adventures in immersion

Today I walked into the French immersion school I’ve worked at for the past three years to pick up an old paycheck. I expected to grab the envelope and say a quick bonjour to some of my favorite francophones of the 5-and-under variety. I ended up staying for hours.

That’s what I love and have loved about this place. It’s busy and bustling and you’re thrown into it like the deep end of a pool: you’d better learn to swim. It’s uncomfortable at first, and your instincts tell you to get out. My first few months at this place were difficult. I didn’t know what to say, where to stand, what to do with my hands. I had pictured sitting in a circle, telling kids how to say the alphabet in a pretty French accent: ah, bay, say… It turned out that language immersion education was not a happy, clappy, can you say oui affair, but a serious job with distinctly right and wrong ways of doing, well, everything. I was a college sophomore, proud of my French essay A’s. It was sobering to realize–the very first day–that almost every member of the pre-K class I was assigned to volunteer with could speak better French than me. It was sobering to realize: I could not speak French. Being that this was a full-immersion school, that meant, by extension, that I was not allowed to speak. I did not know how to discipline children and resolve conflicts, and I did not know how to do it all publicly. I did not know how to do it in another language. I felt embarrassed and incompetent. One day a little girl told me, in English: “you speak French really funny.” She had been looking at me strangely, almost bemusedly. I am sure I flamed red. Even little kids know I can’t do this. Why am I here?

It is intimidating to be thrown into an environment you literally cannot understand. How often we take simple communication for granted; what horror when it doesn’t come. I visited the school twice a week that semester. While I found the kids absolutely adorable and the teachers classy and cool, I’d be lying if I said my stomach didn’t hurt before almost every session.

But I kept showing up. Now, three years later, I walk inside that building and it feels like home. This summer, I was the head assistant for a language camp with 18 kids, many of whom had never spoken a word of French. I made homemade vanilla ice cream with four-year-olds and ran around a park planting clues to a scavenger hunt. I smeared sunscreen on a line of wriggling toddlers and dealt with a young mean girl’s attitude problem. Several  older children were terrified to speak French; embarrassed, unsure. My own experiences with later-in-life language learning have given me compassion. Oh how I understand how it feels. What works is not an attitude of: you will say this or else. Rather, it’s: don’t worry, you don’t sound silly, I promise. You can do it, tu peux le faire ! Essaies, try! And when they do, when they place that trust in you, when you hear that sweet wobbly French from a tentative little face, the joy is nothing you have to manufacture. They understand! And they are understood. And that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing to share with someone.

Sometimes I forget just what I am going to do this next year in France. I get caught up in logistics, or travel dreams, and I forget how much I love to teach. It’s challenging and it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, in all its forms. And I cannot freaking wait for more.

I am still new myself. Not so many years away from my own wobbly French. But I speak fluently now. And though I don’t have years and years of experience or a teaching degree, I believe I have learned to teach. What works and what doesn’t. How to be simultaneously strict and kind. How to have both authority and compassion. How to see problems coming, how to avert them. How to think on my feet. I have learned–at least in this pool–how to swim.

I walked in today and heard: Bonjour Jessica, comment ça va, can you take these kids to the bathroom?

Oui, pas de problème, I said, and left my purse and paycheck in the hallway.

50 thoughts on “adventures in immersion

  1. Delia Jo

    This is so amazingly sweet. I love the phrase ” sweet wobbly French”. Littles are my favorite age group (5 and under). Thank you for sharing this experience ❤

    Liked by 6 people

  2. This is great, Jessica 🙂 Really enjoyed! Studied French for 7 years, HS and college; love the language. I wanted to teach it as well, and though went in another direction, I’ve been teaching in my field since 2006, and so loved and related to what you wrote. Strict and kind, authority and compassion – exactly. I won’t ramble on, but related to all you wrote. Thank you!


      1. Hi danielleremainstrue!”….fear of sounding funny.” I have battled with the perception that we ‘sound funny’ in a new langauge for years now with my students, teaching usually Spanish. You sound like a great teacher, able to empathise with new language learners. Congrats on a good job!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Very nice, Jennifer.
    Your story is very important and serves as an inspiration to young people who doubt to follow their heart. Half the battle is just showing up, and you pulled it off beautifully, and with grace.

    Sometimes when we just show up in life, it becomes magical!

    Best wishes to you, Jennifer!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m struggling at this moment about learning french. I have told to me for 3 years that I will do it. It never happened..
    At this point I want to get this out of my sight once and for all. And only way how to do it – to push myself and learn that freakin’ french!
    I think big deal in this learning process is to find the right motivation. You see it in kids and teaching.
    I had motivation, but it never came really from my heart, now I have something which gives me this drive, so I am willing to go for it even though my french pronunciation is terrible haha

    Do you have some practical tips?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh boy…there’s so much! Immerse yourself as much as possible, watch movies with the subtitles on, listen to songs and sing along until you know them…find a French show that you like and repeat things people say aloud (personally I like Les Reines du Shopping for this!). Watch YouTube videos and practice practice practice aloud. Find a French friend, someone willing to talk on the phone with you in French. Buy a little notebook and write down any questions you have or new words you learn. Read memoirs about others who have done this difficult thing to keep your morale up. Bon courage!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fabulous. Being a former educator, I know the thrill of watching children learn. I so want to carve out time to improve my poor, weak Spanish. Being with kids, learning a language, observing them learning…sounds like a dream to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow wow wow….i enjoyed reading every bit of this story! What an encounter you had with these little sweet souls let alone the impact you had on them….oh what a beauty to imagine! Your persistence paid off too….belle histoire Jessica! Merci beaucoup!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Jessica, I was one of those “thrown into immersion” kids!! they actually had to have my mom come to my kindergarten class after hours, and tell me a secret that my teacher COULD actually speak english– shhhh dont tell the other kids: but yes she does understand that you need to use the bathroom even if you forget it’s “Puis J’allé au toilet?” I got out of my french for a long time then realized how quickly you can pick it up as a twenty-something abroad when a plane full of beaux garcons shows up on your vacation. fast forward a few years and not unlike yourself I entered a classroom as a CYW in an ALL French school; totally hearing you on the “fish out of water” feeling as my accent was beyond rusty. I now work for a company in Canada where our membership is about 50% “quebecois” french. LOVELY READ!!! please do visit my page I feel I’ve found a sister 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a pleasure to read. A long time back I accidentally learned American Sign Language by traditional immersion, after starting with a regular class, followed by going to a Deaf Club, and regularly meeting with a man who later became my husband, later supplemented by an interpreting degree. This takes me back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Merci! Well you know I’d have to recommend it. One fun way to reinforce what you learn is songs and movies. Find what you like and practice reading lyrics and subtitles, even just getting your ear accustomed to the sound of the language. There are a lot of great French movies, more artsy and indie if you like that kind of thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Bonjour! That’s about the extent of my French. It is in my family though. My father served a mission in France in the 80s and my eldest brother did in 2007-2008. My younger brother is learning the language and I adore it. I am a songwriter and would just love to spend time in Paris. Thank you for this elegant post. It hints at your understanding of linguistic concepts through the use of your mother tongue. I am sure you teach wonderfully.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I really enjoyed reading your article, Jessica. As a language learner and teacher of languages I really appreciate your insights into the whole experience. I think that becoming fluent in another language really opens the door to that culture in no other way that we can experience, so you are truly lucky to find yourself in that situation now.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. marikakrapivnitski

    I started learning french recently and I only know the basics so far. It is my dream to go study photography in France, so I thought I better start learning french now.
    Love to read about other peoples experiences in France. This is a really great post. 😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

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