French immersion program allows learning, teaching experience for intern

Wednesday, October 10, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:56 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 11, 2012
Alice Cordier, center, teaches Kennedy Naughton, 2, left, and Madeleine Reed, 3, right, French on Sept. 26 at La Petite Ecole in Columbia. Cordier is a French intern at the school.

COLUMBIA — As someone learning a new language herself, Alice Cordier knows how important it is to practice speaking.

Cordier, 20, is a native of France who is spending the year in Columbia learning English while she teaches her language to American children. She is a shared intern between La Petite Ecole, the French immersion preschool, and Columbia Independent School.


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Learning by speaking

At La Petite Ecole, she gives French lessons to preschoolers ages 3 to 6. They speak only French throughout the day.

At the Columbia Independent School, she spends time with students in grades K-7 during a conversational session called "La Table Française" at lunch on Thursdays. She also helps the two French teachers in their classrooms.

Since September, students in grades 2 and up have the option of dining “en français” on Fridays. Students with or without French experience join teachers who speak French to enjoy conversation and informal vocabulary lessons at lunchtime.

"We speak in French all the time," Cordier said about her students. "When the children speak in English, we say 'Oh, yeah. You want to say that, but in French.'"

'It takes a very special person'

Cordier comes from a small town near Orlèans, France, two hours from Paris, and is studying to be a teacher at L’Unité de Formation et de Recherche (U.F.R.) Lettres, langues et sciences humaines de l’Université Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferraud.

She was placed at La Petite Ecole through Amity Institute, a teaching exchange program that has sent French interns to Columbia since 2006.

Joëlle Quoirin, founder and director of La Petite Ecole, said one of the things that struck her about Cordier was how genuine she seemed. Quoirin said she looks for the ability to adapt, remain positive and get along with others in her teachers.

"Teaching through immersion is not something that is commonly done," Quoirin said. "I think it takes a very special person to manage all of that and feel on top of things."

Immersion schools increasing

The U.S. has seen steady growth in immersion schools since 1971, with 448 now scattered throughout the 50 states, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, which maintains a self-reported directory.

In 1971, there were only three immersion schools in the country; 20 years later, the number increased to 119. Explosive growth has occurred since 2003, with nearly 200 new immersion schools being added.

Every state has at least one. Missouri has seven, including three preschool programs. States that top the list are Minnesota with 50 immersion schools and Utah with 58 — almost all of the schools are elementary schools.

The center has studied features and trends between 1971 and 2006, finding that "foreign language immersion is a highly successful approach to language instruction for children.

"It enriches their English language development and provides them with an enhanced sense of global awareness, linguistic confidence and learning strategies that will be useful in many aspects of life."

Integrating a new language

Cordier has been working with children since completing the French equivalent of high school. She received a diploma that qualified her to work with children under 18 at a day care center in France.

"I like seeing the children progressing, evolving, learning," Cordier said. She also wants to learn from children, she said, "because they know many things which we (as) adults, we do not know."

At Le Petite Ecole, founded in 2005, the new language is integrated into the day in predictable ways, Quoirin said, with an emphasis on success.

Repetition and hand gestures serve as cues to help students remember certain words and to help them figure out the desired response.

"If we're asking a question, we're not going to ask a yes or no question," Quoirin said. "We're going to ask a question that requires a complete sentence."

Another technique is to ask the students to clarify their statements. Sometimes all this requires is a "Hmm?" and the student will realize he or she needs to explain what they said, she said.

"We have a way to ask so we don't put them in a situation of angst where they can't do it," Quoirin said. "We put them in a situation where they can do it."

In September, the school began a  "Bonjour Bébé" program where both parents and toddlers are introduced to French. Quoirin said it will be "less intense" than other classes but will use similar techniques.

Exploring American culture with host families

The Amity Institute, Cordier's placement agency, requires interns to live with host families. She will live with four families throughout her yearlong stay. Cordier arrived in August and is spending her first three months with the Strode family, who have two children at La Petite Ecole.

"It's been really great," Tara Strode said. "It's fun to have her teach us new things and for us to teach her new things as well."

So far, the Strodes have introduced Cordier to American sports such as football and different kinds of food. They volunteered to be a host family as a fun, new experience for all of them.

From December through February, Cordier will live with Robin and Royce Hardesty and their two daughters, who have no affiliation with the Le Petite Ecole.

Typically, host families will have children in the preschool, but Mikaela Hardesty, a high-school junior, and Elise Hardesty, an eighth-grader, know Joëlle Quoirin. They take three hours of French lessons weekly in her home because Heritage Academy, the school they attend, has no French program.

"Her (Quoirin's) form of instruction is total immersion," said their mother, Robin. "They're getting better and learning a lot quicker."

When Quoirin, who was born in Mons, Belgium, suggested the home-stay, Robin Hardesty jumped at the chance. She believes her daughters will be almost fluent by the time they finish high school.

"Bringing a foreign-exchange student into our house for three months is going to be perfect for us because I have girls who are wanting to learn it."

The three-month rotation allows Cordier and the host family to share languages and cultures. The families are also able to divide her expenses.

To discover new paths to her own language learning, Cordier has volunteered at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center. In France, she competed in dressage, the competitive sport that relies on precision training of horses.

Cordier said, "I make that for my pleasure to help people."

She is also keeping a journal of her experiences to share with her friends back home.

By the end of stay she hopes to identify what kind of teacher she will become: "I hope this year, I know after, if I want to be a language teacher or just a teacher for children." 

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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