning Exchanges

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My fourteen-year-old son called from France today. He has been there for over two weeks without showing signs of homesickness. His French ‘family’ has taken him to climb canyons, visit chateaux near Paris, and to swim at a beach near Biarritz. He says he has learned enough French to communicate with other kids and his exchange partner. The two of them get along well, despite differences in age and fashion sense. My son’s fifteen-year-old exchange buddy plans to take him shopping and outfit him for his high school debut in September!

His French partner is a cool rugby player who “runs through girlfriends.” My son is a sweet kid whose clothes are très ordinaire, partly because he lacks patience for shopping. This is the surprise enrichment of exchanges. Parents send their offspring to learn a language, but the lessons of living with a new family are what stick. Exchange students discover a new world of music, sights, youth culture, ideas, folklore, geography and history.

I have done two long-term exchanges in France and was billeted for weeks with a French Canadian family. All three experiences were overwhelmingly positive. I graduated at a time when entrance to faculties of education was extremely competitive. French gave me an edge, and ever since I’ve enjoyed teaching it to kids, with an extra dose of cultural comparison and anecdote.

My first exchange was three months of immersion in a French technical high school. Starting out with limited vocabulary and grammar, taking subjects like math, natural sciences and typing was tough. At first I was exhausted daily from struggling to follow teacher’s lectures and teen’s conversations, but it got easier.

Struggling to communicate is good preparation to teach English as a Second Language. If you have tried to make a joke or ask for help without knowing the right words, you can empathize with new language learners. And all that miming is good practice for introducing new vocabulary.

Not every child is ready for immersion, and nobody can expect months of all-good days, but there is a secret to making success more likely. To get the most enjoyment out of an exchange, students should start with the attitude that they are there for learning, not entertainment. That way they are primed to look up words they don’t understand, and to push themselves to speak a bit more every day. The benefits are exponential.

Learning French by immersion is like making a snowball. You are surrounded by the white stuff, but at first you only understand a flake here or there. By the end of the first week you might scrape together fistfuls of meaning. But once you start to catch on, you find yourself rolling a runaway snowball of knowledge. It’s dizzying fun.

With only traditional grammar instruction, I doubt I’d speak French today; but the real benefits of my exchanges were bigger: lifelong friends, a love of French literature, an appreciation for travel and a more international perspective. To learn a language, to share cultures, and to make our world a better and more connected place, I recommend cultural exchanges for your students, your children and yourself.


Web and Video Language Immersion

Students are bombarded with media and spend too many hours in front of computer and TV screens. Does this mean we shouldn’t show videos in class? Of course not.

There is an important place for watching videos in the French or Spanish language classroom. Second languages are best learned in situ but not every student can jet off to Paris to experience French immersion. Video is a convenient alternative. For years I have used educational videos to help students learn French because it exposes them to native speakers.

Téléfrancais is for children in elementary grades. Sol, a French Canadian comedian, stars in the Parlez-Moi series for older students. I’m on the lookout for more modern materials, but the content and the pedagogy is excellent. My students giggle at the passé fashions but still enjoy the characters and stories.

The beauty of these two series is that episodes are short and funny. They explain vocabulary using sight, sound and repetition, within a controlled vocabulary which accumulates chronologically. For each video I make up a brief worksheet and have students hunt for the answers as they watch. Classes ask me to repeat the video, sometimes twice, to help them find the answers. In language teaching, repetition is gold and any time the students are asking to watch a native speaker over and over, they are concentrating on immersion learning.

French teachers interested in using my Parlez-Moi worksheets should send me a message. I will scan them and email them to you personally.

Update: I have scanned the files so you can get the PDF worksheets much more quickly. If you would like them for your personal use with your class, please click here. I’ll email them to you so fast, it will feel automatic! 🙂

Adult learners and students looking for enrichment can benefit from videos too. Check your local library for movies and TV shows in your target language. Make sure there is an option to view with English subtitles for maximum comprehension. Series which deal with everyday life and express a lot of emotion are especially good for learning common vocabulary, cultural gestures and facial expressions. I learned a lot of Spanish watching telenovelas (soap operas) before visiting Peru and it made a measurable difference in my ability to understand native speakers. If you need to refresh your oral comprehension or you are learning a language for the first time, I recommend watching a serial whether or not you like soaps in your mother tongue.

