French Camp Failure

by Jules Older

As Effin and I left Vermont for French Immersion Camp in Quebec, I felt scared.

I had reason for fear. I nearly flunked French in high school. I did flunk Latin, got a D in German, just squeaked by Spanish. I kept switching languages in the forlorn hope I'd find one I was good at. I never did.

So why was I voluntarily leaving for seven days of French immersion in La Belle Province? Two reasons.

The most pressing: I edit Canada’s biggest ski magazine, a Quebec-based venture, where every one of my colleagues is bilingual. And while they generously switch to English whenever I'm there, I'm tired of being the only single-language idiot in the room.

The second reason is a fond hope I've clung to since my less-than-stellar experience in high school French/Latin/German/ Spanish. I've always said that the problem wasn’t me; oh, no, the problem was the way language is taught. I claimed (and almost believed) that if I were thrown into an environment where, say, French is spoken—as opposed to parsed, declined, memorized and chopped into small bits—I'd soon be speaking it like a native.

So. Alors. It’s crunch time for my dignity and my theorizing. On to Quebec!


First Night[mare]

At our meet-and-greet in St. George, Quebec, we’re handed statements like, “J’ai une voiture blanche.” Our job is to find the owner of a white car and say Bonjour.

Then we meet our host for the week. Effin and I are the guests of Madame Rita Chapagne, who lives about a mile from the school. She’s a sweet grandmere with little English. Turns out I'm not the only one scared by the week ahead. The next morning, when I ask how she slept (“Is you sleep good, Madame?”), she says “Non! Mal dormi!” She couldn’t shake a nightmare in which she was forced to speak English. Now her throat and her head hurt.

I know just how she feels.


First Day: Same-same

The day starts with a test. All 12 of us listen to a tape and answer multiple-choice questions based on what we hear. I think it will be easy, that I’ll be able to guess based on the words on the tape.

I'm wrong. If the question is, “Did le docteur get his experience in a hospital, on television or in a film?” the French words for hospital, TV and film all turn up on the tape. Within ten minutes, I'm feeling the same way I felt when I took tests in high school: frustrated, angry, hopeless. I revert to my role as class clown.

I'm not the only one who reverts. Norm, a Vietnam vet, suddenly starts talking pidgin English to our perfectly bilingual instructor. “It same-same,” he says, as I listen open-mouthed. “Word-English and word-French, same-same.”

After lunch, we pair off, then introduce each other. To save my head from bursting, I make the unilateral decision to invoke Older’s First Law: Speak only in the present tense. So far, so bien

In the evening, we’re invited to join half the town in viewing an international bicycle race through the centre ville. From a second-story porch, two young women are holler down to the racers, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” I ask them why they aren't shouting, “Allez! Allez!” They say, “’Let’s go’ sounds stronger.”

It quickly becomes clear that this is going to be a busy week. The moment the race ends, we hop into our cars and drive an hour to a performance of Quebec music. The singer has a patter that keeps the audience in stitches. Those laughing include all the locals and the three or four advanced students, the ones who have taken this course and others like it five or six times. The ones who did their homework in high school. The ones who no doubt knew whether the bloody docteur got his bloody experience working in une bloody hopital or watching bloody T-bloody-V. As pour moi, I just smile wanly and wait for the next song.


Second Day: The rabbit ate my fishing pole

We head for a nearby park where we walk the hills and learn traditional Quebecois folk songs. During the walk, I formulate a corollary to Older’s First Law: Not only will I speak only in the present tense; I will completely ignore the gender of nouns.

I also come to a realization — I can understand the advanced American students far better than I can the locals. When the Yanks speak French, the individual words stand out like rocks in a stream. When the Quebecois speak, all I hear is stream.

Somehow, learning a new language always involves mangling a sex-related phrase. Our moment comes in the park when ace-student Peter describes the time he was attacked by a crazed rabbit. When he comes to the part where the rabbit tried to eat his walking stick, the hostess-grandmothers fall about laughing so hard they have to hold each other up.

Whether talking with other students or our host, it’s Effin who does most of the talking. She also knows that le docteur got his patients—not his experience—from the hopital. She, too, did her high school homework, an accomplishment I'm quickly coming both to rely on and resent.

