Learning to Do Journalism en Francais

As a professor, I’ve often witnessed the discomfort that comes with that first assigned interview.  Each semester, IMG_0329someone from an introductory-level skills class knocks on my door and either slinks or saunters into my office to  ask me questions, as instructed.  It can make for an awkward moment.

Scenario 1: Shy student enters, sits and without ever making eye contact, starts reading a list of questions visible in his/her notebook. I’ve often been tempted to interrupt, wild-eyed, and say: “Did you hear about the bomb threat on the second floor?”  My guess is it wouldn’t matter.  The questions would drone on, my answers irrelevant.

Scenario 2: Brash student saunters into my office, plops down in a chair, and, without introducing himself/herself launches into attack mode. So why do you think that Emerson has a good journalism program?  Don’t you believe it should be offering mobile-based courses on data-visualization in the 22nd century?  And if not, why not?

In either case, I try to be patient, to remember that everyone has to start somewhere. I gently tell student 1 that it might be good to look up once in a while and to listen to my answers. And I’ll tell student 2, perhaps a little less gently, that it’s really good to introduce yourself before launching into a attack.

These first-ever interviews at times tickle me, reminders that the ability to draw information from another person is far from an innate talent.

This Thursday, I’ll be keenly aware of my past amusement and sometimes poorly veiled impatience. That’s when I will find myself in something akin to the shoes of these first-semester journalism students. I’ll be interviewing — or trying to interview — Juliette, my unusually patient young French teacher at IS-Aix, about what motivated her to become a teacher and what challenges she faces as a professor of adult learners. And, bien sur, I’ll be doing this in French.


At this point in my career, it should be second nature, this business of interviewing.  But there are three ways to ask direct questions in French, Julette explained to me today. As someone with limited formal training in French,  I find that untangling the right way, the way that is courant, often eludes me.  Sometimes, in fact, so does the very question I want to ask.

And so I will prepare. I will draw up my list of questions, with care, and write it down in advance.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to construct these questions right.  I’m even less sure I’ll understand her answers.  As for follow-up questions …  Bof, who knows?  I hope, if I sit dumbstruck, or stammer after each response, that Juliette will stifle that smile.

I’m trying.

In the end, I remind myself each day, I will only accomplish what I can accomplish in this foreign tongue.

Again and again, I’m reminded how difficult it is to hear a foreign language and apply a foreign language unless and until one is able to think and live in that tongue.  I’m not there yet. Not close really.

Today, on the way home after school, a man stopped me in the street and asked me something.  I’d been thinking and didn’t tune into his words immediately.  But instead of saying, excusez-moi,  I looked up dumbfounded and blurted out, “je ne comprends pas.”  I don’t understand.

“L’heure,” he said. “Quelle heure est-il?” 

“What time is it?” That’s not exactly advanced French.  At least I understood him on the second try — even though he thanked me in English.

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