“Bonjour, Jean. Comment Vas-Tu?”

Right now, there’s a proposal on the table — la table — to eliminate middle school French within 3 years.

Mon dieu!

While that’s not the extent of my French ability, it’s close.

It’s all ALM’s fault.

If you didn’t go to school in the 1960s, you missed out didn’t miss anything. ALM was a language instruction method rooted in rote repetition. Wikipedia says it was “discredited as a teaching methodology in 1970,” but those of us who suffered through it then (and after) in Westport have it seared in our brains.

“Où est Sylvie? A la piscine.”

“La neige est belle aujourd-hui.”

And something about mounting a balcony. Plus, of course, Monsieur et Madame Thibault.

Other victims students from that era have similar ridiculous and basically useless sentences embedded in our memories, crowding out anything remotely resembling vocabulary, grammar or the rest of the French language.

Which is not to say that learning French at Long Lots Junior High School was not memorable.

My 8th grade teacher was Carmen Delgado. A large, imposing and very loud woman, she was — as her name implies — not French, French-Canadian or even Cajun, but rather Puerto Rican.

Louis Pasteur, a French scientist who gained fame for inventing a cure for rabbis.

English was probably her 3rd language, which is why she said such things as “Louis Pasteur invented a cure for rabbis.”

At least that is understandable. What were 13-year-olds to make of “Daniel, what is it you are staring at? The moon of Valencia?”

I have obviously remembered at least as much English from Mademoiselle Delgado as I have French.

Also cemented into my cerebrum is a play we produced, “Astérix et Cléopâtre.” Based on what Mademoiselle assured us were very popular French cartoon figures, it probably broke every licensing law in the books. How she had the cojones to charge admission — it was only $1, but back then that was real francs — to watch us mangle the French language is beyond me. Yet that was part of Mademoiselle’s charm.

As it turns out, I have not had many opportunities to show off my lack of French. I have traveled to 5 continents, and over 3 dozen countries, but only one of them was French-speaking. (It was France, of all places). It did not snow there, and I did not need to know that Sylvie was at the pool, but I managed to eat, drink and find the bathroom (salle de bain).

I even was able — thanks to Monsieur et Madame Thibault — to know which door to use.

The snow is beautiful today. Is that Monsieur Thibault on his bicyclette?

67 responses to ““Bonjour, Jean. Comment Vas-Tu?”

  1. This made me think of my own 6 years taking Spanish. One of the few things I actually remember (or maybe one of the few things I haven’t repressed) is some stupid song about an Elephant balancing on a spiders string. I really don’t see how this would help me in Spain yet our instructor insisted on singing it day in and day out.

    • The Dude Abides

      My class at Beford Junior HIgh School, (1961-62) was the “pilot class” for ALM with the Delgesi (sp?) sisters teaching Spanish and English. I sat next to a beautiful blond, who had just migrated from Cuba and spoke Spanish perfectly, in the ole second floor of the ancient Staples Building. To this day I still greet Orlando at the YMCA with “Como esta? Estoy bien gracias e tu?” I ended up actually learning more in a summer of construction in Houston than the five bloody years with ALM Spanish.

  2. Peter Gambaccini

    I took ALM Spanish. The dialogue from Unit 1, which I learned in 7th grade, which was in 1962 (I think), is still etched in my mind. I was glad to learn that Isabel was “bien, gracias.” I still know how to ask “a donde queda la biblioteca” even though I’ve always been able to find libraries on my own. I never really did understand why one guy was worried that “hay dos chicas alli” but the other guy’s response, “que, te parece mal” is a useful phrase in an enormous range of conversations and I still employ it. The man who taught me all of this was from the Bronx.
    Not that I would know one way or the other, but I didn’t realize ALM had been discredited. What do they teach now?
    I’d type more except “tengo que leer el periodico.” Actually, “es la hora de dormir.” Actually it was “la hora de dormir” about “seis horas” ago. “Caramba!”
    The secret to knowing just a little Spanish? Just say “pues” in response to just anything. It works.

  3. LOL, Dan!!

  4. Carissa Simon Keepin

    Love this, Dan! Oh the memories if ALM Spanish at Coleytown Jr. High with Mr. Sweeny! Every time Charlie F. was called upon, no matter what the question was, he would always answer, “No sabe esquiar” (I don’t know how to ski!). It cracked us all up every time! At our high school reunion this summer, it was the first thing I said to Charlie when I saw him. Ha!

  5. Bitte, nichts in die becken werfen! –Karl Decker

  6. After my first year in college I took a summer course. We had a project to do and we decided to meet at someone’s house. This someone (his name was Tony) was married to Dianne Carrera, my 8th grade French teacher. Wow was she pretty.I had Mrs. Barrows for 7th grade and all we did was memorize dialogues, (I still know all of Bonjour Jean…) The first day in Dianne’s class she asked us to conjugate avoir and etre. No one knew what she was talking about. It was down hill after that.

