Hi Ben,

I’m completely immersed in your new book! I have a question. I am not completely fluent in French – more just proficient. I am working on it and improving, but frankly, I mostly feel fearful of jumping into this full force because of this fact. Has this come up before? Any advice you can provide? I don’t want to do my students a disservice.

My response:

I feel strongly that there is no possible way you could ever underserve your students if you don’t have full command over the language. They have no command. So even if you know 40% of the language you can lead and they can follow you down the correct pathway.

Remember that we cannot get them to any level of fluency in even a four year program anyway. Why? It is because we need roughly 10,000 hours hour to get command over the language and we have 125 hours per year over four years so we have only 1/20th of the time we need in a secondary school program.

So in that spirit of just wanting to enjoy the language that you have chosen to make into a profession, it is best not to fault yourself or tell yourself that you aren’t any good at it. No one will notice. And if a fluent parent tests you then they are mean and not worth your attention.

When you say you aren’t good at French, those thoughts are just old tapes that we all have in our minds because we live in a competitive and emotionally debilitated society where we all have been taught that what counts is how good we are at things. It is far important to impart joy on a heart level with your instruction than knowing the language perfectly. Teachers with fluency who have pride in their minds but whose hearts are closed do the real disservice to the kids.

There is a college named St. John’s College in Baltimore with a campus also in Albuquerque where the teachers don’t know the material but sit in a circle with the book and talk about the material and they all learn together. It works well.

So if you just give yourself permission – no one else can – to be bad at the language but with open heart with the kids (I recommend the Invisibles for that), then you will find that with each story you get better at the language!

And so that is the attitude to adopt here. In each class you get better because you are speaking in the TL.

But don’t even feel bad if you don’t do it more than half the time. Just don’t intersperse L1 and L2 in a weaving kind of instruction. Either stay in L1 or L2 but don’t mix them back and forth. They can’t be mixed.

Pls. let me know how this plays out this year. I have every confidence that the road to success in language teaching lies through the heart. You will always be far ahead of those kids and they will never even suspect that you are not a superstar with the language.

And who cares if you don’t know a word like sloth or slug. Just don’t use them. Move the direction of the class – I am assuming you will adopt the non targeted approach (the road to the heart) – in some other direction. If I don’t know a word, and there is a lot of French I don’t know even after 40 years of teaching it and more than 35,000 classes, I just think how, since I wasn’t born in a French speaking country, it is just no big deal.

This work is just all about relaxing, really. And if you really need a pep talk on this topic, just look at your paycheck.




3 thoughts on “Question”

  1. I think it is normal to feel this way, but what you describe is actually a plus as it allows for one more class job and teachable moment. The first few times I don’t know a word that comes up in a story and that I feel is useful we look it up together on I just pull up the site on my Smart Board and enlarge the print and together we find the word we are looking for. Once I feel the students understand how to use this site, I just designate a diligent student as the “diccionario” and this student comes up to my desk and now looks up all future words that we need. Now we only do this for useful words and if I get a crazy word like zorse I just use the English. This has worked for me and like Ben said…you will be amazed at how much you will improve since you are speaking the language more. Good luck, deep breathes and lots of laughter!

  2. I love the sense of discovery in doing that, Polly. It teaches the kids something very important – that learning is a lifelong adventure based on curiosity and not having to be the smartest person in the room all the time. It models how we learn, and how we are human to the kids. It supports something that is true and that I always tell them, as well, that we can never know every word in a language even if we were born there and that languages are so big nobody every really knows every word. They need to see that. They are tired of teachers who do not model that learning is am ongoing process for everyone and not some kind of competition to know everything and always be the PhD person in the room.

  3. Leigh Anne Munoz

    I don’t have any advice — I’m terrified every day that I’m teaching a language that still feels like mush in my mouth.

    All I can say is, if you have any risk-taking proclivities, don’t be afraid to teach a language you are learning.


    –Leigh Anne

    ‘On peut enseigner ce qu’on ignore.’

    -Joseph Jacotot, French-born teacher and Philosopher of Education

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