Bonjour Kiwi Teachers!

September 2012

Two New Zealand teachers and recipients of Language Immersion Awards share their different experiences in Montpellier, France.

CHRIS DURRANT, head of languages at Otago Girls’ High School

I was lucky enough to be awarded one of the Ministry of Education Language Immersion Awards (LIA) for 2012. The award covered three months of language tuition in France from March to June along with return airfares, accommodation, and relief costs, so this was a sizeable investment in a teacher.

I had lived and studied in Germany for six years in the late-eighties to mid-nineties and have since taught German to all year levels for the past 15 years. I have also taught a Year 9 class French for around seven of those as and when the timetable needed it. Although my language knowledge was sufficient to teach this class the very basics, I always felt like I was a bit of a fraud in the French classroom and wasn’t able to really communicate with the students and have that instant knowledge a competent language teacher needs at their fingertips to be able to adapt quickly, improvise, and make the best of every learning opportunity in the classroom.

Before gaining the award, I took part in The University of Auckland Teacher Professional Development Languages (TPDL) course, which focuses on improving language teaching pedagogy by helping teachers to implement a Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) approach to classroom practice, and I selected French as my subject language for that course. This gave me a leg-up into using classroom language in French and whetted my appetite for some real improvement in my own language skills. After learning that I would be going to France, I selected Montpellier for my destination because I knew it was an education city with a good university and the language school there had received good reports. The fact it was in the south of France in spring didn’t hurt its selection chances either.

After a 43-hour odyssey via Auckland, Beijing, Frankfurt, and Lyon, I arrived at the train station in Montpellier and walked across the road to Madame Ranson’s (pictured left)apartment. Madame Ranson was perhaps one of the most important factors in my language improvement over the three months. The school did a really good job in providing me with the theoretical knowledge to advance me from A2 to B2 on the Common European Framework for Languages (CEFR), which runs from A1 beginner to C2 near native competency with B1 being the official final level for school students in New Zealand; however, it was Madame Ranson who gave me the opportunity to practise and to hear real French being used on a daily basis, down to swearing in the car at all the other useless drivers.

After a really full set of experiences in Montpellier, I have returned to school with an enormous lift in my fluency and implicit and explicit knowledge of French. This has already made, in the four weeks I’ve been back, for far better use of teacher language in the classroom. My students are also using more French in the classroom as they model themselves on my usage. The ultimate goal is to have the class communicating independently through a number of task-based activities during the rest of the year so that their level of fluency improves to where they can fulfil the requirements of the A1 level of the CEFR, which closely aligns to levels 1 and 2 of The New Zealand Curriculum. See table below:

TABLE 1

A1: Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

My experience in France as a student made me very aware of the difficulties and challenges which learners encounter when taking on a new language and has made me aware of the things teachers do which work and those which don’t. I saw both while in the classroom in France, and this has affected my own approach to teaching languages enormously – not only for my French class but for the German classes too – and is having a major effect on my practice in the classroom. In my opinion, the three months has been money very well spent.

MYRA FRANCIS: French and German teacher at Westlake Girls’ High School

I decided to apply for the Language Immersion Award because it has long been my dream to spend an extended period of time in a French-speaking country. This was a wonderful opportunity to improve my fluency. As a long-time teacher of French, this is very important to me along with learning as much as I can about the culture, the people, and their way of life.

During my three months in Montpellier from September to December 2011, I attended language school while staying at the home of a very hospitable retired lady who showed me around and introduced me to various facets of French life: the theatre, her village of origin, and important landmarks such as the Millau Bridge and the Gorges du Tarn. I took every chance to go on the outings organised by the school, which included the medieval village of St. Guilhem le Desert, a Knights Templar village at Larzac, a cheese factory at Roquefort, a fishing village at Sete, and the walled medieval city of Aigues-Mortes. Of course, I must not forget the traditional dancing and petanque lessons. During these three months, I kept a blog, which gives more detail of my activities.

Apart from all the places I saw, one of my highlights every day was to go to the French bakery for the most amazing bread in the world. I loved being part of local daily life and not just a tourist. I especially liked visiting the local high school and teaching some classes there. Challenges included understanding the dialect of local young people, as many of them used slang and loan words from other languages. It is easy to see why some people are surprised that they still find the speech difficult to understand when they arrive in France after studying in New Zealand.

Since spending this time in France, I have a better understanding of spoken French, including television, radio, and everyday conversation. I am much more confident in participating in situations with native speakers who are not making any special allowances for me being a foreigner. In the classroom, I use more French as a medium of instruction, and I enjoy sharing my new knowledge of culture with the little anecdotes that come from living experience.

If you are able to spend time in France, I encourage you to mix with French-speaking people as much as possible and get involved in their activities. Don’t forget to be appreciative of your hosts, the local community. There will be things that you may not like, but it will broaden your experience as you learn to adapt and accept without criticising. Your French will improve and you will gain much satisfaction. You will enjoy new tastes and see the most amazing spectacles, allowing your world view to expand, and you will see your own country in a new light. I would certainly recommend this opportunity.

Myra’s blog can be found at http://spacekiwimum.blogspot.com.