(Americans Can’t Learn Language / My First Time in Paris… with BENJAMIN G by PEDRO IVAN SERRALVA)
I went to high school near Chicago and was one of just a few to not only take French instead of Spanish, but to do it for all four years (the requirement then was to study a foreign language for two years). I loved it. French was my favourite class. Madame Molzahn was my favourite teacher. I got the best grades in French than any other subject, which was A+ pretty much all the time. And outside school I listened to French music, watched French films, and even gave my grandmother French lessons. It also happened to be the only class where I didn’t get bullied, but that’s another story!
So when a couple years after graduation I got to Paris for the first time, I was pretty excited to say the least… and then quickly I was devastated! You see, even four years of A+ French from an American high school left me with pretty feeble language skills. I remember going for lunch with my boyfriend and not even knowing how to ask for the cheque. So much did our lessons concentrate on grammar that even a simple phrase like “l’addition s’il vous plaît” was outside my repetoire. So, when it came time to pay, I got a laugh from the waiter when I said “je veux vous donner mon argent” [“I want to give you my money”].
Benjamin G, from the photos, shot by the brilliant Pedro Ivan Serralva, is originally from America but now lives in Paris. I wonder if he arrived with the same sense of helplessness. Is it that Americans are bad at teaching languages, or more that Americans can’t learn languages?
I have to confess that I spent two years as a high school French teacher in Dallas, Texas. I stole / borrowed from the English GCSE and A-level French curriculum to bring a fuller, more practical element to the Texas standards of teaching. I tried to engage the kids, to involve them, and in some ways I think I was successful… but honestly, I doubt most of them would remember how to handle being in a Parisian restaurant. You see, I’m not sure it’s the curriculum or the teaching standards (though both need a lot of improvement) that is the real problem. More it’s attitude amongst the kids and their parents that learning a foreign language is utterly pointless. So maybe my kids left my class not remembering a lot of specific vocabulary, but at least I’m certain that they learned a bit more about expression, fostered curiosity and built open-mindedness. These are, for me, what teaching French was all about.
See more of Benjamin G and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (03) Reykjavík