15 November 2009

From The Reflecting Puddle

A week full of rainy weather has put me in an introspective mood; I get the feeling this year in Pontivy will be very introspective.
To start with, a topic which plagued my writing while in Strasbourg: French, the most beautiful language in the world. I feel fortunate to say that previous language barriers are now a non-issue. My oral comprehension is nearly 100 percent and my oral expression is quick enough to match it. Written comprehension begs more reading, just to amass particular and descriptive vocabulary. My written expression in French is for the moment underutilized, but withstands formal letters and text messages. What really needs work is my French memory. I just don’t remember information as well in French as I do in English, although I don’t translate between the two. Have other language learners had the same experience? For example, instead of having the echo memory capable of hearing and repeating a phone number, I’m always obliged to ask people to repeat. Not a big problem, but the disadvantages become clearer when I can’t remember people’s responses to questions I’ve already asked. It must be like temporary amnesia: at the beginning of a conversation, I sometimes have to ask for the same updates the person gave me last time. It’s not so bad with good friends, like Julien, but I find it difficult to situate new acquaintances from one meeting to the next. Thinking about this makes me wonder where in my brain “French language” is stored, and why the information received imprints poorly compared to “English language” conversations. I would study neurology if I could…
I’ve also been thinking about living situations, simply because my roommateship with Victoria is going so well. I’m thankful I didn’t opt for a studio apartment! With Susi on the main floor, our apartment building has some of the same dynamics as a residence hall. Although I never imagined I’d miss those dynamics, and this scenario is immeasurably preferable because I have a kitchen, this year differs from my isolated situation in Strasbourg and even last year’s off-campus housing. Of course, a good friend already observed this to me last year, and now in hindsight I’m siding with the idea. I don’t seem prone to this need to “get away,” but instead thrive on the accessibility of my companions. The qualifying factor being the “livability” of the roommate.
And a third thought: How, after two months, do I measure up as a teacher? The difficulty here lies in defining exactly what my role is: a language assistant is supposed to provide exposure to a “native speaker” while creating a convivial atmosphere in which students feel at ease using the language. So am I really a teacher, or am I a contact point for an English-speaking youth culture? Am I allowed to befriend my students? Am I expected to? I think most of the students see me as a teacher, and that’s how I present myself. I give lessons, some more and some less formal depending on the grade level and main teacher.
For example, with the terminale students who are in their last year of high school and will take the English exam at the end of the year, I tend to take a more directed approach. During the Bac (the high school exit exam), they will be given a document and asked to comment on it—so this is what we work on. We might discuss a political cartoon about Hispanics in the US and identify themes like racism, bilingualism, and immigration. Terminales: check.
Well, sort of. With some special track terminale students, the ability level is much higher and we’re able to bypass cut and dry analysis to focus on other activities, like role plays and current events. One group is learning about child soldiers, so I prepared a small advocacy campaign following Amnesty International’s letter-writing directives. I don’t know if I’m allowed to pursue these actions, really, but it beats talking about stereotypes or American music!
Of course, with younger grades or post-high school specialties, I do tend towards lighter topics. “Small talk” is a good example: we define the phrase, brainstorm appropriate and inappropriate topics, and write dialogues in pairs. Technology was also popular with the students: we identify different technologies, count up how many hours per day we use each, and average it out before debating the question, “Is technology addictive?”. Personally, my favorite group so far is the post-high school marketing students. We’ve debated shoplifting, analyzed advertisements, discussed the financial crisis, and performed dialogues about financial advising. Of course, each group has a variety of levels, so not every activity works for or interests every student: violĂ  the most frustrating part of the job.

In other news, Victoria’s parents are visiting this weekend, so I’ve had great opportunities to practice Spanish. My brain seems to be experiencing a grammar malfunction and I’m poorly communicating last year’s language courses, but every time we sit down my comprehension improves. And, considering the Andalusian accent, that’s no easy feat! Yesterday led us to Port Louis (across the river from Lorient), where high winds buffeted us around and added a certain excitement to beach and castle ramparts:

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