Interesting question—why on earth would you want to teach French? The usual responses run the gamut from those who think learning a language is a waste of time (after all, we can travel 6000 miles and everyone speaks the same language) to those who think the only language to learn is Spanish (after all Mexico is next door). Such shortsighted views are not only personally limiting, but also expose a serious lack of cultural understanding.
Language is not just vocabulary and grammar, it’s much more. Language is a way of thinking, a “mentality” that helps define the people who speak it and their culture. Words belonging to a specific language reflect that specific way of thinking. When I taught French, I didn’t simply teach that “maison” meant house. What is a house? What do you think of when you think of house or home? Wood shingles? Open yard? Seen from the street? Houses close together? 4000 square feet? A French house is made of stone. It has a wall around it, most of the time you can’t see in past the wall. My students would say, “Oh that’s a prison.” But no! Inside that wall are lovely gardens. The house has floor-to-ceiling windows (we call them French doors). Why is this important? Because in France, the family is important, and the world is hostile. Family protects you. Huge windows with no screens let in the fresh air and views to the sky. Of course, the French did not purposely build their houses to be so philosophical (although they would love to think so; philosophy is another French trait observable not only in movies but also in most conversations). When my French friends come to the States to visit, they are amazed (many even appalled) that, from the street, they can see right into the front and back yard of the home. Imagine their shock that people don’t have shades or curtains, allowing you to see into the house!
In the city, the same exterior façade vs. interior oasis design is found. In Paris, an apartment building has huge heavy doors with a code to get in. Once in, often there is a courtyard in the center of the building providing that same view of trees, flowers and grass while to the outside world, on the street, there is only the façade and that big door.
The study of language and culture is illuminating in other ways as well, especially when we compare our own cultural values to that of other countries and regions. For example, Americans are open people, talking to strangers, inviting people into their homes, meeting people who quickly become their friends. In France, you must earn that level of friendship. Another look at language: Americans (youngsters) will say someone is their best friend even if that person is someone they just see occasionally. In France, there are copains, camarades, connaissances and the enviable amis. I love that the word “ami” has the same root as the word “ame” which means “soul.” An “ami” is someone you would bear your soul to. Those others are people you just know (connaissances), or are in school with (copains or camarades). You may go to the movies or out for a drink with a copain or a camarade but you wouldn’t necessarily tell that person your fears, concerns etc.
My favorite example of language and culture being intertwined came from a conversation I had with a 16-year-old French girl visiting the U.S. for the first time. She had just come from a day of shopping and was all excited. She was wearing her new jeans, “comme une Américaine,” she said with a smile. I noticed her T-shirt, tied at the bottom in a bow, and a gold necklace. Hmm, not quite the typical “Américaine” that I knew. I asked her about the T-shirt tied in a bow. She looked at me shocked, “Bien sur si non, ce serait négligé!” (Of course, otherwise it would look sloppy). I loved the word “négligé.” In the law, negligence is a cause of action for a lawsuit brought about when someone breaches a duty of care. Being sloppy is negligent, a breach of duty to yourself to dress and look well. While this incident happened many years ago, it was the same when last year I was speaking to a visiting law student from La Bretagne. She loved the U.S. but said the one thing she refused to do is to wear flannel pajama bottoms out and about or wear UGGs, which she thought were clunky and unflattering. In the U.S., people often seem to care more about comfort than chic dressing, but to that young Frenchwoman, looking good, not “negligeé” was more important.
So to those doubting people who think foreign language is useless, I say again that the study of a foreign language and culture stimulates a way of thinking and learning that expands our understanding of the world and ourselves.
Jacqueline Bucar is a former high school French teacher, who taught all levels of French for 16 years before leaving to pursue a career in Law. She is currently teaching French at the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine and is an immigration attorney in New Haven, CT. Jacqueline received her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Connecticut, her Masters of Liberal Studies Degree from Wesleyan University, and JD Degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law. For more than 10 years, Jacqueline has been selected by her peers as one of the Best Lawyers in America®; in addition, she has bee selected as a Super Lawyer® in CT and NY; and Who’s Who in Corporate Immigration Lawyers. Despite her career change, Jacqueline is a true Francophile and tries to spend as much time as possible in her adopted country of France.
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The Child Madeline, by writer and educator Natalie Ehalt who shares her love of Madeline and brings a deserved respect for girls and children worldwide. Including excerpts from Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales, by Ludwig Bemelmans.
Text copyright ©2013 Jacqueline Bucar. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2013 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.