The French language has been my way of empathizing with foreign language learners. I am good enough to be conversational in limited situations, but I suck. And I’m only marginally motivated. Any good foreign language educator should know how that feels firsthand in order to better understand their learners.

My first class was in Germany with a Dutch teacher. He was excellent, but the required book was awful. It was probably developed for business students preparing for an Erasmus* semester doing an internship in France (*Erasmus is a mobility program for college students within the European Union). My goal was to be able to communicate with Wodabes and Touregs in Niger. I dropped out of the class, but I reached my goal, apparently with a German accent. I guess the “foreign language” switch in my brain was turned on to German, so I learned French through this filter. I found, however, that if I spoke in a way that felt like I was poking fun at French people, I was understood significantly better.

The highlight of my French speaking skills in West Africa was when I made a pun during a card game. “Encore! / Un Couer!” Yes, I played a card of the same suite, and this suite happened to be hearts! Yes! We laughed in the candlelight, ate some nuts and played on under a starry sky.

My next French class was with a Belgian fellow trainee at the European Parliament. She did a great job considering her resources. She put together all of the teaching materials and tried to motivate us in the evening classes after work. But we were all tired, and it was so easy to survive in Luxembourg with a working knowledge of English and German. Luckily there were enough Frenchies commuting in who couldn’t speak other languages, that I was forced to take care of my mobile phone and housing needs in French. And I did, somehow.

A few weeks ago, Elmar and I took a camping trip to the south of France. A couple from Toulouse wanted to share our plot, which was ridiculously too big for us with our igloo tent. We agreed. They only spoke French. We had the most hilarious conversations over real champagne and plain pasta using a table that was propped up with a bottle of red.

So I learned enough French to cover my specific needs. And that’s okay. When I teach others, I hope to be able to take this lax attitude into consideration. I don’t want to teach German for German’s sake. I want to teach German in a way that is appropriate to the communicative needs of the students.

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