Language The Program

What is French like at St. John’s College?

We often get asked questions about our language tutorial, specifically what it is like to learn French on the Program. Below are 4 different perspectives from current students on their experience of learning French at St. John’s.

Emma Stewart (Junior, Annapolis):

In the first week of Junior year, I wondered if I would survive French. I had no experience with romance languages, having only a background in Japanese and now Ancient Greek, neither of which was going to help me. As in Freshman year, we started the semester with a textbook, translating example sentences and memorizing vocabulary. However, I had no idea how much faster we’d be moving, and taking the first quiz at the end of the second week, I found myself unable to answer any of the questions. I was embarrassed and discouraged. Was there a slow-paced class I could transfer into? I met my tutor in the coffee shop the next morning. He assured me that quiz results don’t necessarily reflect a student’s understanding or ability to understand. He also offered me extended time for the quizzes, an accommodation I’d received in high school. I decided to tough it out.

This story isn’t meant to kindle fear in anyone curious about the St. John’s language program. Everyone encounters a class or two that they worry is out of their league. I want to highlight here something unique about St. John’s: the resources and opportunities we’re given to overcome obstacles. With patience and a passion to learn, students can conquer any subject. I started putting a little more work into memorization and became more invested in the translations. Though I still struggled more than students with Spanish experience, my performance improved significantly, and I began to really enjoy the work.

The language program has provided the most influential and enthralling experiences I’ve had at St. John’s. I’ve uncovered through it my passion for Linguistics, a road I plan to follow post-graduation.

The French program offers extensive opportunities to really delve into translation (one of the reasons my class was moving so quickly, which I’m now grateful for). We have both written and translated poetry. Asking always, what must be captured here? Should we translate a poem word-for-word, or, in some cases, pay more attention to meter, even if that means taking some syntactical liberties?

We have just begun translating Phèdre, a French play based on Euripides’ Hippolytus. The question arises of how we can capture a character through our translations. There are many ways to translate Hippolytus’ first speech, but, based on what we know about his character, how would he say it?

Though we read the French out loud and perform sections of the play, the emphasis isn’t on speaking. We aren’t aiming to be able to converse with a French person. Instead, we’re learning a language in order to learn about language itself. There are some words and uses of wordplay that can’t be captured simply in English. What liberties do we take? And what can be sacrificed? Those are the questions I’ve asked myself in the French tutorial. Memorizing vocabulary was only a helpful first step.

Pavitra (Senior, Santa Fe):

I was a bit sad to let go of Ancient Greek, but really excited about the prospect of learning a language that I would actually be able to speak—French! The grammar was not as hard to grasp and I felt comfortable enough with French by the end of a semester to be able to translate on sight. The fact that French has a lot of cognates from the English language, or to be accurate, the other way around, made it a quick learning project. Along with the French tutorial, the French Conversational Club was helpful in actually getting used to the pronunciations and getting used to speaking in another language.

The beauty of the French language became obvious to me when I started translating Phèdre by Racine. This writer restricted himself to the use of around 600 words to elucidate the tragedy of Phèdre. By doing this, he used each word in multiple ways and as the story moved forward, so did the meaning of those words. A character and a word would get so interconnected that an analysis of that word itself would give us a wonderful character sketch. This taught me the flexibility of language and also made me realize how two different people use the same words differently, even in the real world.

Doug, (Junior, Santa Fe):

French at St. John’s is taught a little differently than one might expect. Firstly it is not taught with the immersion method. It is taught with the assumption that most English speakers already know about 2000 French words, just by already speaking English. the result of this is speed– at St. John’s French is learned quite quickly, in about 3 months. We learn French fast unlike Greek because it is easier, but also because the focus of the language class shifts when we start French Junior year. French class focuses on reading text in the original language like Greek, but unlike Greek, the emphasis on translation is taken out. In Greek, we learn the language to be able to understand the text more fully in English, by translating it and understanding that process of translation. We translate Greek to understand it in English. But French class is taught such that we read the text in French to understand it in French. Language class Junior year moves away from the act of translation and a deeper understanding of the texts we’re already reading in seminar, and moves to reading and understanding new and different texts in the French language. Most of the texts encountered in French class are not seen/read anywhere else on the program. I have a French background. I took 4 years of immersion method French in high school. Once we entered the classroom we could only speak French. English was banned since day one. I also have a close friend who lives in Southern France whom I Skype with in French. I am nowhere near fluent, but I can hold a reasonably good conversation in the language. Because of this, I was left a little bored for the first semester of French, but as the semester went on the class quickly caught up to me, in vocab and grammatical understanding. So if you have French background, don’t worry—the class moves fast enough for you to be engaged. And once you start reading actual texts and move away from the work-book things get much better.

And me, Yunju Park! (Junior, Annapolis):

At St. John’s we focus on Ancient Greek in the Freshman and Sophomore years, and French in Junior and Senior years. It is important, however, to remember that the name of those classes is the same throughout all four years: Language. I am a current Junior and it is my second semester of learning French. In the first semester, we quickly went through basic grammar and vocabulary, and this semester we are translating Phèdre by Racine into English. The title of our “grammar” book is French for Reading Knowledge. This shows that the focus of French education at St. John’s is more on written communication than verbal communication. This focus on written communication provides us with a moment to look at the “meaning” of the words. We say so many words every day but only after having that moment of contemplation are we able to see how those words are forming the way we think.

For example, in Korea, when people meet their friends after a long time, it is common to say “jal sal-at-ni? (Did you live well)?” instead of “How have you been?”. I did not think about it too much when I was speaking it. However, after language education at St. John’s I can start to think about the different emphasis these two phrases have and how that difference forms people’s life. I feel like I have gained the third eye to understand the world.

Translating the language French and having a discussion on it gives me opportunities to understand how the writers “think” rather than merely observing the plot of the story. We are going to focus on the French word “Mortel” today and have a short discussion about it, and I am excited!

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