Learning French


M. M. drives an overly complicated system of roads every day on her way to work. It’s nothing she isn’t used to; in this part of Milwaukee the streets make way to the lunacy that keeps the streets from lining up at the river. She weaves up twisted, easy to miss turns, eventually coming upon a gated school yard. Part of it has been repurposed as a parking lot for the teachers, separated with chain link fencing. The rest is wrought iron, testifying to a much more wealthy time, a time when people threw money at buildings like schools. The front of the fence, the part facing the main road, is decorated with a large, tiled collage of some sort. No one remembers what it was originally supposed to represent; it came with the building, from when it was a different school.

She walks up two flights of stairs to her classroom. It has the little desks of the second grade, bright colors, and student artwork.

She starts with some paperwork, because it’s never really done, and waits.

After about an hour, the school bell rings. After another few minutes, she can hear the kids in the halls.

She goes to her door, encouraging the kids to get to class, one teacher among a collection of others doing the same. Most are black, but not such an overwhelming number that you have to search for the ones who aren’t.

The halls empty and M. M. returns to her classroom. Her students have already found their desks, assigned with the intention of keeping order. They’re chatting happily, doing last minute homework that should have already been done and just getting ready for the day.

“Bonjour, class,” she says, calling them to order.

“Bonjour Madame Mulhern,” they chant back, dutifully.

Dutifully and flawlessly.


Every year a new set of children, ages four to seven, arrive at what used to be Stoiben Middle School. Now it’s Milwaukee French Immersion.

Depending on their age, the children are funneled into classrooms. If they’re seven and in second grade, they get a small amount of English during their day so they’ll be able to take standardized testing. Any younger and the teachers they’ll deal with will either be unable to speak English, or else outright refuse to. About seven years later, they’ll go off to Middle School, fully fluent in French.

I still remember the first sentence I learned. It’s the same for most children in the situation.

“Pui j’aller au toilette?”

Translation; can I go to the bathroom.

Years after I completed this primary education and moved on to Milwaukee School of Languages, actually, once I went to college, I went back to talk to some of my old teachers.

M. M. was my second grade teacher. She shows me around her classroom. Back when I was a student, it was her first year as a full teacher and not just an assistant. She can still recite the names of all the students from that class. It isn’t surprising; most of us still visit. More impressive is that she can recite the scores we got in Le Grande Concours, a national French Contest.

When class starts I sit in for a few minutes. They don’t really pay attention to me; apparently Milwaukee Public Schools, the district, does a lot of showing them off. With the media taking shots at MPS every few weeks, it’s no surprise.

Eventually I wander off to go see the rest of the building. I inevitably end up outside the classroom of D. M..

D. M. is now a kindergarten teacher, and the mother of two of my best friends. She’s also the go to person for dealing with adults. I get there to hear her instructing a music lesson. The children sing in time, though not necessarily in tune, to the characteristic song of the spring concert; Tous Les Mots (roughly translating to “all the words”). It’s a song that says that everything you say, no matter what kind of word it is, is a word of love. Even now I can recite it without thinking too hard.

“Tous les mots, qu’on ce lance, les p’tits mots de tous les jours…”

“All the words we throw, the little words of the everyday” would be a direct translation.

Somehow I get coerced into helping her teach the song, and by the time D. M. has a snack ready, the kids are more or less in tune. This group is younger than the group M. M. was instructing. Before I entered I was specifically instructed not speak a word in English. D. M. described the rule as a necessity. “In order to learn a language, a child must be immersed in it. These kids are immersed in English at home. Here they must be immersed in French.”

It’s raining, so recess takes place indoors. It’s interesting, but their play consists largely of English and French patterning, instead of actual words in either language. According to M S., the retired librarian, patterning is how children figure out a language. While a young child (born-about ten years old) is learning a language, they don’t start with actual words. They make sounds that sound like the language, in enunciations and rhythms that sound like the language’s grammar, but it isn’t actually the language yet. For most children, patterning ends at about three, (not that that means you can understand what they’re saying) but learning a second language increases how long a child patterns, and also alters the size and shape of the language portion of their brain, making it easier to learn another language in the future.

I meet M. S. for lunch. As of last year, she is retired, but she was with Milwaukee French Immersion for almost thirty years. I can tell just how well she remembers me by the fact that she instantly pulls out a hair brush and rubber band.

I tell her about M. M.’s class being used to visitors and she rolls her eyes. “Yes, the district is eager to show off what’s working, but it doesn’t really get why MFIS works. Children rise to meet expectations. We set high expectations and always have.”

The district certainly is eager to show off what works. Milwaukee Public Schools has been the dart board of media and politics in recent years. The Wall Street Journal publishes opinion pieces that support an intervention of the private school.   The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel can consider such articles a dime a dozen. Election years see the New York Times riddled with stories about rulings designed to “improve” failing districts, MPS right at the top of the list. They aren’t the only ones.

But, Milwaukee French Immersion is working.

Le Grande Concours is a national French contest,  and it proves that Milwaukee French Immersion. Every year several thousand students in the US sit down to a test.

Yes, that’s right, a test.

More incredible, at least at Milwaukee French Immersion, the students like this test. Okay, maybe they don’t like it, but they do like the results.

Prizes. Some of these prizes are physical; plaks, medals and certificates all with shiny lettering and metallic colors, but the real prize is a ranking. A grade level ranking, both in Wisconsin and nationally. Milwaukee French Immersion students always hold high ranks in State, and often they don’t break triple digits nationally. These prizes are presented in front of the whole school with great ceremony, and the students like that.

I ask M. S. what she thinks the value of this education is if the students don’t continue on with a language oriented middle school, aside from the obvious prestige and prizes. “Continue or not, their brains will still be designed to learn language. Continue or not, they have all learned expectations. That gives them the freedom to do anything.”


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