In late summer of 1964 I entered Peace Corps training in Carbondale, Illinois.
What I want to describe here is the greatest learning experience of my life: learning to speak French.
The trainers at Carbondale use the Foreign Service Institute’s training materials.
We learned in small groups of around 6 volunteers. This was an optimal size for learning our dialogs.
Each lesson began by memorizing a dialog in French. We were told what the dialog said. This might have been in English, pantomime, etc., I don’t remember. The point however is that we were not shown how the dialog was written in French. I’m forever grateful for this because if I’d seen the written dialog, it would have taken me much longer to learn to hear and pronounce it correctly.
Here is the first dialog that we learned:
Notice that the dialog has two participants, perfect for learning back-and-forth oral dialogs. We repeated the dialogs over and over until we reached a satisfactory point.
Although we could repeat the dialogs, sometimes after a whole morning of work, we still didn’t understand how the words were written or the sentence’s syntax. But we could repeat the words.
I’ve circled the last line in the first page of the dialog: « Je suis heureux de faire votre connaissance, Mademoiselle. » We will see it again soon.
Now the real learning began. Each sentence in the dialog was used in oral exercises that taught us to internalize its syntax. It did this by substituting new words, transforming the sentences, etc.
Here’s how we began to internalize the syntax of the sentence we saved above:
The teacher would walk us through this exercise, explaining the pronunciation and meaning of each word. We did this over and over again until our brains learned that we were dealing with two entities:
Subject + copulative verb + « de faire votre connaissance »
In other words, we learned a bit of grammar here without being taught “grammar”.
You can hear what the teacher did in this recording of drill Lexical A-1. About 14 seconds into the recording, you will hear the exercise. You will hear a prompt followed by a pause for the student to replace Je suis heureux in the example sentence. Finally the woman’s voice gives the correct answer.
We did this for 5 hours per day (I can’t remember if we did it on weekends) for 11 weeks. It should have been longer, but the school year had already begun in Tunisia and we had to get going ASAP.
We also had language lab each day after class.
At the end of training I had internalized most French grammar except for the subjunctive, which I never learned well, or the passé simple, which is rarely used in spoken French but is usually easy to understand when reading. My vocabulary was still small and my pronunciation was very heavily accented. (It took a “zen” moment in front of a class of 45 Arab students to make me realize that I had to learn to pronounce the French “u”. Another story.)
Think about this method. At the end of each exercise, I knew how to say a little bit more French than before. Everything that I said in the exercises was correct French.
I’m puzzled by language learning methods that emphasize immersion because in Tunisia I learned to make myself understood in Arabic, very bad Arabic. Once I made myself understood, I had internalized a mistake. Why would I want to learn mistakes?
As far as I can tell the FSI method was never used extensively. I think it may be used at the Monterrey Language School in California, and I’d love to have the year needed to learn Arabic there. It is very labor-intensive. Nevertheless, it should be available.
I will say that even the FSI’s own Spanish course is not as well done as the French one. I never learned to make myself u