Sporting a bright yellow Tour de France T-shirt and braided pigtails, French-language instructor Alysse Anton met her étudiantes in the gymnasium of Burlington's C.P. Smith Elementary School with a cheery "Bonjour!"
She handed name tags — which said, "Je m'appelle" instead of "My name is" — to five first-, second- and third-grade girls before leading the students to a classroom where the afternoon lesson would commence.
With a Curious George stuffed animal known as Petit George as her sidekick, Anton then launched into the customary check-in, which anyone who's ever taken a French class probably remembers.
"Ça va?" the Swiss native asked her students, who sat on the floor in a circle.
The question — which means, "How's it going?" — generated a string of mals and biens.
The class was part of "Tour de France," a 12-week series offered by the Alliance Française of the Lake Champlain Region in conjunction with the Burlington Kids after-school program. This fall, the Alliance offered French language classes in two elementary schools in Burlington as well as one each in Colchester and Essex. This winter, the Alliance plans to expand its programming to J.J. Flynn Elementary School in Burlington.
Micheline Tremblay, director of the Alliance's French Instruction Program and a former middle and high school French teacher, said that when teaching kids to speak en français, her organization prefers to use songs, books, dance and activities.
The "Tour de France" curriculum is centered around the route of the famous bike race. When discussing Cannes, which is a stop on the race and home of the Cannes Film Festival, students dress up and parade around the classroom like glamorous movie stars as they learn clothing-related vocabulary. When "traveling" through Provence, they learn about famous artists, design an impressionist postcard and practice color vocabulary.
At C.P. Smith, instructor Anton explained in French that Petit George was sick, using the predicament as an opportunity to name parts of the body as the students looked on attentively.
She then initiated a dice-rolling game, which was a chance for kids to practice numbers as well as to review some things they'd learned previously, including a silly French song that directed them to raise their thumbs in the air, pull their elbows back, bend their knees and point their toes inward.
"Because they're little, you have to keep up their enthusiasm to make them want to continue learning, to keep them interested," Tremblay said.
Despite Vermont's proximity to Québec, few elementary schools in the state offer French instruction, and language programs are usually first to go when budgets are tightened. "We're trying to fill a huge gap by offering after-school programs," Tremblay said.
The benefits of learning French extend beyond being able to communicate with our neighbors to the north. Tremblay cited research showing that for children, studying a second language improves cognitive abilities, boosts confidence and leads to a broader worldview.
Young children are often more adept than adolescents and adults at mimicking foreign sounds, she added, which is why they often sound more like native speakers than those who study a language later in life. When it comes to learning French, Tremblay enthused, "the earlier, the better."