Thursday, October 1, 2015

Middlebury Interactive Languages: Elementary French (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

Neal and I have a combined nine years of high school/college Spanish, and the big kids are Spanish students as well.  Latin has long been on my wish list, and recently Luke, Matthew, and I began to work on that as well.   Jude has often said, "I want to speak another language, too!" and my usual response is, "Dude, let's work on English first!" This fall, we had an opportunity to work with Middlebury Interactive Languages.  I offered Luke and Matthew first dibs, and when both looked at me with fear in their eyes, Jude chimed in and said, "What about me?  Can I try?"  I decided, "Why not?" and shared our options for the review. He decided he wanted to learn French. I said, "Oooooh...kay...." and hoped that the Elementary French 1 (Grades K-2) would be simple enough for me to follow along with too. 

The good news is, yes, it was simple enough for me to follow along.  It's an immersion-style course, with an option to switch back to English in key places. For example, directions are presented with French text and audio, but are also available to read/listen to in English.

I will say that my French pronunciation is horrid at best.  I'm sure if I ever went to Paris, I would be laughed at as the américain stupide the moment any sound came out of my mouth.  I can manage Spanish, Latin, and even "Tourist Italian," but good French pronunciation simply eludes me.  I definitely appreciated that there was audio to go with the French text for Jude to listen to, so that he could hear proper pronunciation of things.  His articulation still wasn't always great, but it was far better modeling than I could give him.  My only complaint about the narration was that it was at a pretty fast speed.  I wish it had been slow enough for us to be able to follow word-by-word, rather than simply listening to a rapid-fire passage.  

The K-2 program starts out simply.  Unit 1 is learning greetings -- bonjour and bonsoir, ça va -- and goodbyes -- a bientôt  and au revoir.  The method is by studying a Quebecois folk tale about a little boy named Alexis who runs so fast and for so long that he can run from his home to meet his father, a 12 hour boat ride, and have time to spare.  Along the way, he meets townsfolk who greet him.  The goal of this lesson is for the student to be able to appropriately greet people and part ways.

Further units also focus on simple basics (numbers, family, colors, days of the week, etc.). This is supposed to be a semester long course, and I think for an average child, you could probably move at the pace of one unit per week.  However, we spent four weeks on Lesson 1 because Jude just wasn't grasping things when presented "in context."  Often we had to go back and redo something, or re-watch the story, so a lesson that could have been done in a day or two took easily twice that.  I wanted to keep this to three days per week, to not overwhelm Jude with all the work we needed to do.  Often it took us four or five days of repeating the lesson for him to get a good grasp.

I think this is a key thing to focus on with this program.  As I said, it's an immersion-style program.  It's basically being dropped off in Paris with a part-time translator, and being left to figure out your way around using context clues.  If your child is good at this, then he likely will do well with the program.  If your child needs clear expectations, guidelines, and frequent reminders to function in society, then he's likely going to feel very overwhelmed.  Jude lost sight that Bonjour meant "good day" and Bonsoir meant "good evening." If he used the context clues of the graphics, he could have a better chance at getting the "match the phrase to its speaker" sections correct, because if the illustration showed "day" then bonsoir wouldn't be appropriate.  He was trying to match images to what was said, and if Alexis speaks in both sections...well, he's only got a 50-50 shot of being right.

One thing I did really like was the "language lab" section. It gave Jude a chance to practice speaking as well as listening to himself. Often, he self-corrected when he heard what he said incorrectly, rather than thinking, "But that's what I said..."  I think the concept is great.  Here's where I think a bit of user error came into play: when you're a relatively new English-speaking reader, French is not going to be the easiest of languages to sound words out phonetically.  The French pronunciation of Alexis is ah-lex-ee, while Jude wanted to read uh-lex-iz.  English doesn't really have a linguistic counterpart for /ça/ so the phrase ça va doesn't make sense phonetically; in English, the rule is "C only makes an /s/ sound when it's next to E or I, so C next to A means it's a /k/ sound." When listening and repeating, he actually did a pretty good job.  When there was the opportunity to read along, he struggled.

In addition to basic language skills, the program does teach cultural and dialect differences.  In this lesson, it shows different Francophone countries, and the ways they say, "Hello."  While bonjour isn't going to be "wrong" in any French speaking country, students begin to learn the different nuances of vernacular speech, such as the Allo! used in Quebec being equivalent to the European Bonjour! or Bân! used to greet people in the Pacific Rim territory of New Caledonia. I think this is important - not just students realize language is fluid but also because it's not just enough to know the language but to also understand the culture of the speakers.

I really wanted Jude to have a great experience with learning a foreign language.  I don't think he had a bad one, but it was so-so at best.   I know that this is a good time for him to be working on a second language, but I think that for right now we're going to go back to working just on getting to our therapy goal of "50% of speech intelligible speech" in English.  He still wants to learn French, so perhaps we'll revisit it in a few years when he has a firmer grasp of expressive language in general.

Many other Crew member studied with Middlebury Interactive Languages. Click the banner below to read about their experiences with French, Spanish, German, and Chinese language instruction, or follow Middlebury on social media:





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 Middlebury Interactive Languages Review

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