by Megha Kaveri Puthucode Sreeram
There was a time as the Autumn semester was about to begin when many new students of IHEID were in distress. The partial disillusionment that they were going through stemmed from the ‘Intensive French Courses’ they were made to take as part of acquainting them with one of the local languages.The courses are, in the words of several students, ‘not that helpful’ and ‘very all-over-the-place’. Among the comments frequently expressed by the students on the French classes is that they seem very unstructured, especially to those who are not used to the Romance or Latin languages
The Graduate Institute (IHEID) provides a three-week intensive French language course for newcomers who don’t know the language. Students are divided into smaller groups of under 15 and are assigned teachers. Classes happen Monday to Friday for four hours. At the end of the 15 days’ classes, the students must take a small exam to assess their levels of French. This exam also likely forms the basis for their further placement into groups to continue their French language studies through the semester.
Since each group of students was placed under the tutelage of a different French teacher, their experiences of the classes have been different. The Graduate Press spoke to a number of students to collate their thoughts and feedback on these intensive classes and conveyed it to the school’s French Department, who responded to us with their side of the story. In this article, The Graduate Press has chosen to focus on the issues and not on the specific names of the students who have expressed concerns for obvious reasons.
One of the major issues faced by the students, especially those from countries in Asia and some parts of Africa, is the total unfamiliarity with the language profile. Since French belongs to a different language family than what the students from these regions are used to, they found it difficult to catch up with the classes. Some even pointed out that their teacher skipped the basics of pronunciation and phonetics in the class, which they felt have made them struggle to manage with the language.
Ms Stéphanie Raczynski, one of the French teachers who taught the intensive course, expressed surprise over this feedback from students. However, she implored the students to be patient in their endeavours to learn French. “…it’s normal to encounter (such) issues. (Students) have to be patient,” she said, adding that the phonetic foundation will be better and stronger eventually. “French is very different from English and you cannot learn all phonetics in three weeks but at the end of the year, all students (will) have a beautiful and clear pronunciation,” she said.
Dr Laurent Neury compared the process of learning a new language to learning swimming. “(It is) as if you learn to swim. At first you don’t know how to swim and you are frightened but then the swimming instructor will teach you and you will be able to swim. When (I was studying) at the institute, I was not very good at English and my instinct was to stay with people that only spoke French. But this feeling of confusion is important to acquire the skills. Honestly, I don’t think pronunciation is fundamental (to learn French),” he said, adding that the ability to make a sentence with the right grammar is more important than pronunciation.
While speaking about French as a language, Stéphanie clarified that the basis is not phonetics. “The foundation is grammar and conjugation. Grammar points and conjugations are the foundation (of learning French).”
Another common concern expressed by students is that the teachers used very less English in classes, which made them guess most of the content. “English could have been used to at least explain doubts, because that’s how many students comfortable in English can understand the concepts stronger,” a student said. However, this was refuted by a few other students who said that their instructors did use English in the classes as and when it was required. Stéphanie pointed out that using English as a link language can be useful but also harmful because then the students will get habituated to translate everything to English, which defeats the purpose of learning French. “It is important to be immersed in French culture during class. It can be scary but you cannot have a link between French and English grammar because the grammar is very different between the two,” she said, adding that using English when the students are confused is important, but it is equally important to not get habituated to learning and speaking French while still doing the ‘thinking’ in ith English.
The different experiences of the intensive course faced by students indicated that it largely depended on the teachers they were assigned to in classes. When broaching the possibility of communication gaps between students and teachers, and between the teachers themselves, Ms Stéphanie urged the students to use the time after classes to form a good relationship with the teachers, to clear their doubts and get feedback and additional support in learning the language.
When pointed out that many students starting their Masters at IHEID are above 20 years and that there are empirical studies that pinned the optimum age to learn a new language around 10 years, Ms Stéphanie dismissed the claims as myth. “It is a myth to say you cannot learn a new language at 20 years old, at your age your brain works very well and better than a child because you do not learn in a passive way but an active way. The more knowledge you have, the easier it is for you to learn new things,” she explained. She also said that the book issued to students joining the intensive course is for adult learners of language and encouraged students to write to her if they have specific needs while learning French. “Write me an email, and we will see how to integrate those specific needs (with the curriculum). If possible we will do it now, if not we can do this for the next (batch of) students,” she said.
Dr Neury also said that the Institute is working with Amicale Francophone to provide French classes for the students and is interested in receiving feedback from the students. He also agreed to consider requesting feedback from the students once after the intensive course and once at the end of the semester. This will be in contrast with the way feedback is collected till now – once at the end of the semester, which has led to the Institute not being aware of the issues faced by the students during the intensive courses.
Ms Laurence Pericard-Dallemagne was also present during this meeting along with TGP’s Project Manager Silvia Ecclesia.
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