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So I realized last night that my problem with the French class this session is not so much that level 3 (for which I was already apprehensive about being underprepared and for which only a couple of us registered) got lumped in with level 4 (although that definitely throws me in over my head vocabulary-wise), it’s that I don’t feel comfortable making conversation with strangers in English, much less in a language with which I am only partially acquainted.

I don’t want to make chit-chat, and having to look up every fourth word in the French-English dictionary makes it virtually impossible even if I did want to.  So I sit there like a lump, and do my best to listen and understand the more convivial class members.  (This is basically what happens when I go to any social gathering.)  And then I go home and put a great deal of time working on the written homework assignments.  Writing I like.

Recently, I read this book and wish it was required reading for every teacher.  It makes the case, supported by research, that some of us do not thrive in situations where speaking up and working collaboratively are valued.  Being forced to do this over and over is not a good thing for some of us.  Some of us thrive and do our best work quietly and independently, yet the vast majority of teachers I have had (elementary school through undergraduate and lots of continuing ed) seem to operate on the premise that what’s best for their students is to require “class participation” and working collaboratively.  Even yoga teachers require frequent pairing up for supported poses.  I stopped going to my former favorite ballet class because pairing up and talking became a major part of the structure of every class.

The pair-up/work-in-a-group dynamic thing has been a lifelong problem for me in any kind of education or work situation.  Having lived for just about five decades now, having been forced to do this again and again in every class I’ve taken or social event I’ve had to attend since the age of five, I have come to realize that being pushed “out of my comfort zone” does not work for me.

Yes, I am trying to learn a language here, and yes, the whole point of language is communication.  And if wanted to go make friends on my trip to Paris I’m sure this class experience would be invaluable.  But I don’t.  I want to understand signs and directions, and to be able to ask for the bare minimum of assistance, to get to places where I can sit quietly by myself and sketch and listen, order coffee and chocolate croissants and falafel, and buy a few things at a market to take back to the apartment and cook.  So if I make myself return to class next week, I give myself permission to continue to sit like a lump and listen, and write.



  1. Yeah, I never liked that either, I mean, does anyone? Role playing? OH MY GOD PLEASE NO. But…over the years I have pushed that sort of thing out of the discomfort zone and into the “*sigh* okay if I have to” zone. I know it will help me and pushing out of my comfort zone no matter what it is does help me too. But that’s me. I completely get that you will probably never be able to do that sort of thing without dread and misery! And that’s okay. Everyone is different. I started using Livemocha to learn Spanish (like my 75th attempt by now?) and I think a little Italian, and it’s good but again, there is interaction, and you have to not only speak and record stuff for native speakers to review and correct but same thing with writing exercises. And it’s like, okay, I know I am going to make mistakes and they are going to correct it and it’s constructive and is meant to help and if you don’t make mistakes and have them corrected how are you going to learn the right way? But it’s still kind of embarrassing and sometimes people get a little nitpicky and it feels personal. Then I go review someone learning English for my revenge…muhahahaha no, actually I go review someone and am nice about it. I haven’t been on there in a while though, I have no idea if my membership is still active.
    When I took language classes in high school though, I don’t ever remember having to do any of that type of thing, other than reading conversations in the book with someone else which isn’t even the same thing. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll do fine in Paris. As long as you make the attempt, people are pretty kind, even if you have to just say “Parlais vous Anglais, s’il vous plait?” and then they say “euh, a leetle beet” and then proceed to speak perfect English.

    • It’s puzzling to me that role playing gets used in any setting other than the theater., or practicing slef-defense. To this teacher’s credit he hasn’t asked for that; it’s more just talk about yourself or some random subject he brings up. In fact, he seems like a great teacher if the goal is to be able to carry on a conversation. My stupid mistake was not realizing that’s what this class would be aiming for. (what was I thinking? I guess I wasn’t.) I don’t have a problem with being corrected, just in speaking in general in a group or with a stranger.

      Good for you for braving it on Livemocha. Is that a one-on-one way of learning, or do you still interact with a whole group?

