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French teacher interview: Dr. Cheryl Demharter discusses Fluent French Audio

Dr. Cheryl Demharter

Cheryl currently lives in Connecticut, USA but grew up in a bilingual family based in both New Orleans and Quebec.  Her interest in linguistic variations led her to obtain her Ph.D. in French Linguistics and Literature from Tulane University, with a specialization in French Phonetics.  She is a former Director of Foreign Language Programs at the MLA (Modern Language Association of America) and has published on linguistics, Quebecois studies, and administrative issues.  Cheryl normally teaches 30 to 35 private students each week, from pre-school children to seniors, who range from true beginners to near-native speakers.  Among her adult students she has French teachers and business executives, and all are true Francophiles.  Read on to hear her advice to adults who want to improve their French.

Q:  Tell us a little about the typical adult students you have and the reasons they choose to take private lessons.

A:  The major characteristic among my adult students is their love of French.  Typically they have already visited France or another Francophone country and desire a richer cultural experience.  Because students are constantly "on the spot" during private lessons, their focus and concentration are greater than in a classroom, and, consequently, a much more rapid acquisition of the language is achieved, especially in speaking.  They are committed and serious about their studies.

Q:  Are there some common misconceptions about learning a language?

A:  Occasionally new students are surprised by the amount of time and effort it takes to learn a new language.  I tell them that language learning is a skill-based process, much like learning how to play a musical instrument or learning how to sing.  To achieve maximum results, you need to practice and review on a daily basis.  When acquiring a new referential system, the brain needs to make different linguistic connections for familiar concepts.  Those new links must be consistently reinforced until they become strong enough to form "permanent" and readily accessible references.

Q:  Are there certain types of people who have a better chance of becoming fluent?  Or can anyone do it?

A:  Those individuals who have been fortunate enough to grow up in multilingual and multicultural environments have the greatest advantage because their brains have been "hard-wired" during the formative years to accept more than one referential system.  Other well-motivated learners who have the time and energy to devote to language study can certainly achieve wonderful results as well.  It's a matter of focus and persistence.  Once a second referential system is in place, it then becomes much easier to learn additional languages.

Q:  What about age?  A lot of people say you have to start when you are young.

A:  Ideally, yes.  The enhanced malleability of the brain during the formative years is a commonly accepted notion, but disagreements exist as to the optimum age range for learning languages.  With language, if you miss the "window of opportunity" for learning by assimilation, you can still learn it by studying and by application.  The brain is a wonderful mechanism, which can be trained to develop the new referential connections needed in second-language learning.  However, the focus usually shifts to analysis of the structure (i.e. learning the grammar) as the basis for instruction.

Q:  Many people are attracted to French because of the French culture.  How do learning about the culture and learning the language work together?  And if learning the culture is important, what type of exposure should we be looking for?

A:  In spite of shifting political climates, French has always carried a certain mystique.  The elegance of the language, the attention given by the French to culinary pleasures, as well as the international prominence of French art, music and fashion awaken feelings of longing in the budding Francophile.  Although we may talk about culture and language as different entities, they are, in fact, so intrinsically linked as to be inseparable.  Language is the oral manifestation of a culture.  Consciously or not, while learning a new language you are automatically learning its culture.  As a brief example, let's consider why beginning students of French are taught that one shakes hands and says "Bonjour, Monsieur" or "Bonjour, Madame" instead of simply "Bonjour" when greeting an adult in France.  Those expressions are evidence of a cultural context that contains a much higher degree of formality and politeness in everyday interactions -- with greater deference being shown to the other person -- than one might find in a more casual culture.  In addition, one must be aware of the differences between "Culture" and "culture."  The former embraces the great literature, art, music, history, and so forth of its stellar members; the latter manifests the everyday interactions, feelings, thoughts, hopes, and customs of the population at large.  To be fully versed in both forms of culture should be the ultimate goal for the language learner. 

Q:  You recommend Fluent French Audio to some of your students.  Can you tell us why?

A:  "Culture" and "culture."  It's as simple as that.  Fluent French Audio's interviews are always diverse, relevant, and highly interesting.  The wide range of topics and the varied speech styles in a relatively informal interview process immerse the listener in the sounds and particularities of French language and culture.  We learn, for example, facts about historical issues that form an integral part of the French persona and we enjoy personal interest stories, such as how a French family manages to go on vacation with a new litter of puppies.  Although developed mainly to enhance listening comprehension, an area in which it excels with its multiple speed levels, Fluent French Audio is a goldmine of cultural material that everyone can enjoy.

Visit Dr. Demharter's website and learn more about her classes.