Two years ago I left my job at Birmingham University to reclaim my life. I'd been a lecturer in French, specialising in 16th-century literature, since I was 27.
It was my decision, made with little prompting. I wanted to write fiction - which went well in the mornings, when I was alert and my mind lucid. But in the afternoon, I was less able to find the right phrases, and to develop the motivation of my characters. So I looked round for something else to do after lunch.
I didn't miss much about university. But I did miss the students. I missed angling for their response, enthusing them about writers, learning from their participation. So I jumped at a suggestion from the head of our local primary school in Stratford-upon-Avon that I should start a French club.
My only brief was that it should involve two groups, from key stages 1 and 2, and that each session should last about half-an-hour after school. A message was sent to parents to say that two French clubs would be starting: Allez les gosses, for little ones, and Allez les grands for the older ones.
There would be no formal teaching, but the children would get to know French idiom through play and repetition. Sixty-six parents signed up. I was prepared to work free, but the head advised that I should charge to avoid being used as an unpaid childminder. So I asked for pound;3 for each child for a term. (I've now put this up to pound;6 as I run the classes four days a week.) I wanted to avoid group organisation and tried to find ways to make each child feel special. With the help of two 18-year-old A-level students, we worked out appropriate French names for each child and made each a badge. In the introductory session, they were told that their new name made them a little bit French and that during the club sessions Stratford primary school would be a little bit of France.
I knew that the seven to 10-year-olds would feel completely different from the infants so I had to offer a different kind of lure to each group.
The gosses would want to have fun, but also needed security. I would need to excite them, but also to control them. from France, I brought back a clown doll, Bozo, with a big smile and flappy hands, and a cassette of lively nursery rhymes. These were my basic aids for the gosses.
The nursery rhymes set the atmosphere. first I taught the children to say "Bonjour, Judith" when I had greeted them with "Bonjour, les gosses". The volume was encouraging, and I slowly built up their vocabulary by saying simple things which I asked them to repeat. The children sat in a circle and passed round Bozo. When the music stopped, Bozo, with me as spokesperson, said to the child holding him: "Tu veux un bonon?" "Oui, merci Bozo," the child was taught to reply. Each then received a sweet and all the children applauded. ("Tres bien. Bravo.") Children who had missed out were invited to line up at the end of the session and say to Bozo in turn, "Je veux un bonbon, s'il te plait". Because of the bonhomie (and the sweets?) all the children wanted to take part.
As the weeks went by, the activities extended, as did the vocabulary. The children asked Bozo if he wanted a sweet. Then they asked if he wanted a kiss (une bise). Some of the boys disliked the idea of kissing, and so they learned to say: "Tu veux que je te serre la main?" The children soon learned to specify the colour of the sweet they wanted.
At the end of term, I gave each child a certificate, listing on one side of the page the French phrases they had learned and on the other the English translation. This meant little to most of them as they couldn't read fluently yet, but I thought it might be fun for their parents to try them out by reading the English and asking for the French translation.
I devised a more ambitious project for the older children. We set up a market, with real money, fruit, vegetables, bread and tins. The children learned roles: the marchand, the client, and later, when they knew the basic routine, we added a little child who kept asking for sweets only to be told "Tais toi" by the adult, and lastly an old granny who wanted to carry things and dropped them. As she did this, everyone said "Zut!" When my teenage helpers were not busy with A-levels, we ran three markets simultaneously. There was no shortage of volunteers, and the children devised movements to characterise their roles. I gave out certificates similar to those given to the gosses, but containing the phrases and vocabulary learned for the market. The noise throughout the sessions was very high, but I was happy with this, as long as those speaking could be heard. I pointed out that the French football fans made the most noise, but it was the team that won the matches.
Many children started to come to me before they went home, asking how you said certain things in French (for example, "leopard", "Mr Right", "off and on"). But best of all was overhearing two girls singing after one of the sessions. I hovered close and found that while they were clapping they sang: "Donne-moi un bonbon, Donne-moi un bonbon, Donne-moi un bonbon, Tais-toi, Tais-toi, Tais-toi, Zut!" I hope that when the children come to learn French as an academic subject, they will recognise it as an idiom on which they might draw spontaneously, rather than a false structure imposed on them. And I have found what I had already found when teaching at university: that the seeds of learning can be planted, but the nurturing of the soil must be shared.