“Do you parle French?”

One of the toughest adjustments in this assistantship job has been going from an English immersion environment, with middle to upper-class kids, to middle schools in the outskirts of Lyon, filled with kids from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.  Beyond what can be said about the difference due to the money, there is also the change in the job in and of itself.

At English immersion camp, we are not supposed to talk to the kids in French at all.  It’s not that difficult if you don’t speak French and if your co-counselors buy into the system and aren’t speaking French either.  It’s a bit different when you’re the only native English speaker in the building.  The whole immersion system doesn’t necessarily work under such conditions.

At first, I tried not speaking to the middle school kids in French or acknowledging when they were speaking to me in French.  No one explicitly told me to do this, but since it worked for me at American Village, even with the more difficult kids, I figured it would be ok.  Then I started seeing all the problems in the schools and realized perhaps I might need to change my approach.

Just before moving into the dorm room in a high school across town, I stayed with Zaia, an Algerian-French woman from CouchSurfing.  Her take was that I needed to get immersed in the kids’ world.  Live there if I could, see their lives and learn the rules of the banlieue.  All this was entirely different from what I was being told by the teachers at the schools.  Namely: for your own safety and sanity, stay the hell away from Vaulx-en-Velin.

My mind went toward movies like Dead Poets Society and books like Gang Leader For A Day.  The idea of the outsider/teacher that comes in, is scoffed at, ridiculed for not understanding “how it works”, but is then accepted and ultimately revered.  When I told Zaia this, she laughed at me and told me to forget that.  I would gain a cultural experience, learn how these kids live, but there was no reason to hope for miracles.

Of course, it’s too early in the story to tell you that I proved her wrong.  But, the whole conversation changed my mentality on all of it.  I realized that by not acknowledging the French at all and making no effort to cross the language barrier, I was setting up another wall that didn’t need to be there.

My French isn’t good enough to have full conversations with the kids, esp. because I imagine they use a lot more slang than I even know exists.  And I don’t want to be doing that in an English class, anyway.  I’ve struck a balance, in that when they attempt to communicate with me in French, I try to answer in English and potentially make them repeat their question/statement in English if it’s easy enough.

This has thrown the kids off who were told by their teachers that I don’t speak/understand any French and by the kids that I just totally ignored when they blathered on to me in French.

So when I asked the kids of one class, “What’s new?” one of the girls responded (in French) with “Your mother’s a whore.”  The other kids seemed shocked that she said it to me, but she assured them, “He doesn’t understand.”

And then, I figured I’d come out of the French-speaking closet, in a sharp tone:

“Yeah, I did understand, and you’re very rude.”

The other kids snapped their heads toward me, in the front of the room.

The girl’s jaw dropped.


One Response to “Do you parle French?”

  1. Vince says:

    Hahah, I think kids are very receptive to “coups de theatre” like that. As long as those coups are good natured, and unplanned, they’re much more efficient than words: the assumptions they made whilst thinking you did not understand or speak French taught them a lot about the nature of assumptions and about making them. And that is there to stay. Cheers

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