For pleasure as well as utility I strongly recommend BBC’s interactive web mystery for Spanish learners, Ma Vida Loca. In it, you are a tourist caught in a web of intrigue that takes you all over Spain. I wish there were more free web resources of this quality. If you know any, please share with fellow teachers by leaving a comment.


Creative Teacher Librarian

— Teaching more fun!

Skiing Le Massif De Charlevoix

Following my adventures in Peru, I spent a week in Quebec with a four French tourists. My friend, the parent of my high school exchange partner, is a remarkable woman who skis in the Pyrenees and who enjoys travelling all over the world. I spent an athletic week with them, hiking through snow on snow shoe trails, investigating fishing shacks on the St. Lawrence river and even skiing on something called “Le Massif,” of Charlevoix. I’m no downhill skier. I’m afraid of heights! I had no right to even consider skiing on anything called “Le Massif.” My ears popped as we drove up to the top.

Previously I have only skied a few times with school groups on tame, short, Ontario runs. I’m too restless to sit around in the chalet all day, though, so when it turned out the cross-country skiing was in another location (duh we were on top of a mountain) I decided to take a lesson and face the beginner run with death-defying bravery. Brave for me, anyway.

It was a fantastic experience and I only fell three times. Once when I kind of saw I was heading off course towards the trees below and forgot all about breaking and steering and just kind of threw my limbs around until my fall made me stop. After that I got a remedial lesson in emergency braking and things went better.

If this was one of those inspirational business blogs or one of those blogs about writing, I’d probably be making all sorts of facile comparisons between the slopes and other goals. What a relief that it’s not. Let’s just say I don’t regret it. I’m glad I tried it and, despite having a little extra knee pain in the following weeks, it was absolutely worth it.

In other news, I never visit La Belle Province without buying a book. If you read French I highly recommend my latest acquisition. It’s a book of short stories by Samuel Archibald called Arvida. Such varied stories and so revealing of the author and his society.

I bought the book and went to a cafe to start reading while I waited for my friends to finish shopping. When I returned to the book shop to show them about an hour later, the store had already sold another copy. It doesn’t hurt that my edition had a large red paper band, labelling it the winner of the “Prix des libraires.” (The book store prize)

Eclectic, personal and intense, I highly recommend it, but not for the squeamish.

Happy reading.

Crispy crunchy return

Thanks to “Anonymous” for your comment. This is a site on the Internet that could have been designed for me. Use it to name your own cereal. I’ve chosen the obvious but you don’t have to.

Try the link and litter your blogs with your own crispy, crunchy confections: http://www.cerealfreak.com/

Irreverent and Moral Reviews

L’Apocalypse à Kamloops:

The Théâtre Français de Toronto does a lot of unique, interesting stuff. They do the usual French favorites, of course. If you like interesting takes on classic comedies by Molière, this is your theatre. It’s also a good way to see the latest Michel Tremblay plays. Best of all, they do new material.

The latest foray, L’Apocalypse à Kamloops, is about a family with 25 hours left to live. An urbane angel and her earthy apprentice are given the job of helping them resolve their conflicts and redeem themselves before an enormous asteroid hits the Earth.

I am a fan of absurd theatre but after reading Albert CamusThe Myth of Sisyphus in my lonely dorm room, overlooking Mount Saint Victoire in Aix-en-Provence, and watching or reading the classics: Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard etc. I often find new absurd plays to be beside the point.

Yes, Atheism exists. Yes, our lives could be completely random, ordered only by human and natural forces with no ulterior motives to influence us from a higher plane. In fact, Heaven and Hell could just be stories people have made up and told each other because the alternative, that we are just animals like any others, without prospects for life-after-death, is too painful to accept. Worse still, if it’s true we have no excuse for what we are doing to the planet and no right to mess things up for other animals because our rights are not superior to theirs.

