One of my class was looking at a birthday invitation they had just been given, when they noticed RSVP at the bottom. "What does that mean?" the child said. Their friend told them about replying to the invitation so that the sender would know whether they were coming or not. "But what does it mean, RSVP?" asked the invited guest. "Does it stand for something?"
Now I didn't get where I am today by ignoring such "on a plate" moments, so I muscled my way straight into this conversation like all good adults should. I explained that it stood for some French words and I wrote them on the board.
We had begun to be familiar enough with French words for them to recognise S'il vous plait as please, and they took a guess at Repondez. Hooray - our first translation for almost a real purpose in a real life situation!
It was, while telling some of the others in the class about this, that I realised the potential of what had happened. There is some French out there in common use that the kids either already understand or could easily learn.
Our fantastic ragbag of a language is just so internationally global that no matter where you are looking at in the world or whichever language you are studying, you can find some words already in use, accelerating pupils'
knowledge by the back door. I remember something like this dawning on me as a kid, when I learned that bungalow - the type of house I grew up in - owes its derivation to Bangladesh.
So I began to see what words I could find. We were doing some adjectives work and using a thesaurus to extend vocabulary and "nonchalant" came up.
As I sent Lydia scurrying to the dictionary to find out exactly how one might recognise a nonchalant cow, I nipped onto my faithful companion babelfish.altavista.com and checked it out. The French for nonchalant - nonchalant! A fantastic addition to Je suis heureux, and Je suis triste, now we have Je suis nonchalant, except the excitement with which it's delivered means the pupil is usually anything but.
As we trawled around, it was clear there were others out there, such as wishing people bon voyage as they head off on a trip or eating croissants for breakfast. One of the favourites was dej... vu, but you knew I was going to say that, didn't you. I figure the next step will be to adopt all those words which have taken part in their own cultural exchange to travel the other way, such as le Big Mac, le camping and le weekend. Doesn't have the same ring to it though, does it?
Two steps back frequently accompany every step forward to lifelong success.
When he heard the explanation for "nonchalant", one kiddie said: "I get it - it's French for 'Am I bothered?'"
Peter Greaves teaches at Dovelands Primary School, Leicester Email: email@example.com