My daughter the Francophile

12th August 2005 at 01:00
Nick Mair helps Saskia to learn French during the holiday, aided by chocolat and ice cream

Across the country parents are contemplating the long summer holidays while clutching their child's annual language report. Many will be wondering what is going wrong, and what they can do to help change John into a Jean or Frances into a Francine. Having taught French and Spanish for 20 years to mixed and single-sex, non-selective and highly selective classes, it came as something of a shock to read my own daughter's latest French report.

It appears that Saskia, aged 8, not only can't speak French, but is the weakest in her class (not, it has to be said, the fault of her teacher).

Then comes the crushing request: "I wonder, Mr Mair, if perhaps you could help her with some French over the holidays." I'm shocked, but clearly something has to be done. And so I decide to become one of those parents-who-would-like-to-help-their-children-learn-a-second-language-at-hom e.

Day 1

11am. Me: Let's have a go at some French. It'll be really fun.

Child: Maybe later.

Me: No time like the present. Saskia, Comment t'appelles-tu?

Child furrows brow and splays elbows on table.

11.15am. Child plays on swing in the garden. Father pours glass of wine.

Day 2

11am. Wife: Weren't you going to teach Saskia some French?

Me: Ah...

Wife: Shall I do it then?

11.05am. Wife: Saskia, aies la gentillesse de me fournir d'une cuilleree de sarasin (Saskia, please be kind enough to furnish me with a spoonful of buckwheat).

11.15am. Child plays on swing in the garden. Mother pours glass of wine.

Time for Plan B. We decide to help Saskia see that many French words are, in fact, just like their English counterparts, the only difference being the accent. It helps, of course, if the words are of interest to the child.

Day 3

Me: Did you know a lot of French is like English anyway? It just sounds different.

Child: So?

Me: I say "tomato" and you say tomate. I say chocolate, the French say chocolat.

Child: (Ears pricking up) Chocolate?

Father: Put the oomph on the end - that's what happens with all French words.

Child: Chocolat.

Exchange of chocolat. Decide to quit while ahead.

With a few French words at her disposal it is now possible to give Saskia simple, useful language structures that enable her to get things done. This step proves surprisingly easy.

Day 4

Child: If I say "chocolate" in French can I have a chocolate?

Me: Only if you learn something new.

Child (doubtful): OK.

Me: Je veux - I want.

Child: Je veux chocolat.

Me: Je veux un chocolat.

Child: Je veux un chocolat. Exchange of chocolat.

Saskia quickly grasps that speaking in French makes her more powerful because we respond more quickly and more positively to the requests she makes in French.

Day 7

We are sitting in a cafe.

Child: So how do you say "ice cream" in French?

Me: Une glace. Think of a glacier - the frozen river thing.

Daughter runs into cafe, returns bearing large ice cream.

Child: Delicieux!

And so we go on. By the start of term Saskia should be able to make sentences with I want, I can, I like to, I'm going to, I know how to, and be comfortable requesting simple information.

She is not likely to apply for dual nationality just yet, but she does enjoy producing a range of sentences at a reasonable speed. There are many bilingual and near bilingual children revelling in their cultural and linguistic superiority - they have a head start - but at least Saskia thinks it is normal and feasible to speak in another language. C'est fantastique! And it is possible!

Nick Mair teaches modern languages in south London

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