What I did on my holidays.

I have, for the first time in ages, been on holiday to Abroad. The lucky place was France, and in particular to the fine city of Paris, enabled through free movement within the EU, and an astonishingly swift train journey that took us from Leeds to Paris in mere hours. Naturally, of course, being the parent of two under-10s, a trip to Paris naturally meant a payoff of 6 days city, 1 day of Disneyland. It also meant a severe dusting down of the secondary school French, for which the word “rusty” doesn’t even come close: it wasn’t entirely moribund, but certainly took a lot of effort to revive. Very rarely is anyone truly monolingual, instead we have degrees of multilingualism: but my own language is distinctly towards the monolingual end of the spectrum. This rustiness and the general novelty of overseas travel (expense, hassle, and just not being all that bothered, if I’m brutally honest), meant that being in Paris was an instructive and illuminating experience,  particularly when filtered through my ESOL teacher brain. 

For one I was gratified to learn that lots of fragments kept coming back. This is not least in part down to the massive amounts of crossover between English and French. Vocabulary is an obvious candidate here: English and French have a large number of shared words, thanks mainly to the Normans and the Church, not to mention the global impact of English as an international language. There is also a lot of shared grammar: sentence level word order is broadly similar, and as a tourist your grammar doesn’t generally extend beyond simple present tenses and a lot of very functional structures: Je suis…. Nous avons… Avez vous…? Je voudrais… Ou est…? and so on. 

For me, most of these structures are now lexical chunks, rather than built out of systemic grammatical knowledge. I can just about parse some bits of present tense verbs etre and avoir but it’s a mental challenge, and mainly based on translation of similar lexical items rather than the application of a rule. Put simply, I remember that He is translates as Il est, rather that remembering the rule that the third person singular pronoun is il, and that the third person singular form of etre is est. My current productive knowledge of French is essentially just knowing which set of words to apply when, combined with a bit of first language transfer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, and perhaps this is what it’s like to be a beginner: you simply don’t have the grammatical and lexical resources to draw upon in order to start making extensive grammatical connections, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do this at all. Certainly this technique enabled me to negotiate whether it was possible to extend a three zone metro Paris Visite pass into a five zone metro pass, roughly “J’ai un Paris Visite carte pour les zones une à trois, mais c’est possible acheter une carte pour zones quatre et cinq?” Not brilliant, and both carte and zone sound distinctly dodgy, but it was a fair stab at a compound sentence with an infinitive of purpose, and crucially, it worked. 

The was one rather massive problem. Having managed to express a fairly complex concept, and create, on the fly, a pretty decent chunk of second language, this then generated a reply. Who’d have thought that asking a question might result in a reply! Crazy stuff, no? The gentleman behind the counter forgave my dubious grammar and pronunciation, and proceeded to explain in a fair amount of detail not only that it was not possible to extended or to buy a two zone pass, and instead if I wanted to go to Disneyland I should use the pass to Vincennes or Nation stations, then leave the train and buy a ticket for the remainder of the journey. (I include this detail should you find yourself in a similar situation). Luckily for me, he picked up in my helplessly blank expression, and using far better English than my French, managed to negotiate meaning. 

So another thing I learned , then, is that listening is bloody difficult. Really really hard. Even in less challenging contexts where the language was slowly spoken and mostly within my very limited range, all it took was a couple of unknown words and I was thrown. And sure, there are skill elements to listening, but actually any misunderstanding on my part was down not to a lack of listening skill, but to a lack of grammar and vocabulary. Take, for example, travelling on the metro. French metro announcements are efficient and unburdened with superfluous information like being instructed to read safety notices, have a pleasant onward journey, or buy something overpriced and unpleasant. Rather there is a simple list of stations, and only the occasional section of information about, for example, the fact that the RER line A between La Defense and Nation is closed. (Again, handy travel info in case you are headed to Paris in the next couple of weeks.) I used some top down listening skills to work this out: predicting what vocabulary and grammar I should be hearing from the context I was in, and with the support of the written station names on the metro map, I was able to follow, if you like, the detail of the discourse, then to reapply this when travelling on an unfamiliar line. So far, so textbook. 