      Anyway, I’m gonna plan on your last observation. Yesterday I bought a used Rick Steves pocket phrasebook and will spend my time studying that.

      • Livemocha is mostly on your own, they will have listening exercises and writing exercises and vocab stuff, where it’s just a quiz and then I guess at the end of each lesson is when you do the writing and speaking exercises that get critiqued by other users who are native speakers. Like if I wanted to help to critique someone I’d click on that section and choose someone’s exercise and listen to it or read it and then make my comments, helpful hints and rate their proficiency. It’s not bad, really but sometimes I am really not in the mood for it.

  2. I once went to Rome with only one phrase of Italian:

    Mi dispiace. Non capisco. Non parlo Italiano.

    I think that basically apologizes for not understanding Italian. I only had to use it a few times.

    Maybe you need to dump this class and concentrate on learning the French you’ll most likely need by whatever method you think will work best for you. I don’t know if it’s flashcards or workbooks or language CDs or watching Amelie with the English sub-titles off, but it doesn’t sound like this class is right for you.

    • Amelie with the French subtitles on is gonna be my DVD-viewing strategy for the next five months. (Thanks for the suggestion.)

  3. The link you’ve provided didn’t work for me. Was it referring to Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking?

    I agree with you: I used to hate it when my teachers made me work in a group, especially if the group was hijacked by a more assertive but less intelligent student. Even in grad school, I would grit my teeth when the professor broke us up into small groups and made us work on a project or discuss a topic with the purpose of presenting our ideas to the rest of the class. (The ideas that came out of those sessions were almost always terrible—does the professor really expect good ideas to come out of committees?) Now, I have to endure it in karate class when the sensei tells us to “find a partner” so we can practice sparring technique. I’m often the one who ends up standing alone, looking around blankly, because I don’t know anyone well enough to ask or because everyone else wants to practice with a friend. It’s a little like reliving the trauma of being the last kid picked for teams in kickball or softball.

    That said, I see that working in groups is still alive and well in the elementary schools. It’s gotten worse with the new Common Core curriculum here . One of the activities required is that the students have to turn to the kid sitting next to them and tell him or her what they think is the correct answer. In one class, there’s a very small, very quiet student who looks miserable when the teacher tells the class to do this. Her neighbor is a big, burly girl who clearly doesn’t care what this smaller girl thinks, and makes no attempt to hide it. I asked one teacher why this is required, and she said it was to encourage the students to communicate and brainstorm ideas. I thought, if I had an introverted child in public school right now, I’d transfer her to a private school, preferably a Montessori one that encourages children to work and think quietly on their own. Why anyone thinks this is such a good idea disturbs me.

    • Oh – yes, that’s the book. Oops, I’d better fix that link!

      Oh my god, of course karate must be an extra-challenging way to face the pair-up horror. I would never last (and I just remembered years ago starting classes in first aikido and then foil fencing, and dropping out of both when the sparring became the focus … I loved all of the preparatory exercises, like a kind of dance form, but the pairing up part nixed that pleasure). But I think if I could count on pairing up with you (or another introvert!) it would be okay. Good for you for sticking it out. It makes that green belt even more impressive knowing you’ve had to deal with that dynamic.

      I was wondering what your teaching perspective might be… the public school curriculum developers are really the ones that need to read the Susan Cain book. That poor little kid… I hope the bully neighbor isn’t seated next to her often.

      • The teacher also likes grouping the desks together into “teams,” so the shy student’s desk is butt up next to the big dumb student’s. Introvert hell! I almost wish introverts would refuse to participate in these kind of classrooms—none will, of course, we’re too polite. I get that shy kids should be encouraged to ‘put it out there,’ but throwing them into a mosh pit with a bunch of loud, aggressive kids isn’t going to do that.

        I wish you or someone like you were in my karate class. There are a couple of adult students I like working with, but they have kids in the class who want to work with Mom or Dad (which I don’t think is right—they should be working with other children). I also have bruises from where more aggressive students ‘made contact.’ If I wasn’t so determined to get at least my brown belt, I would have quit a while back.

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