[Start of impassioned rant.]

In fact, opposing comforting religious beliefs might be the best thing we could do for the Earth and it’s non-human residents, but only if we linked this movement to a feeling of dire personal responsibility: No excuses, no afterlife, no divine intervention when things go too far — just a moral obligation to correct our wrongs ourselves, to forgive each other, to make the world a cleaner, more peaceful place because this world is all we have.

[End of impassioned rant.]

In writing, L’Apocalypse à Kamloops, Stephan Cloutier sidesteps the trap of derivative absurdism by looking at the incongruities of modern life within a framework that postulates a higher power. For him, angels are beings much like humans with vanities and frailties similar to our own, who struggle to influence peoples’ decisions within a scientifically sound universe that includes life on other planets. Contemporary French Canadians are not adrift in an absurdist, godless universe, but they must still face facts: Our short lifespans are dwarfed by eternity and the vastness of the (possibly multiple) universe(s). It’s cleverly updated absurdism for our multifaith, scientifically sophisticated times and I found it very funny indeed.

Truth and Reconciliation

Guy Mignault, in discussion with the audience after the preview, made an interesting point. He said that in theatre, by playing different roles, you are able to understand how people can do terrible things. He gives the example of a father locking his daughter up in a nunnery, a practice common enough in Molière’s day but which we would consider a violation of human rights.

Could we, by putting ourselves into the shoes of those who commit evil acts, prevent them from reoccurring? Can forgiveness and understanding heal the perpetrators as well as the victims? It’s a question that returns to me as I have recently finished reading Country of my Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa by Antjie Krog. It’s such a hard, poetic, factual book. It made me cry in public places, losing and gaining faith in humanity by turns. Anyone interested in ant-racist anything should read it. I just find it impossible to review Krog’s work in an objective way.

Krog is able to depict the stress-induced illnesses and daily horror experienced by those serving or reporting on South African Truth and Reconciliation because she was there. Her writing is up to the task, as is her analysis but her experiences nearly break her, and many her fellow journalists. Rending, painful, necessary. Who needs fiction?

Le Chandail — The Hockey Sweater

Today my son skated the season’s first 8:15 – 9:15 hockey practice. I knew it went well when he came off the ice smiling and asked if it had only lasted twenty minutes. What a change from last year, when I found just putting on his equipment challenging.

“Are your skates too tight? Too loose? Can you tell?”

Now, a veteran, I know to bring a thermal cup of coffee to the arena. The snack bar doesn’t open for early morning practices. The heaters over the stands don’t come on during practices either. I actually think they work on a lottery system.

In honour of “the game,” as hockey parents call it, I’m writing about Roch Carrier’s short story, “Le chandail.” The National Film Board made an animated film based on this story featuring the art of Marcel Dargis.

I love to show Le Chandail to my French classes. Whether I show it in English, to younger children, or in the original French, it opens a window into Quebecois culture. To start, there is an excellent montage of rural landscapes, done in the styles of various French Canadian painters. For students, however, it’s the story that’s counts and this is one they can relate to.

It’s about rivalry in professional sports. It’s about being a fan and playing on a team. It’s about belonging. It’s about heroes. Most of all it’s about being embarrassed by your mother. What kid can’t relate to that?

In the story, the boy has outgrown his hockey sweater. His adoring mother writes away to get him a nice new one from Eaton’s department store. Her letter, very personal and directed to Monsieur Eaton himself, is hilarious.

When the package comes back containing a Toronto Maple Leaf hockey sweater, everybody laughs. The boy refuses to wear the sweater because every other boy in town wears the red, white and blue, just like their hero Rocket Richard. His mother does not want to offend Monsieur Eaton, so the boy must wear the sweater to the neighborhood rink.

The other players laugh and don’t want him on the ice. Even the priest who officiates the games is against him. After all, Les Canadiens whip Toronto every time.

The charming, unhurried way which this film piles up the comic detail and popular painter Marcel Dargis’ gently satiric impressions of the villagers, draw viewers into a world and a culture that have virtually disappeared.