However, in more complex interactions, it was far far harder to keep up with what was being said and to apply any of this top down knowledge. After my masterpiece of functional French at the metro station, I was flummoxed by the reply, perhaps inevitably. However, even in a simple shop context I couldn’t always follow the numbers when told what the price was, relying instead on two pre-listening strategies: 1) read the till, and 2) try to add up the amount you are spending before you get to the till. Then there were things like being asked whether I wanted a bag not to mention various interactional elements that confident speakers put into functional conversations, d’accordbon, smiles, other incomprehensible bits. Mostly, however, the problem was that I simply didn’t have the bottom knowledge which you need in order to effectively process anything. Ye gods, I thought, is is what my beginners have to do every single day. 

Unlike many of the beginners I teach, however, I have a fair degree of literacy, and used this extensively to decode and support my understanding and application of spoken language. I am probably slightly stronger at reading French than I am at speaking, and certainly more confident at it, and could use simple written integrations to sidestep more complex spoken ones: maps, signs, and ticket machines, for example, until I worked out that these latter could be used in English. These strategies also reminded me of the the importance of affective factors when it comes to language use. I felt much more comfortable reading and interacting in a written format than I did in a face to face spoken setting simply because speaking to someone in a second language is terrifying. I’m generally quite shy, as well as acutely aware of the importance of at least having a go at using the language out of respect. My strategy, then, is to avoid situations wherever possible. An absence of personal confidence can be challenging at the best of times, but with the potential to be positively crippling in high stakes interactions involving your son’s very pressing need to use the toilet. 

What this all really bright home to me was the realisation that a second language is not a simply a dualistic process of reception and production, as it is often presented on training courses, and certainly how the skills are traditionally broken down for exams and so on. Rather it is a process of negotiation. When you enter into an interaction in a language you don’t fully understand or have full control of, both you and your interlocutor have various resources to draw on: your knowledge of their language, their knowledge of your language, shared knowledge of the world and how it works. A regular morning international relied firmly on contextual understanding that at least one person (me, the customer) wanted to get something from the conversation (4 croissants) and that the other person (the boulanger) was in a position to facilitate that in some way, but would also benefit from said interaction being successful (he got paid).You negotiate meaning through whichever resources you have at hand, whether they are “proper” target language resources, or “cheating” by using other methods. In this sense, a language classroom is an essentially false setting: we discourage first language use, and insist that learners use only the target language, when in reality this is not always how people function in a second language interaction. Even in a classroom setting, “real” language, that is language which occurs in the classroom because of the classroom context (instructions, explanations, clarifications, passing on of administrative information and so on)  is often similarly negotiated using various resources: first language between peers and sometimes teacher, a reduced form of the target language, and various metalinguistic strategies such as sign language, facial expressions, tone of voice and so on. The target language is borne out of the essential falseness where the outside experiences and needs of the learners dictate language which cannot occur naturally in the classroom. So this falseness isn’t necessarily a bad thing: after all, a classroom is in many ways about creating a pretend language environment, but the reality should at least be acknowledged, rather than denied.

***

A slightly darker, sadder, postscript to this was that I very quickly also learned to understand the meaning of Votre sac, Monsieur? as we entered just about every shopping centre, museum, or major attraction. Due to terrorist events in France over the last year, security was on a particular high: armed police and soldiers were very visible and present, the base of the Eiffel Tower protected by a security fence and bag search upon entry (this is before the queues to actually pay to go up the tower), and one or two places, including the Louvre, had a full airport scanner for bags. By way of defiance to any kind of victory felt by terrorist organisations at this, this mild inconvenience in no way lessened our enjoyment of Paris. No, any sense of danger or fear was almost entirely due to the frankly terrifying Parisian motorists. 

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