The poor student

So, I arrived in Luz on Saturday and spent the rest of the day having a wander around town, getting a feel for the layout and checking out particular places of interest. Sunday I took several walks around the area and up the hills, and ironically or not enough, got lost when I tried to follow the guidebook and got it exactly right when I decided to choose my own paths. Yeah that could be interpreted in a very cheesy grand-scheme-of-things, meaning-of-life way I’m sure.

On Monday after a morning of lounging around I decided that I should go experience the slopes of Luz Ardiden given that that seems to be a significant reason why French people holiday in the Pyrenées. Now, before we start, a little background. I’ve done some beginner’s skiing and snowboarding in NZ, though it’s been a number of years. Skiing is alright but I always enjoyed snowboarding and never found it too confusing. In fact, having the one board felt more natural to me than the two planks. This was even before the discovery of surfing!

Not too confusing until I signed myself up for a snowboarding lesson in French. I had a feeling beforehand, you know, a pressentiment… that something was not quite right about this plan of mine. But I shrugged it off thinking it was simply due to the fact that I’m not much of a snowbunny. (It seems like snow activities always require a lot of equipment and clothing and time and planning and that’s good and well if you make a big trip of it with friends, but otherwise…mmmh…)

I took the lesson thinking that it would be helpful and relaxing, rather than trying to mess around by myself. I love having teachers.  Instead it was insanely challenging and stressful. And perhaps the part of my mind generating the uncertainty before the lesson was being fed information from the part of my mind that knows the simple fact……. that French teachers are mean! I knew this! I’ve spent time in some classes in a French high school, I know about the marking system, I know about how hard French professeurs find it in NZ because encouragement is promoted over punishment and belittlement, and because the preference is to be kinder with marks rather than harsher (if there’s some doubt or if it’s close). I knew this I knew this. Sigh. He kept calling me by my last name, which maybe is just a habit from teaching groups of young kids or something but god I’m not in the army!

My problem was that although I could understand most of the words and the sentences that he made, I could only understand it in the moment. What I found impossible to do was to take what he was saying and put it together to form an overall concept, to create the overall meaning for why I should follow all the smaller “do this, and then do this” instructions. I’m a very obediant little student, you tell me what to do and I will do it. In English I’m also a fairly smart student, I can start to synthesise my own ideas from what you’ve told me. But with this guy, I could only be obediant. And that wasn’t enough because he’d expected me to understand the meaning of all his explanations as soon as he said them, there was no room for mistake. So he was hell frustrated that mistake was apparently the bulk of what I could do! He’d be like “Look LASTNAME! LASTNAME, look! Look! Why do you want to go over there?? Do you want to go off the mountain? Is that what you want?!?” Yes. Yes, that is what I want. My ulterior suicidal motive discovered. (Of course I didn’t say that, hoooo)

It was an eye-opener because I tend to think I have a reasonable level of French. It’s quite weird to know that you basically understand things but actually can’t use the information in your own head. I still have a Vygotsky reader that was my mum’s, the one called something like The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Boy did this experience make me think of that, about how language is inextricably tied to practical intelligence and things like problem solving in humans, because we eventually learn to use symbols (that we make up with language and transfer to internal thought)  and abstract constructs to solve problems rather than having to physically work through the steps in the external world. Though I can communicate information decently in French… I am still a primary school kid (or maybe even a kindergarten-going kid…) when it comes to problem-solving and concept-generating in French.

An eye-opener and something of an ego-crusher. But. I console myself with the reminder that I now know to look left first, then right, before crossing the street. For a while there I couldn’t even remember what we do in NZ. So, a gold star for me all the same! I am a lenient NZer after all, praise what good there is 🙂

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2 thoughts on “The poor student

  1. Ooh, Ooh! I can’t resist commenting. You know I can’t resist talking about language learning!

    Your poor brain had never before needed to process instructions in French that needed to be passed on to your limbs. Talk about a high stakes assessment without practise! It also reminds me of something Mike said whrn he was in Primary One. I asked him if he understood when his Maths teacher was speaking Chinese and he said “Sometimes, but I need part of my mind to think so I stop listening.”

    And of course, as I tell my students, as a second language learner you will always be encountering new situations, new topics and new more difficult tasks so you can never get to the point where it is easy and there is nothing more to learn.

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