But later that night, we watch the evening news together, and neither of us gets one word in a thousand. Actually, after a full hour of news, I understand exactly one word: avec. But who did what avec whom remains a mystery.


Third Day: My Sinking Heart

Comment dit-on [How do you say], “My heart sinks”? We’re split into groups to develop questions for a mystery visitor. Every student in my group contributes enthusiastically except one. I am the one. I cannot find the words. I can’t find any words. My heart sinks. 

But wait—I’ve somehow wandered into the advanced group. No wonder I’ve been struck mute. After my group asks questions like “In what city did you work after your 40th birthday?” we join the beginner’s group which asks, “How old is you?”

My kinda’ people! I immediately join the beginners’.

Later, I give my first speech en Francais. Before I get to my second sentence, the class is howling with laughter. It’s a mixture of my pathetic language skills and my somewhat better comic skills. I think the mix is 90-10.


Fourth Day: Theories in Conflict

I've come to French Boot Camp with a theory that even I admit sounds a bit self-serving. My theory goes like this: I don’t have to study here. I don’t have to write down any phrases or memorize grammatical constructions or really, actively do anything at all. As long as I hang out in a French environment with my ears open, I’ll start picking up French. In fact, the more I hang and the less I work, the better my French will be. It’s osmosis as opposed to homework. Organic learning vs. drudge.

But Peter has another theory. “Learning a language is hard work, Jules. I write letters to French acquaintances, dictionary in hand. I've taken previous immersion courses. I've studied on my own. And while I think a week of immersion roughly equals six months of classroom study, I also think that comfort in a new language is a long time coming.”

Which theory is right?

Today I start writing down phrases.

Revenge of the Nerds

Today we also get our test scores back. Effin got 17 out of 29. I got 6. The class splits in two, Advanced and Debut. My 6 puts me deep in the heart of Debut. Effin, Pricille and Peter and all my buddies disparus into Advanced Land.

In the other room, I can hear them laughing. Meanwhile, my Debut colleagues are speaking English and arguing with the teacher over why a bathing suit is called un maillot plonge.

And it’s not just that the others speak better; I feel like they are better. I bet they aren't nit-picking the teacher or listing, by name, all the titles in their Celine Dionne collection. Once again, my heart sinks. I shoulda’ done my homework.

In the evening, we party. But we party with a purpose. Everyone gives a speech—in French, of course. Effin gives a long, funny talk, tossing in future and past tenses avec aplomb. I feel very proud. And tres humbled.


Fifth Day: Brief Sermon

I'm starting to pick up the local pronunciation. Fenite-re, not fenetre; ouay, not oui. Some would see this as a disadvantage; as I've heard time after time in Vermont, “Up there they don’t speak real French.”

I see this as a failure of American education. Look, a huge part of our Vermont population is of Quebec descent. Depending on our age and gender, we go to Quebec to drink, see naked ladies, ski, dance, shop, eat. We go many times in our lives. How often do we go to France? At home, we encounter “Je Me Souviens” drivers on the road, at stores, in restaurants. Parisians? Few and far between.

So why, oh, why do we teach our children to speak as we imagine they speak an ocean away instead an hour a way?

End of sermon.


Sixth Day: Quelle Surpris!

It’s St. Jean de Baptist Day, the Quebec equivalent of the Fourth of July and Easter all rolled into one. We’re off from class and on to Quebec City.

 It’s a long, long day. On the ride home, student Hilary is so tired that when I ask her where Pricille is, she says—in English— “Pricille. Is. With. Someone.”


Final Day: Older's Law

Class in the morning, a farewell lunch at noon. I have time to consider what, besides a fair chunk of French, I've learned in La Belle Province. Here’s Older’s Law.


1.    I was mostly wrong about how a reasonably intelligent adult learns a new language. It does require study, more’s the pity. And taking notes. And practice. Merde.


2.    But I was right about simplifying the task. Just as writers learn, “Don’t get it right, get it written,” language learners should learn, “Don’t get it right, just get it!” Make mistakes. Skip fancy tenses. Talk baby talk. Don’t bother with gender and gerunds and anything else that keeps you from getting a semi-intelligible idea out of your mouth.


3.    If you happen to be a reasonably intelligent adult who wants or needs to learn a new language, immersion is the way to go. You probably get a minimum of a week’s worth of learning for every day you spend in boot camp.



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