The author of this article is an ex-adult education lecturer and retired expat who has lived in France since 2001.
A Degree Of French
Having lived in France for over 16 years, I thought it was time I started taking French lessons. It wasn't that I couldn't get by in French, but I'd come up against a barrier and I knew I wasn't going to get any further without help. However, the thought of slogging away over grammar and verb tables did not appeal to me at all.
As a schoolgirl I had scraped through my French O Level. That was many moons ago, but the memory of long, tortuous hours spent in a grey classroom hunched over verb tables printed in tiny dull letters was etched on my brain. Despite the best efforts of my teachers, I had left school with an abysmally low level of French, rejoicing that I would never again have to waste precious time learning a language that I was never, ever likely to have any use for.
Getting Off Of The Hamster Wheel
That was back in 1975. Back then, I could never have imagined that I would one day be living in France, but life moves on and times change. In 2001, British people, lured by the prospect of cheaper house prices and a warmer climate, were buying properties in France and Spain and leaving the UK in droves. My husband and I were tired of the daily grind in the UK and like many others became seduced by the prospect of stepping off the hamster wheel and beginning a new life across the Channel. For us, France was the obvious choice as at least I already had some knowledge of French, albeit I was far from fluent.
So in early 2001, my husband and I found ourselves on a ferry waving goodbye to Dear Old Blighty and watching as the fog enveloping it finally consumed it. On we sailed towards Cherbourg and a new life beyond.
Back To The Classroom
So the years went by and my French improved dramatically. It got to the stage where I could communicate reasonably well but still not well enough. Last year, in 2016, a tiny advert in an online expat newsletter caught my eye offering French lessons at a very reasonable price. I decided to follow it up, and in no time at all, I found myself sitting with some trepidation in a small classroom alongside a few other nervous hopefuls all classed as 'intermediates'.
The teacher was a young man called Jimmy Jean, certainly much younger than any of the students who had turned up that day, about ten of us. There was some nervousness. For me, it was ages since I'd been in a classroom and none of us knew what to expect, but it wasn't long before Jimmy's straightforward, easygoing style made us all feel more at ease.
I've been attending Jimmy's classes for over a year now. The classes are a mixture of structured lesson and informal conversation. Jimmy always has material prepared but does not stick rigidly to his plan if events in the lesson take a different course, as they often do. He never uses a textbook or refers to verb tables. His aim is to get us to speak French the way the French actually speak it in the vernacular. Although he doesn't ignore grammar entirely, he places more emphasis on learning in an intuitive way.
I asked Jimmy how he started teaching French to expats, and this is what he told me.
He was born and grew up in Cherbourg. When he was at school he was a 'terrible pupil', a 'cancre', he said, which literally translated into English means 'dunce'. In English, the word 'dunce' means someone who is not very bright, and I don't think that definition can be applied to Jimmy at all. He is clearly highly intelligent. Perhaps it was that as a young child he simply wasn't interested in being cooped up in a classroom all day.
As he grew up, he continued to be disaffected. He admits that he was a bad pupil. But when he was in his teens, one of his teachers saw through his rebellious exterior and started to take a personal interest in him. He must have known that beneath the thin, defiant veneer, there was real potential.
For Jimmy, to have a teacher showing such an interest in him was a new experience, and it changed his attitude and transformed his approach to his studies. The teacher inspired him to take his Diploma in English Studies which he passed with flying colours obtaining 16 out of 20, which is an excellent mark. "I found it easy," he said
Having obtained his Diploma, what next? He had three choices. He could stay in Cherbourg, strike out north across the Channel towards the UK, or veer southwards and explore the rest of France. He decided to venture northwards.
He managed to line up a job for himself as a barman in a pub in Cork, Southern Ireland. However, when he arrived, although his English was excellent, it was textbook English, the way the Queen spoke it, and this had not equipped him for coping with the language as it was actually spoken. His listening skills and spoken English were simply not up to scratch, not to mention the strong Irish accents that he had to contend with. His new employer told him that it would be impossible for him to work in the bar at that time, so Jimmy had to spend six months helping out in the back kitchen until his English had sufficiently improved.
Speaking In The Vernacular
To this day, Jimmy bases his lesson planning on his experiences in Ireland. In everyday life, no matter what the language, people do not speak the way it is presented in a textbook. They abbreviate or omit words altogether, and use slang and figures of speech, etc.
Of course, Jimmy respects and understands the need for students to have an underpinning knowledge of grammar, but he knows from personal experience that there is more to learning a language than that. "You need to be able to look at real life," he says.
The Next Phase
After a year in Ireland, Jimmy went to London where he stayed for a year and a half. "I loved London," he said. At this time he did more bar work and also had jobs with Brittany Ferries and P&O. The time came, however, when he felt that this phase of his life was coming to an end and he needed to look towards what he would do next.
At this time, his brother was living in Bergerac, France. He suggested to Jimmy that there were a lot of British people there, and because of his knowledge of the English language, perhaps he should come to Bergerac and see if there was something he could do there.
So Jimmy moved to Bergerac. He started as a private teacher teaching individuals on a one-to-one basis. He had a few jobs doing this and also earned money helping British expats with their administrative affairs. He made a respectable living from this, but to Jimmy, it was not an interesting job.
Then, an association in Bergerac advertised for a teacher of English on a short-term basis. Jimmy was successful in his application and obtained a three-month contract. This was the first time he had taught a group of people rather than just individuals. He enjoyed it immensely, and that was when he got the idea for giving French lessons. He also met his future wife at this time. The couple are engaged and they are planning to marry next year.
Jimmy arrived in the Northern Dordogne/Charente region two years ago. At first, his plan was to try to find one or two customers, but in fact, his lessons were in much higher demand than he had expected. Instead of having just one or two customers, his classes have been so successful that he now runs 19 classes in four locations:
His plan is to open a new class in Nontron in the New Year around February time.
Jimmy has always been a bit of an entrepreneur. He talks of the time more than 20 years ago when he was still living in Cherbourg. It was common at that time for British people to come across the Channel on so-called 'booze cruises' to buy cheap alcohol in the large supermarket in the centre of the town.
The ferries would arrive at midday. The British, many of whom had come over without their cars, would rush to the supermarket, fill their trolleys to overflowing, and arrive at the exit laden with bottles and cartons of booty. Some had bought so much booze that they were having serious problems coping with their loads and were wondering how they were going to make it back to the ferry.
Jimmy would hang around keeping an eagle eye open for likely candidates and then swoop in and offer his services as a friendly cab caller. In most cases, his offer was gratefully seized upon, and this invariably resulted in a good tip. "That," he says, "was my first contact with British people."
A Mutually-Beneficial Relationship
And so it has continued. Jimmy's affinity with the British people and the English language has been an ongoing theme throughout his life and it's been the key influence on his career and livelihood.
Thanks to the inspirational teacher who saw his potential, Jimmy became inspired to become an inspirational teacher himself. From his early days in Cherbourg until the present day he has encountered British people at every turn and he has used these opportunities to good effect. His experiences in Cork and London when he struggled to understand and communicate have given him valuable insight into what people need to know when learning a language and how best to teach.
And Jimmy's relationship with the British, so important throughout his life, continues to flourish. It's good for him and it's good for us; a mutually-beneficial relationship. Long may it continue!
© 2017 Annabelle Johnson