You can’t teach an old dog…French

Those who know me (or read my last post), know that I don’t have much of a “personal” presence online. I’m going to make an exception today as it is the first week of school for my kids and their education is on my mind.

In the city of Berkeley, at least, schools are a complicated topic. To address economic/social diversity issues, there are not neighborhood schools in Berkeley. Instead, the city is divided into three zones, each of which has 3 or 4 elementary schools. There is a lottery system that determines which school you get into. As you can imagine, this generates a great deal of angst and conversation “at the playground.” If you’re fortunate enough to have the resources to consider private school, you can add the approximately 40 independent schools in the immediate area to your consideration. All of these schools are pretty good, in my unprofessional view, so we’re really talking about high-class headaches, especially relative to some areas of the country and the world. The point of this is not to evoke sympathy for the decisions we had to make but to simply point out that thought goes into this process.

Anyways, without belaboring our decision making process, we decided last year to send my son to kindergarten at a French immersion school–Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley. He started first grade yesterday and my daughter has just started preschool there. We did this because neither my wife nor I grew up knowing a language other than English and have always felt this was a big loss. It is also something that is much harder to learn later in life, as my own struggles with trying to improve my French have made personally clear. He’s already correcting our pronunciation and teaching us vocabulary typically not addressed in high school French but that come up in kids books (e.g. hedgehog). My daughter, amusingly, doesn’t really speak french but occasionally pretends to, babbling nonsense syllables in a French accent. Assuming we’re lucky enough to continue being able to afford this, our kids will grow up fluent in French (and English) and learning additional languages will hopefully be easier as a result of the early exposure to French (they start Spanish or Mandarin in 3rd grade) .

The curriculum at EB is probably a bit more traditional than I would like (I’m have very project-based and/or constructivist tendencies as these things go), but at the end of the day the exposure to another language (and culture) took precedence. Part of it is knowing my personal strengths (I always was good at school and think I can support that at home) and what won’t get done if left to me (music, other languages).

Why French? No particular reason, other than the fact that there were no other language immersion programs accessible to us. In fact, we were told (unverified) that until last year that there were no Spanish-language immersion independent schools in the entire state of California! It also doesn’t hurt that we do speak some French, although it looks like, unless we take some action pretty quickly, we’ll be struggling to keep up by grade 4. The idea of the kids talking about us in French is pretty motivating, now that I think of it.

There’s no Sakai related message to this, except that there are some things that a good teacher and a good course and good technology can’t really make up for. I remember a jazz musician I was acquainted with once said–in response to the question “How can I get really good at playing jazz?”–something to the effect of “Practice all the time and have started when you were six.” I think it was Larry Grenadier, but I could be wrong. It was 20 years ago and I was well past six…

2 Responses

  1. Why not French? Immersion in any program that takes one outside of one’s culture enables an individual to start asking questions that typically aren’t asked. Opening the mind to otherness is one of the most challenging elements of life, so any opportunity to experience otherness at an early age gives one an incredible head start on building a healthy cross-cultural, diversified attitude toward life.

    One of the coolest things about the Sakai community is exactly that. We are continually positioned to realize that our particular needs (those of our home institutions) are not the only needs faced by educators and collaborators. Working to address these multiple needs, to enable maximum flexibility while providing a core of functionality is a significant challenge that requires thinking outside of the proverbial box.

  2. […] a solid French-language community in Sakai, which is great to see. As you may know, I have a personal interest in […]

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