The Language Teacher as Language Learner

by Meredith Stevens

Finally I have the opportunity to put years of language teaching theory into practice. It’s my turn to be a language learner in a foreign country. I have just retired from twenty years of teaching English in Japan, and find myself sailing with a crew of five from Southport, Australia to Noumea in New Caledonia. The skipper Alex has ordered online the only copy he could find of French for Cruisers: The Boaters Complete Guide for French Waters by Kathy Parsons (2004). It arrives second hand, in excellent condition, all the way from America. I spend some of the time during the five day and night voyage memorizing nautical phrases from the handbook. Will the ‘banking’ strategy of second language acquisition work, I wonder? If I commit enough phrases to memory by rote, will these phrases spring to mind when I arrive in Noumea? I know that the ‘banking’ method of second language acquisition is imperfect and I cannot rely on rote learning to prepare for a séjour in a foreign country, but I’m cooped up in a boat and have few other options.

One of the useful vocabulary items I learn is ‘sail maker’, maître voilier. As it happens a tear appears in the gennaker during our voyage, and we patch it to prevent it enlarging, all the while hoping to find a maître voilier in Noumea. I consult Chapter 27 of French for Cruisers, ‘Sails and Canvas’, and locate the expression La voile est déchirée (The sail is torn). I try to memorize it, so that I can explain it when I get there.

As we approach Noumea  Alex appoints me to announce our arrival in French to the marina on VHF radio. The marina is designated as the port of entry for foreign vessels. I haven’t spent time in a French speaking country for twenty-five years, so I am nervous. I compose what I want to say and bravely speak into the device. I am greeted by silence. I repeat this countless times but there is still no reply. Could my rusty French be that incomprehensible?

We enter the port but the visitors’ wharf is taken by another boat. We enter a vacant berth and tie the boat to the cleats. After disembarking we make our way along the pontoon to the reception but the gate is locked. We look helpless and finally a child playing on the other side points out the button to the side to open it automatically. We proceed to the marina office and wait our turn in the queue. A man cuts in front of us and looks at us apologetically saying “Trente seconds”. The meaning is clear. When it is our turn the receptionist asks us in French who gave us permission to use the berth. I summon an expression I have not used for twenty-five years “Personne” (no-one). My interlocutor nods. Then she instructs me “Il faut bouger le bateau” (You have to move the boat). This berth belongs to a charter company. We return to the pontoon to move the boat to the new spot, and when I return to the reception I tell them “Nous avons bougé le bateau.” (We’ve moved the boat). I have recycled her language in my reply.

A few days later we visit an aquarium. The sign at the entrance reads that those aged over sixty receive a discount. Most of our lives we have been under sixty so receiving a senior’s discount is an unwelcome novelty. We arrive at the entrance with our passports ready to prove our senior status. I inform the receptionist,

Nous avons plus de soixante ans.” (We’re over sixty.)

She replies “un sénior”, paraphrasing me.

She waives the need to verify our identity and so we don’t need to show our passports. We are disappointed. We would prefer that our interlocutors require proof of our advanced age.

We have numerous exchanges with the marina staff. They direct us to immigration, and organize quarantine and customs. They often resassure me, “Ne vous inquiétez pas.”

(You don’t need to worry). Then I hear a surprising alternative to this expression. We visit a large supermarket, pulling a wagon from the boat, to stock up. Once we have finished our shopping the wagon is full. The credit card machine will not accept my card and so I defer payment and wait for Alex. My trolley is blocking the credit card machine. I am asked to move it so the next customer can pay. I apologise, and the customer says to me, “Pas de soucis.” I have never heard this in French before. Can the Antipodean expression “No worries” have crossed over to the French language? Australia and New Zealand are, after all, the nearest anglophone countries. As the days progress we overhear numerous conversations and note that the usual response to being thanked tends to be “De rien”, so I adopt this expression.

These are examples of making sense of words from context and recycling them when necessary. Numerous conversations follow, including one with a fellow customer in a convenience store explaining how to use a mobile recharge service, and another with the sailmaker. In each case we recycle the expressions our interlocutors use to propel it forward. This is not to suggest that the ‘banking’ strategy is useless. When the sail-maker comes to our boat I am designated to explain the problem to him. The phrase I had memorized by rote from French for Cruisers springs to mind. “La voile est déchirée,” When I inform him he nods in comprehension.

The sail is fixed with a neat patch and we keep the friendly sail-maker’s number. Off we sail to Prony Bay, anchoring in coves overnight and showering under waterfalls by day. One day we return to the boat from an excursion in the dinghy, and Alex notices his port engine has seized. He appoints me to ring the sailmaker to recommend a boat mechanic. I don’t know the French word for ‘seized’ but my language teaching experience has taught me to paraphrase when I don’t know a word.

“I’ll just tell them the engine is broken,” I inform the others. “Mon moteur est en panne.”

“It’s better to be more precise,” counters one of the crew.

He locates the French word grippé (seized)  in French for Cruisers. I rehearse the conversation with our sail-maker, then pick up the phone. The conversation proceeds without need for mutual clarification and within a few minutes we have the contact number of the boat mechanic recommended by the sailmaker. Once I contact the boat mechanic I realize that he is fluent in English, like so many others in Noumea, so I give up my role as an intermediary and he communicates directly with Alex.

Many conversations in service encounters end in “Bonne journée!” (Have a nice day!), just like in English. On our final day in Noumea we return to the supermarché (supermarket) to stock up for the seven day and night bluewater sailing trip, this time to Sydney. At the end of an interaction with a shop assistant I am asked in French whether I want a loyalty card. I decline, explaining that we are leaving that day. As we leave she sends us off with a radiant smile “Belle journée!” (Have a beautiful day!) I have never heard these words combined in this way before. If someone said this to me in English of course I would be pleased, but hearing it in French has a much stronger impact and I feel uplifted.

Our Voyage from Southport to New Caledonia, and back to Sydney

Upon reflection, I think my intuitions from years of language teaching are valid. Memorizing expressions from vocabulary lists is tiring and unsatisfying, but occasionally you will hear a word that you had memorized and be able to piece the meaning together. I cannot dismiss rote learning, but learning and recycling expressions in context where background knowledge contributes to understanding tends to be faster and more satisfying.

Being placed in the position of a language learner is a useful experience for a teacher. When you are unaccustomed to speaking another language people occasionally give you bewildered looks in response to your accent and grammar. You have to be prepared to devote more effort  to negotiating your meaning than you do in your own language. Accordingly, we language teachers are likely to benefit from the experience of having to use another language in another country. There we can experience afresh the vulnerability of speaking a language imperfectly in a different culture.

Communicating in French in the Loyalty Islands