My experience with French began in a terribly awkward way - my mother was my first French teacher! It was fourth grade, and she was the only one qualified to teach French, so she taught all the classes. Despite a rocky start, I did enjoy it and even went to a French day camp for a summer. Unfortunately, I never had the option of enrolling in an Immersion program because at the time I went through school, we didn’t have it where I grew up.
Heading into high school, I took the best choice available, which was the Expanded Core program where we did Social Studies in French along with our French class. I just liked the subject; it kind of came naturally to me so I continued along with it. We had an ‘assistante’ from France at our school one year and she did interviews with each of us. I remember feeling really frustrated as I tried to get my point across to her, I think it was something about my summer job, and I thought “I’ve got to get better at this!” Our teachers expected a lot of us, because they believed we were capable of it. At the end of high school I decided to write the AP exam and got a 5. I knew then that I had the basics pretty well down, and had to focus on using the language.
It’s funny, though, despite those small successes I didn’t take French my first year at university. I don’t even think that I was considering it being a part of my career, planning to head towards wildlife biology. However, it didn’t take long to realize that the sciences were not where I belonged and I headed back to my first love, hoping that it would be useful for…something!
Looking back I can definitely say that of all the jobs I held as a young person, the best by far were the ones that I got because I could speak French. I got to use it every day as a guide with Parks Canada, one summer at Signal Hill and one at Cape Spear. What a job! Outside, teaching people about the history and culture of our great province in both official languages! It was such a good feeling when francophones would visit and be so impressed that some of us were capable of chatting and giving tours in their language. I think they felt more welcome because of it. I really believe that speaking a second language made us better representatives of Newfoundland; I remember so clearly once speaking to a Quebecois couple and the man saying “Elle parle français comme chez nous!” I was so flattered.
Of the French courses I took at Memorial, a couple of things stand out as being the most useful strategies for learning any second language. In one course we were required to keep a diary of new words- to look up the meaning and to use it in a sentence. It sounds a bit tedious maybe, but if you get that far with your French studies, you’re pretty serious about learning the language well and the more words you can use the better. Another course required that for homework we watch a half hour of French-language television each night and basically try to make sense of what was going on. It wasn’t too difficult to understand things like the news, but we were told to watch a variety of things. Sitcoms were particularly hard, especially ones that involved a strong Québécois accent. But over the semester, even they became a little easier.
The point of all this is that no matter how many academic courses you take, to me, to be fluent in French you have to be able to understand and use it as it is used. After finishing my B.A., I still felt that I wasn’t where I wanted to be on a speaking and understanding level, so I decided to spend a year in Québec. I was accepted into the Official Language Monitor Program, run by the federal government, to conduct English conversation classes. I cannot recommend this program, or any like it, highly enough. I know not everyone’s experience was as good as mine, but I worked in a suburb of Québec City with grades 7 to 11. I met some fantastic people, both Anglophone and Francophone, and I learned so much that year. I even used the language diary strategy, albeit more informally, and the things I put in there were so useful.
I had begun, towards the end of my B.A., to think that maybe I would enjoy teaching French. I had done quite a bit of tutoring, both university and school-age students, but it still didn’t hit me for the longest time that all signs were pointing to this as my career. Maybe this was because I had seen from my mother that teaching was not an easy career but I still felt the pull. My year away was a great test for that. Yes, I delayed starting my career by a year, some might say, but I don’t regret going for a second. Apart from my own benefit, it made me realize that I really did enjoy working with adolescents, and that is certainly something a potential teacher needs to be sure of.
One year of university almost didn’t seem like a lot to prepare a young person for a teaching career. On reflection, you could probably go for twelve years and still not be prepared for everything! My time at the Faculty of Education seemed to go by really quickly. Looking back I thought the courses had a good balance of individual reflection and group work. Both of these are essential daily elements of a teaching career.
Naturally the highlight of the program was the internship. I think most of us felt that after that, we didn’t need to be back in the university classroom again- we knew it all after our three months! And yet you can never learn it all. I was lucky enough to graduate from the program with a short replacement contract lined up, a three month maternity replacement. It was an awfully quick turnaround to go from student to teacher within the space of two weeks. Still, I felt very fortunate to have a job right away, and looking back on it the situation was pretty ideal. I had three months to make all kinds of new-teacher mistakes and then make a fresh start elsewhere! Having French as a major has meant that I’ve never been without work; I substituted for only a month and a half before landing another replacement, half-time French teacher and half-time French monitor, for the remainder of that school year. Then I was made full-time permanent the following year! I’ve been at Beaconsfield since 2003 and this year I am French department head. Speaking French has put me further ahead in my career than I would have expected to be at this point, and I would encourage anybody to take French courses. You won’t regret it!