Second language immersion

March 2014


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French teacher STEPHEN GRIMWOOD shares the “excitement, learning, confusion, and chaos” of his five-week Language Immersion Award in Provence.

It had been 10 years since I lived in France, working as an English language assistant in Alsace, and I felt the time had come for some fresh intensive immersion in order to remain relevant and up-to-date in the classroom.

So it was with great excitement that I boarded my flight bound for Charles de Gaulle with six other Kiwi French teachers, each one destined for an exciting new location. My final destination would be the small town of Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban, where I would be working with the teachers and students of Collège Camille Reymond and enjoying the hospitality of homestays with staff and parents of the school.

After the initial relief of arriving in Paris on our ominous 11 September flight, it was off to orientation day in Paris. Leaving the group to head to their individual destinations, I climbed aboard the TGV destined for Aix-En-Provence. After the comfort of the TGV, it was time to put my French to good use as I battled to find the much smaller shuttle for my final destination. Feeling triumphant at my success, I was quickly perplexed when the shuttle dropped me off in the middle of nowhere and I discovered that I needed to wait for an even smaller shuttle to collect me. But all’s well that ends well, and I eventually reached my destination and the host school’s formidable welcoming committee.

The host school decided that they would divvy up the homestay duties, and I spent my first week in Provence with the school principal, before moving on to three other families. Isabelle quickly sorted me out with a timetable, and I was in class the next morning at 8am (luckily for me, she lived on site), answering copious amounts of questions from young French teenagers keen to expand on their knowledge of

New Zealand, already intrigued by The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, as well as their bitter one-point defeat to the All Blacks in the last World Cup. As well as helping out in English classes, I dropped in on some Spanish and German classes, increasing my virtually non-existent knowledge of those languages and picking up some useful second language teaching ideas.

The next five weeks were full of excitement, learning, confusion, and chaos. I will never forget being given 15 minutes’ notice on a Friday night to pack my bags for a weekend away in the Gorges de Verdon, where the principal had her hideaway home and plenty of hiking tracks to explore. There were also many interesting debates with some of the students, including the one who insisted that New Zealand was the 51st state of America, despite my continued protests. I discovered a joy for running again, surrounded by some of the hills so beautifully depicted in Cézanne’s paintings, as I battled with burning off the amazing food cooked for me by my generous host families. And who could forget being invited to Marseille for the weekend, not by car or train, but sailing in on a yacht on a gloriously sunny day past the Château d’If and into the old port.

The immersion experience was not without its challenges, but I found it was easiest to treat each new challenge as a learning experience. My initial horror at a sightseeing drive unexpectedly turning into a 16-year-old boy’s second driving lesson quickly wore off as I practised questioning him in French on the road code and updating my vocabulary on car parts. As for the invitation to dinner with a German teacher who did not warn me that she fostered seven children, well that helped me significantly increase my appreciation of good French wine in the space of a couple of hours.

For anyone considering applying for an immersion award, I cannot recommend it more highly. I have come away with significantly improved language and cultural knowledge, a deep appreciation of Provençal hospitality, and renewed vigour in the classroom. Be open to new opportunities, embrace new learning, and make the most of every day throughout the experience. Vive la différence!

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