I Forgot How To Speak English

If you ask my kindergartners, anyway – that’s what they’ll tell you.

Last year, when I taught kindergarten, immersion into a second language wasn’t something that I had to really consider. A.B. Ellis runs an English program, and as a result, for the first time of my life, I wasn’t spending my days entirely in French. When I began the FI program at my new school, I knew that it would have to be different. I knew that this was the first instruction that these children would have into the French language. I also understood that this wouldn’t be off the hop, because first … we had to get a routine going. And it’s hard to get a routine under your belt if you don’t understand what the only adult in the room is trying to say.

I explain it to parents, thusly: when your child comes to school with me, the day is probably 80% English and 20% French for about a week. The 20% French comes in the form of vocabulary, so when I speak to my new students, it sounds like this: “Please go get your boite à dîner (*picks up lunch pail*) and sit down at the table (*points to table*).” I do this because I need them to understand the overall message of what I’m saying, while still learning the key words. Those key words while guide them as more French gets introduced into that sentence: “S’il-vous-plaît, go get ta boite à dîner and go asseoir at la table.” Finally, when I came in on the first day back from Winter break, that direction finally was all in French: “S’il-vous-plaît, allez chercher vos boite à dîner et allez vous asseoir à vos tables.” They might not know exactly what allof those words mean right now, but they know the important words, and most importantly, the routine, enough to know what I’m asking them to do. They know s’il-vous-plaît and boite à dîner and table. They know by my hand movements that when I say asseoir that what I’m saying is, “sit down.”

Now, unless I’m saying something that concerns their safety, I don’t speak any English. I told the students that over the Christmas break, I forgot how to speak English. “What will we do?” asked a student when they discovered that their Madame might not be able to communicate with them in the language that they speak easiest in.

I.S. suggested, “Maybe we could talk more French for Madame?”

Beautiful, I thought to myself. I didn’t even have to talk them into it.

Since then, we’ve had a blissful week where I speak more French than I have in years, and they are slowly getting accustomed to the change. Is it hard at points? Absolutely. I’m becoming a whiz at using my hands to help support the intention of my words, so that the kids have a visual of what I’m communicating. I’m printing pictures of the keywords that we write down, so that pictures accompany our anchor charts.

Already, I can see a huge difference. The students know that I won’t cave and repeat instructions in English (except for very rare occasions, to individual students, where I may whisper it in their ear), so they’re being more mindful when listening; they’re inserting more French words into their conversations with me because they want to be understood. The effort that they are putting into speaking French is incredible.

It’s going to be hard work, but I bet you by March, we’re a bilingual little classroom. Now that we know the routine, now that we are more independent, and now that we know the keywords that are going to help make our classroom family more functional, this is the time to immerse ourselves into French learning. After all, they don’t call this program French Immersion for nothing. The more that children live their experiences in French, the more that they will learn the vocabulary required to be fully fluent speakers. It takes time, and it takes a lot of effort. But it’s such a wonderful, beautiful thing that I know that all of this effort that we are all putting in will be so worth it.

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