Congratulations on your new job. I’m certain that it is well earned. However, in spite of your capability and dedication, you may be somewhat nervous about the task before you. Know that there will be times when you feel unsure of yourself and have as many questions and doubts as the students with whom you are working. And, know that this is normal.
I have experienced these same insecurities on many occasions. One of the most important things that I have learned during my time as an LSS Subject Tutor for French (levels 1-4) is that a language is only as uniform as its speakers, which is to say, not at all. As a tutor, students frequently ask me for help with translations and compositions and expect concrete and immutable answers. “How would I say…?” They ask, anticipating a word-for-word translation that conforms to their intuitions about the English language.
“It depends on the sense you want to convey,” I explain, “What is the context of utterance? What is the emotion you want to express? With whom are you talking?”
And these questions do not even begin to scratch the surface of the complex speaker-interlocutor relationship that studying a foreign language sheds light upon.
“Why does all of that matter?” They ask, “Isn’t it all the same as long as the sentence makes sense?”
As a competent speaker of (at least) two languages, you, future LSS Tutor, are aware that these considerations do factor greatly into the way that we structure our speech. How do I choose whether to ‘tutoyer’ or ‘vouvoyer’ if I do not know to whom the pronoun ‘you’ refers? How do I decide whether to employ the ‘il faut’ or the ‘je dois’ construction if I do not know the degree of obligation that I am expressing with my phrase?
In speaking and in tutoring a language, you become acutely aware of how flexible communication really is. There is more than one way to say almost anything (although, nothing else quite captures the perfect simplicity of ‘je ne sais quoi’…) and in most cases, it is a matter of convention and taste that determines whether one version is preferable to another.
That being said, it is clear that teaching the rules of grammar and pronunciation are not enough if you want to help your tutees to achieve mastery of the material they are studying. Sure, sentence diagraming, grammar worksheets, and constant practice conjugating verbs are all essential to your job. Embrace grammar! Learn to love it, because you will spend long hours reviewing direct/indirect object pronouns, conjugating the subjunctive, and rehashing the difference between definite and indefinite articles.
But, as previously stated, this alone is not enough. Grammar is the skeleton. Without grammar, you’re left with a muddle of words that lack any kind of intelligible relationship to one another. But–at the risk of stating the obvious–you NEED WORDS! If you don’t flesh out the syntactical skeleton, you won’t get very far.
So, how do you do this? Speak. Talk. Laugh. Tell stories. Tell jokes. In French. This is by far the most valuable piece of advice I have for you: talk to your tutees and make them talk to you. Most students are secretly (and exceedingly) afraid to speak another language, especially in front of someone that they consider to be a more accomplished or experienced speaker. We are all afraid to be wrong.
I have worked with students who compose beautiful papers and can barely stammer out a coherent response to a basic comment ça va? It isn’t because they need more practice with the subjunctive. And it isn’t because they need more practice with the ‘au café’ vocabulary flashcards. It is because they lack confidence, rather than knowledge.
Thus, one of your greatest challenges as a tutor is kindling this confidence in the students you work with. You can do this in many ways. First off, don’t lecture at them. They already have a professor for that. A very accomplished Ph.D–level professor who diagrams sentences on the blackboard and teaches them to pronounce ‘le pamplemousse’ properly.
Lecturing is not your job. Instead, be an interlocutor. Engage your tutees in conversations in which they are interested (music, movies, books, forest raves, the ridiculous cost of an apartment in downtown Santa Cruz) and they will talk to you en français. You need not resort to extreme measures, even with the shyest of individuals. Once you get them talking, then you can worry about the details and help them to perfect their grammar and expand their lexicon. But it is absolutely imperative that you break through this barrier.
Remember the first time that you spoke French in front of a native speaker? This is more or less how many beginning French students will feel talking in front of you. But you can set them at ease. With patience, positive feedback, and a wise selection of conversational fodder, your session will turn into a regular blabber-fest. And when friendly chitchat can provide solid knowledge, you know that you’re justified putting down the pen and closing the textbook. Grammar review is assez bon, but speaking, speaking, speaking is how the greatest learning occurs.