We were ready for today to mark the plunge into 24×7 French, but no. Instead it was a day of testing, orientation, and laying out of the rules of the Institut—all conducted in English. So Darlene and I are still speaking English tonight at the apartment, and I’m too tired to blog in French, so this will be one last post without cutting and pasting accent marks and hunting for words and tenses.
The test we took this morning will determine which of eight class levels we will be assigned to tomorrow. Much of the examination was written. Darlene got bored with her blank page during the dictation exercise, so she wrote, in English, a version of The Little Prince in the space provided. (“He studied very hard, and one morning he woke up speaking French. He was very happy and Voilà!”) Later each of the 70 students was summoned one by one to a room where one of the teachers requested a description, in five minutes, in French, of fifteen scenes which included a child falling asleep, a man returning home from work, etc. When Darlene told her interrogator she knew five things in French, he didn’t even ask to hear them, which sort of disappointed her. She was thus, no doubt, placed in the beginning beginner section without even having to say “merci, bonjour, au revoir, comme ci comme ça, and ça va.”
In the afternoon, Frédéric Latty, executive assistant for the Institut and the spitting image of LeBeau on “Hogan’s Heroes,” I thought, walked us through a fascinating account of the method which the Institut has taught for 35 years. But he warned us against too-high expectations. “We are a school, not a church,” he said. “There are no miracles here. Total beginners will not rush from here after four weeks and give lectures at the Sorbonne.” What he did promise was that we will learn to speak correctly and with ease, with most of the focus of classes, practice sessions, and working lunches being to improve the sophistication of our oral expression. “If a sentence is correct, it is correct,” Frédéric said. “If it is wrong, it makes us teachers very happy, because then we have something to work with. We will always correct you.”
The Institute uses what they call “the structuro-global method,” also called the St. Cloud-Zagreb method, because it is the result of four years of joint research done by the French Language Research Center of the École Normale Supiéure de St. Cloud and the Institute of Phonetics of the University of Zagreb. The research identified a list of 1,500 words that are the most frequently used in common speech, based on placing microphones and tape recorders in cafés, subways, and offices around Paris. The first four words on the list are the verbs to be and to have, then “of” and “I.” I found it amazing that a noun does not appear on the list until the 82nd spot. That most-used noun turns out to be “heure,” the word for “hour.” So the Institute does not waste much time drilling us on nouns. The emphasis is on using verbs and learning structural units of language that form building blocks of speech.
He identified the seven most-used verbs as être (to be), avoir (to have), aller (to go), faire (to make or do), devoir (should or must), pouvoir (can or may) and vouloir (to want). He made a strong pitch for these verbs, suggesting that anyone who does not learn them might as well go home. This got Darlene’s attention, and after shopping for groceries this evening she asked me to help her learn them. I wrote out the present-tense conjugation of those seven words, and she is now in the bathtub with the sheets of paper, reciting “I am, je suis; you are, tu es, he is, il est…” I got a great photo of her conjugating verbs in the bathtub, but alas, she has not signed the release form for it to appear on the blog, which is just as well, since according to the tracker software we have visitors from Romania, Greece, the Philippines and all over. (“Is ‘you make’ ‘voo fate’ or ‘voo fett’? comes her latest question from the tub. “Voo fett.”)
Frédéric exhorted us not to sabotage the method with negative thinking and resistance. Never ask your teacher a question about grammar, he suggested. And he pleaded with us NOT to question our class assignments when we learn them tomorrow morning. “The test is very reliable,” he said. “Many of you intermediates are very good at writing and you are very bad at speaking.” He passed out six handouts in German, and the rest in English, all urging us to involve our whole beings in learning French. “You must therefore open yourself to French, absorb it, permeate your being as thoroughly as possible,” the English version said. “Don’t be afraid, for instance, to let your acting talent come out and try to imitate the French manner, gestures, intonations, etc.” So I am now raising my shoulders in an exaggerated manner and asking, “Pourquoi pas?”
As for the rules, Frédéric handed out another sheet with 12 of them on it, such as Rule Number 8: “Prompting or whispering the answer to your neighbor is not authorized under any circumstance.” Rule 10 states, “Do not write unless the teacher asks you to,” on which Frédéric elaborated by saying, “We want the structure in your brain and on your tongue, not in your notebook.”
These people pretty clearly know what they’re doing. Of the 70 students here this month, 25 are returning participants, which I took to be a strong indication of satisfaction. My roommate is still in the tub, reciting, “Je vais, tu vas, il va, nous allons, vous allez, ils vont…and my water’s getting cold!”