Saturday, November 29, 2014

French Through Theatre at L'Alliance Française

It’s been a busy November since I’m back to being a Drama student, only there’s one huge difference this time –
 At L'Alliance Française, with my Dad on my parents' recent visit.

My drama course is completely in French!

For the past three weeks, for three hours on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, I’ve been enrolled at Paris’ top language school, Alliance Française, which has language schools all over the world. There’s even one in my old home of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada! These schools all offer French classes, from the absolute beginner level through to advanced, and all the levels in between, plus individual classes and even Business French. 

I’ve been on a mission to seriously brush up on my skills and to meet other French-speaking people. There’s no question that my rusty Canadian French, thanks to my French Immersion high school diploma, has already improved just by living here and being surrounded by the language for the past three and a half months. But it was always my plan to join a French class once we were settled in so I could get more guidance and support with the language.

Plus, a language class, regardless of what language you’re learning, is a fantastic way to meet other people because you have to talk to them - that's the whole point! After one of my fellow Canadian ex-pat friends told me about the new French-Drama class for intermediate-level speakers at Alliance Française, I was really excited to head back to school.

Speaking French during break time. 
French through Theatre uses theatre rehearsal techniques and text work to improve French speaking, listening and reading skills. It blends the grammar and verb conjugations with the up-on-our feet, moving-about-the-room elements of a drama class. After we push the chairs and tables to the sides, we create a circle of chairs in which to work together as an acting ensemble AND focus on learning another language.

The class has a supportive, low-stress and upbeat environment that is facilitated by our incredibly calm and knowledgeable instructor, Sylvaine Hinglais. On my first day, she asked me to introduce myself to the group and share a bit about myself. I’ve asked students to do this when they join my class, so I was used to the process, even though it meant speaking in French to a group of strangers. But everyone was so welcoming, I instantly felt at ease with my classmates from all around the world – USA, Brazil, Spain, Turkey, England, Bulgaria, and Libya.

We’re all there for the same reason – to learn – and it’s pretty amazing that French is the common language that unites us all. 
Just some of the great people in this class!
Our teacher, Sylvaine is in the center. 

Our class is very busy and very active. And sometimes, very loud. We usually start with a general discussion of what’s being going on in our lives – your standard drama-class ‘check-in/ice-breaker’ activity. Sylvaine gently corrects us as we chat and we repeat what she says to improve our speaking. From this discussion, she’ll write a few key expressions on the SMART board, questions or statements commonly used in real, everyday conversations, and from there, the lesson emerges, meaningfully and organically.

We still do verbs and conjugation drills but the key difference between how I hated grammar as a high school student and how I actually enjoy it now, is the use of active rehearsal techniques. We’re up on our feet, moving in a circle and speaking to each other as we conjugate our way through our daily assigned verb. We’re put on the spot, like in a real conversation, and the energy picks up as we get in the zone. It’s challenging and exhausting but a great way to practice the basics without being bored.

My favorite part of the class, however, is working with the scripts. We use scripts from real French plays by well-known playwrights, such as Eugene Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sacha Guitry, and Raymond Queneau, to name a few, which adds a great element of French history and culture to the class content. The scripts double as worksheets, so we can continue to practice important concepts like verb conjugation, prepositions, and direct/indirect pronouns, etc.

The first time I did this written work in class, it was a painful and overwhelming process - I hadn’t done French grammar in over thirteen years! But line by line, and with my classmates’ and teacher’s help, it got easier. It was as if my French Immersion grammatical knowledge was clawing its way back to the forefront of my brain after years of lying dormant.

We work together to complete these tasks, and then we’re back up on our feet, listening to Sylvaine intently as she gives the script a line at a time and we repeat it back to her, as a chorus or person to person around the circle. It takes me back to my drama student days at Red Deer College and U of A when we work through the pronunciation through slow, deliberate and exaggerated speaking. It’s just like warming up before a show!

We also add movement and gestures to key words to help us get the correct rhythm of the speech. As a huge hand-talker in my everyday life, this simple technique helps me so much. Plus, everyone else is doing the same gestures, so we all look equally silly at the exact same time!

No judgement, just learning. The class appeals to a wide range of learning styles – visual, auditory, movement/kinesthetic - and as a result, we all experience success in some way. That’s the beauty of this drama-language class.

There's lots of homework but it's really helpful.
In addition to daily verb conjugation and vocabulary homework, we’re always assigned a small section of the script to learn, both characters’ dialogue, and perform with a partner during the following class – sans script. Slightly daunting, for sure, but at the same time, a lot of fun.

I still break my scripts down into units, beats, and character tactics, just as I did when I was a drama student. This has always helped me to better understand the motives behind the dialogue and to learn my lines. My scripts are a mess of highlighting and scribbled notes but instead of the scene’s blocking or technical notes, I’m jotting down the verb tense information, conjugations, phonetic pronunciations of pesky sections of dialogue, synonyms for the vocabulary – all the other language element that are just as important to the scene as the words the characters speak.
My messy script, full of verb and vocabulary notes.

I love performing the scenes in class and supporting my fellow classmates when they perform. It’s amazing to see the improvement and the increased confidence in everyone! Week by week, we’re all making strides in becoming more proficient in understanding and speaking French. I feel truly grateful to be part of this great group of courageous language learners, in this safe, encouraging environment where I get to speak French, take risks, make many mistakes and keep on learning. We laugh every class and I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks before the Christmas break.

My French writing, never my strong suit, is even improving - albeit, very slowly. Last week, I wrote a thank you card to my Grandpa Boulet back home in Canada – in French!  Maybe someday, I’ll be able to write my own script in French.

Or at the very least, write a French blog post.

Tout est possible!  

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