Learning French

By Martha Patterson. Martha, 62, is retired and from Boston, MA, USA. Please read her entry and leave your comments below.

“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey

In teaching us a foreign language, my high school French teacher didn’t want us just to listen and understand – he wanted us to reply!  The class was a revelation – Bernie F., our teacher, had brilliant blue eyes like marbles, and hair so dark it looked black. He was probably in his 30s, and he fired vocabulary questions at us as if we were Gestapo soldiers ready to salute him.  Yes, we were expected to listen, understand, and reply.

Newton North High in Massachusetts, near Boston, had a campus of three large buildings, with a yard between all of them – the grass had been worn away by students’ footsteps and it was, really, a dustbowl – making the grounds seem more like a rather grubby college than a high school.  My classmates and I were typical teenagers of the 70s, wearing bell-bottomed jeans and plaid flannel work shirts, and Vibram-soled hiking boots, even if some of us were girls.  On our rock & roll-listening-heads, we invariably had long hair – even the boys.  And French was one of my favorite classes.

“For-mee-dahh-ble!” Bernie would shout in a French accent, if we answered a grammar question correctly or got an “A” on a test.  We were meant to listen to and understand the peculiarities of the language, the idioms, but more than anything he wanted us to be able to answer him when he fired off a question.  He drilled us, at every class, on tenses of verbs and our vocabulary, and expected us to respond in complete sentences, using the right word – “le mot juste.”  I learned more French in that one year than I did in the entire other six years I spent studying French, because he expected so much of us.

The most fun part was “cooking French.”  One afternoon we made Cherries Jubilee, which we ignited in the classroom with a torch, the flames rising halfway to the ceiling, and we also feasted on escargots – snails – dripping in garlicky butter.  Bernie F. believed in teaching us the cuisine of France – it was part of the fun of being a Francophile.  That part of it was more about understanding French cuisine than it was about shooting back an accurate response to our teacher’s verbal demands.  So having us “understand” the complexity of flavors in French food mattered to Bernie – those were occasions when we weren’t thinking about making up an answer and trying to convey it with a good French accent.

I liked our teacher, very much, even though I found him tremendously intimidating.  Having to always be ready with a reply made me nervous.  And I studied hard at home, doing my assignments, but was always anxious I wouldn’t be able to “come through” with my responses the next time the class met.

When our old high school was torn down a couple of years later to make room for a big, new high school that was contained in one building, I regretted losing the old high school.  Bernie had us captive in Building I, with our cooking sessions and drills on French vocabulary, and by the end of the year I understood his passion for, and firm belief in, the possibility of getting kids excited about learning a foreign language.  We listened, understood, and replied.

I ended up scoring in the 700s on my oral French SATs for college – a feat I could never have accomplished without his strict tutelage.  An oral exam was more difficult than a written one, because one had to comprehend what was rapidly said on the phonograph record they played for us as part of the test and be able to write a comprehensive written reply.

“Bien sur,” I say now to people who ask if I speak French, “Je parle un peu.” “Of course, I speak a little.”  I didn’t understand spoken French well while on a vacation in Paris, when I was in college – the Frenchmen I met spoke so quickly.  It was frustrating having to ask people to slow their speech down.  But I was always able to answer someone.

How could I not be, having had the great Bernie F. as my teacher?  He was “formidable”!!  And I would say that, in learning a foreign language, the ability to understand is no more important than the ability to reply, if only to say, “Je ne vous comprends pas” – “I don’t understand you,” or even the much ruder “QUOI???” –  “WHAT???” Our teacher wanted us to be able to make ourselves clear.  It’s a tricky thing; you want to listen and understand; but you also want to show you understood by giving an answer.

25 comments on “Learning French

  1. Debbie on

    Formidable Martha ! C’est un sujet qui me passionne etant aussi francophone et francophile. Et comme tu vois, j’ai compris et j’ai repondu ! Debbie

  2. George Sapio on

    As someone learning Spanish right now, this beautiful article has relevance. What a difficult thing…to learn a different way of using words and then knowing how to respond in kind. Kudos to Bernie and you!

  3. Andrea Fleck Clardy on

    Thanks for sharing this engaging reminder of how powerful high school teachers can be, not only in conveying information but also in building community and bolstering self-esteem. Beautifully done!

  4. Robin Pond on

    It is so wonderful to remember a time of learning just for the sake of learning, rather than merely engaging in practical training for a job. C’est vraiment formidable!

  5. Ann Marie Shea on

    French presents its own challenges in oral communication because many of the sounds seem to come out of left field. The ellisions, the nasalities, etc. And, yes, the continentals speak incredibly fast. (Of course English spelling must be no joy to foreigners attempting my native tongue.) How blessed you were to be introduced to French by someone who knew how to open your brain to this wonderful language.

  6. Ginny Freeman Cohen on

    Your story took me right back to Newton High. I can even remember the smell in the stairways of Building 3. My French teacher was not as dynamic. I envy your experience. Loved reading this!

  7. Scot Walker on

    I had similar drills in German by a professor who was a Nazi–he bragged that he “lost” his uniform as the war wound down. My class was made up of about 15 — 14 of us were planning on going to grad school and needed to be able to read German. the 15th was the professor’s daughter. In the first week of our class, our professor asked us to vote: did we want to learn to read German or speak it. 14 of us voted to read it. Gretel, the professor’s daughter voted to speak it–and for the first time in my life I knew what it mean to live under Nazi rule–we all learned to say things like : I accompanied him to the railroad station and did you hear about the burgeermeistersblinddarmendungzugsoperation? (the mayor appendectomy) I’m so glad Martha had a good experience speaking French and hope she one day learns how to wish the mayor of Paris well, after his appendectomy


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