Learning a second language is for adults, too by Robin M. Wilson

Updated: May 1, 2020

“It's never too late to be what you might have been”---George Eliot

It crept in a zigzag motion for a minute or two before making a snarling sound that could be heard by the five people who sat nearby. It was my stomach, and it betrayed me by announcing my nervousness on the first day of my French language immersion class at École Québec Monde in Québec City, Canada.

At age 32, it was my first time being in an immersive language learning environment. That day, I confidently introduced myself and I shared some of my hobbies in French. Then, as we moved into the lesson, I had questions but I could not find the words. I wanted to fill in the blanks with English but I had signed an agreement to only speak French during my time in the classroom. The pressure was immense.

By the second day, I managed to get myself together and focus---not on trying to say everything right---that was not realistic---but on listening and learning the words to become a better communicator in French. That was the end goal.

I had come to École Québec Monde on a study abroad scholarship from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. I was not a French major. Rather, I was majoring in elementary education to become a teacher. However, one year earlier, I conducted undergraduate research in a French partial-language immersion kindergarten classroom and the semester-long learning experience inspired me to study the language.

My research focused on culturally responsive instructional practices for teaching African American kindergarten students French in an urban context. As a result, I authored Foreign Language Immersion in an Urban Context: A Culturally Responsive Approach to Teaching French to African American Students. In April 2018, I presented my research findings at the Michigan Reading Association Conference at COBO Hall in Detroit, Michigan.

I was raised in a monolingual African American household. As a youth, I was a struggling reader. Still, I had been exposed to other languages through music and my community. For example, in the summer of my eighth grade year, a Japanese graduate student used song and art to teach Japanese to myself and several other children in a local summer camp.

In my early 20’s, I discovered the music of Les Nubians, a sister duo from Paris, France. Their music drew me to the language. A church friend and former French teacher let me borrow her French dictionary, and I ordered Rosetta Stone to begin my language studies. But life became busy and my language learning ultimately took a backseat.

Still, across the span of my life, what has always been consistent is my intellectual curiosity and love of learning. So, for those who know me best, it is truly not surprising that I would return to learning French with such zeal nearly a decade later. It was my curiosity that led to my placement in Madame Baxter’s French kindergarten classroom.

When I began my classroom language learning research, I expected to walk away with a better understanding of culturally responsive language learning practices and I definitely accomplished that goal. But I also walked away with a renewed desire to learn French.

Madame Baxter and her students inspired me to seriously pursue my language studies. Like me, she was a woman of color, and while she spoke French fluently, she revealed to me that she did not hold a degree in French. Rather, her degrees were in education. But she learned French in college and spent some time in France.

At that moment, I realized that I could do what she was doing. With sustained study and practice, I could eventually teach French in an urban community. So, that is what I did. The following semester, I walked to the language learning lab on campus and asked to speak with a tutor. I explained that my schedule was full with classes necessary to graduate, but that I was interested in learning French. A university professor who was in the lab agreed to work with me. So, for the next 15 weeks, I went into the language lab to work with her for thirty minutes each session. When the winter semester ended, I enrolled in a French class at l’Alliance française de Détroit before going to École Québec Monde for an intensive two week study of French.

By the fall, I tested into intermediate French at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. That semester, I took my first French class at the university level before I started student-teaching the following semester.

Now, I am a first grade English language arts teacher at the same foreign language immersion school, where my language learning journey was sparked. Many of my colleagues speak multiple languages and they come from different places from around the world. Therefore, I have daily opportunities to engage in conversations with French-speakers within our school community.

My language learning journey has even afforded me travel opportunities. In 2019, for one month, I taught English in Lambesc, France, through the InterExchange Program. It was a transformative experience that gave me an opportunity not only to teach abroad but to improve my French oral communication skills in an immersive environment in the South of France.

It has been three years since I started learning French. While I am further along in my language learning journey, I am still striving for fluency. Truthfully, even once I have achieved fluency, I believe there is always more to know and learn. So, I don’t think that I will ever truly have that ‘I’ve arrived’ moment. But I definitely continue to strive to improve in my ability to read, write, listen, and speak in French. For me, this is an ongoing process.

Recently, I was accepted into the Middlebury Language Schools' French Summer Immersion program. Devon, a former tutor of mine, recommended me for the program. Like me, Devon started studying French as an adult and he earned a bachelor’s degree in a different field of study. However, he started his language studies at the Middlebury Language Schools in Vermont and now he holds a Master’s degree in French.

In light of the current global health crisis, I will have to pursue the Middlebury Language School opportunity next year. Still, I am hopeful. In the meantime, I have decided to return to École Québec Monde in Québec City, Canada. Like most educational establishments, they have moved to a distance learning model. That means that I can study French abroad without leaving home. This time around it will be a less intimidating experience.

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