Today, when we think of French Canadian culture, we think urban. Modern Quebecois theatre, film and music come from a very different place than Roch Carrier’s close-knit village. For many of my students, urban Toronto represents their complete knowledge of Canadian culture. As the past informs the present, this classic film is a compelling introduction to help anglophone children discover another Canadian culture.

TIFF — Why I love French Films

  • Despite director Benoit Jacquot’s experience, I was afraid to expect much from L’intouchable. The premise is that an actress runs off to India with only a name and a second-hand memory, seeking a father that may be hers. The results could have been absurd, the heroine merely silly. Instead, this film offers richness and authenticity, demanding that we pay attention and interpret what we see.
  • The story begins with a slap and a daughter running out on her mother. We never know what was said but it is the end of the adult daughter’s birthday celebration and both women are drunk. In explaining herself, mother tells daughter that her father was an untouchable, from a Hindu family who burned the dead on the banks of the Ganges. She paints the release of the dead in poetic terms and shows her daughter her sari, before falling asleep.
  • With this spare evidence, the actress tells her director/lover that he must replace her. When he won’t loan her airfare, she agrees to do an upsetting nude scene for a film director she despises.
  • In the Q & A, both Jacquot and lead actor Isild Le Besco described the complications of shooting a film in India. Because they were shooting it after the Canadian film Water had been expelled from India, they worked in secret and tried to form personal bonds with the untouchables. These families burn thousands of bodies daily on pyres beside the Ganges. The scenes Jacquot captured of bodies burning, day and night, are arresting. The street scenes, airport scenes, Hindu wedding, hotel… all have an authentic, unrehearsed feel.
  • This movie is reflective and beautiful but the ending does not satisfy at first – it only makes sense. Le Besco is searching for herself. With half a pair of earrings and her mother’s wild stories, does she expect the fairy tale ending? Will a long lost earring be found in India, like a glass slipper for Cinderella (Cendrillon). Is her father the a rich man whose family dresses her up like an Indian princess for a wedding? Does she deserve to be?
  • On the plane to India, the actress sits next to an agreeable Indian man who explains that he is an untouchable, afraid the other passengers will hurt him for sitting near them. During the flight he is forcibly taken from his seat and sedated. When the actress asks the flight attendant where he is in the morning, she gets only smiles and lies. When the plane lands, she waits, anxious to see if he will get off the plane. But she doesn’t wait long enough. A real heroine would have made a fuss, demanded to know where he had gone. Instead, the actress waits a bit then gets her luggage and goes through customs. So ugly; so realistic. How many women would challenge the authorities in a foreign country on behalf of a stranger?
  • Her journey reveals disappointing things about herself – about ourselves – which support the persistence of caste in India and racism at home.
  • Nue Proprieté (Private Property) is a family story in which love comes out wrong. A divorced mother despises her ex-husband but lives in the family house and accepts money to support herself and her two adult sons. We know there is something too close about this threesome. The mother asks her sons to critique her lingerie and showers in front of them. The men act like boys and even bathe together, taking turns at washing each other’s hair. This is less shocking when we realize they are twins. They share the wordless bond of twins in a family so intimate that their only privacy is keeping secrets.
  • Conflict arises when the mother, tired of serving her sons in an isolated farmhouse, decides to sell and start a new life with her lover, the neighbour. The boys are aghast but the crisis doesn’t reach it’s peak until the twins take sides. From their invective we realize that both father and mother have been pouring hatred into their favorite son’s ear for years. The end is a catastrophe that should have been averted through rationality, propriety and privacy.

Two Films and a Wedding until 1:00

Saturday I went directly from my two festival films to a wedding in the St. Andrews club overlooking Toronto Harbour and, incidentally, the Roy Thompson Hall gala. I think I was having a better time which means these reviews are short.

La Tourneuse de Pages was a deliberately slow-moving thriller which avoids the obvious choices. The acting is wonderful and very French. Four stars out of five.

A Grave-Keeper’s Tale was interesting, entertaining and an example of how artistic expression is possible in India’s regional cinema markets. For different reasons this one is also four stars out of five.