Just a kid at the Sorbonne...English Class Part 3

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Just a kid at the Sorbonne...English Class Part 3

Dude, I'm trying...
This week I encountered an obstacle that I never though I’d face.  It was my group’s turn to give our oral presentation in class, a tactic that most teachers use to either encourage students to learn proactively or to hide the fact that they dislike preparing lessons.  In any case, I was nervous, and so were my partners.

The problem for them was that the presentation was to be presented in English, their second language.  For me, I thought nothing of it.  Admittedly my English is pretty good.

Our topic was an exposé on the film Funny Face featuring Audrey Hepburn followed by our impressions of American culture based on the film’s representations.  Easy enough.  It’s an American film set in Paris, so the stereotypes are more than abundant.  But when we stepped up to give the presentation, I started to get nervous.  While the French students were worried about conjugating their verbs correctly and using the right adjectives, I was even more afraid of making myself understood to a class of non-native speakers.

We began well enough, but halfway through my analysis of Hepburn’s legacy and the stereotyping in the film, the professor was miming to me to slow down.  I was speaking English at my normal pace, but that’s not an ideal pace for a non-native speaker, I realize.  This is not a critique of French people and their capacity to speak English, so put down your shields and your swords.  This is a critique of my own presentation skills.  Did they understand clearly what I was saying?  Was I speaking too colloquially?  Was I coming off as a total idiot?  Apparently the answer was yes.

Suddenly I became very self-aware by speaking my native language.  I didn’t know if I was making myself understood and I felt like I was letting down my group.  Not only would everyone in the film not be impressed by Funny Face but they were going to think I was a major loser who fails at his own language and can’t successfully finish a sentence without a failed joke and an awkward giggle.

I started to speak more slowly, and the professor nodded in approval.  But now I felt like I was talking down to my classmates, treating them like second graders.  Now they were all going to think I was a condescending ass in addition to being a major loser.  This is not how I planned on making friends at the Sorbonne.  I didn’t take this class to prove I could be understood in English.  I stuck with it in order to discover what the French think of American culture and cinema, to get that cultural insight and debates that would also land me a great grade.

But here I was, wishing I were in a French class struggling to make myself be understood in French instead of English.  At least struggling in a second language wouldn’t be as a shameful.

By the end, we were all stressed out.  My partners were freaking out, even though they had done a swell job and had overcome the challenge.  I, on the other hand, felt like I had done my nation a disservice.  How is this class supposed to achieve any insight into American culture if I can’t even act as an eloquent cultural ambassador?  The professor told us after class that we had hit some great points and that he was pleased, which eased our tensions a little.  It was fine.  No worries.

I’m worried now that my grade may not be as perfect as last semester, but it’s just a number, I suppose.  More importantly, however, I have a newfound desire to do an oral presentation in French, instead of English, to get a sense of what my classmates are going through.  And also, if I’m going to make myself look like an idiot by speaking incoherently, at least I want to have a good excuse…


  1. Wow, I had never seen things like that. I'd have liked to see your presentation and I think I understand your dilemma.

    I've spent 5 months in Germany and some students were like "aww you're French ! Parle moi en français !" and I barely knew if they could understand what i was saying.
    In that case, people nod, as if they could get everything you were telling them. But when you ask a question they usually ask you to rephrase...
    Odd situation.

    If you want us to improve our English, i would advise you to talk to us quite normally. Try and regulate the rhythm of your sentences and if we don't understand, we can ask you the magic sentence we're taught for 10 years "can you repeat please ?"

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