    • Diane Carriera was my 9th grade French teacher — it was her first year teaching, she was not yet married, and her name was Diane Scognamiglio. So I went from a Puerto Rican French teacher to one with an Italian name no one could pronounce. Diane was extremely beautiful, and very classy — and she still is.

      • This has to be the same Mrs.Carriera that made me fall in love with French, one of my all-time favorite teachers who had me call myself “Jacque” when in class. I do wonder if she would have been around for a SHS class of 94’er (so Bedford or Long Lots, can’t remember which). Was she still teaching in Westport in the late eighties (87? maybe)?

  7. Louis Pasteur gained fame for finding a “cure for rabbis”? As a Temple Israel member, and with the house cleaning going on there, I can’t help but think of many witty remarks…however, I haven’t had my coffee yet.

  8. After 4 years of French in another CT high school, I learned enough to be able to read French when I encounter it in musical scores or in French towns and cities. At college, we had a strict language proficiency requirement, and that is how I mastered conversational German which was useful when working in Switzerland and Germany in the late 1990s. Eliminating French from Westport middle schools, without knowing if the experiment with Mandarin in successful, would be a major mistake. We would be the only Gold Coast town to do so. Those who agree should come to the BOE meeting Monday night at SHS and voice their opinion!

  9. I believe he found a cure for rabies, we still have a few
    “Rabbis” around

  10. Westporter Since '03

    I have always bragged to my family and friends about the fact that Westport schools offered foreign language (Spanish in the elementary level) at an early level, which is when the brain is supposed to be most receptive to learning another language… meanwhile, many others towns renowned for their school systems (such as Chappaqua, NY) don’t introduce even foreign language until the middle school level.

    So, I was dismayed to learn from my 12-year-old BMS student that Westport might discontinue offering French in middle school. My French-born mother was outright shocked. (FYI: both “dismay” and “shock” have their roots in French)…

    En fait (“in fact”), if one gives credence to Wikipedia, “According to different sources, nearly 30% of all English words have a French origin” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_French_origin; that number does not include combination words that use a French word, such as “ice cream” and “grapefruit;” the article also includes an enormous list of words derived from French).

    Consider, too, how many areas of our culture derive their vocabulary almost exclusively from French words: cuisine, ballet, fashion, among others…

    Perhaps because last year they introduced Mandarin into the middle school language selection ? (My brother-in-law – now in his 50’s – built a successful career in Asia, based on his expertise in Mandarin language.)

    Of course, when my parents spent 2 weeks in China last September; they noted that most of the people they encountered wanted to learn one thing: what else but ENGLISH.

  11. Oh, Dan! Thank you for the opportunity to finally be able to use these phrases! Donne moi encore un morseau de sucre s’il te plait , Francoise.
    Je vais chercher du bon vin…..a la cave.
    C’est peut etre un accident?
    My favorite was: Est-ce que mon apartement vous plait? My father (who never studied French) heard me practicing this aloud and thought I was saying, “Can the Eskimos come out and play?”

  12. I did not have the pleasure of learning French through ALM, but my husband, a Westport native, did. He and I still quote dialogue from that classic: “Dis donc! Il pleue”, for example, or my favorite, “Il faut que J’aille
    â la biblioteque.”, which, absurdly, introduced the subjunctive in the first lesson. Happily, Mark achieved fluency anyway (a year studying in France helped), and I, as a language teacher, now use a much more sensible approach, known as the direct method.

    But one last question is bothering me. I was unaware of a cure for either rabbis or rabies.

  13. Allo, Passy Vingt Deux Quinze? Oui, Qui est a la pareil? That’s what I still remember from French I in Alexandria, Virginia, where ALM was taught the very year you say it was discredited! I don’t know — somehow memorizing those dialogues did give a basis for some knowledge, kind of a reliable fallback, and I don’t think Middlebury’s summer Russian program 8 years later operated much differently. My teacher taught us to read wine bottle labels in eighth grade — ! — and required us to investigate an Impressionist painter on our own, including traveling to an art museum on the weekend. Magnifique.

  14. J. Van Gelder

    As with most traumatic experiences, intil I read your article, I had completely forgotten ALM. ALM was very successful in convincing me that I couldn’t speak a foreign language…imagine my surprise when I learned one!

  15. @Dana – Loved your comment !!

  16. As a college sophomore I (SHS ’66 and BJHS ’62) was summoned, along with my roomie, Brian McCarthy SHS ’67 and Long Lots ’63, to our French professor’s office. Our prof asked, “You gentlemen have taken six years — SIX YEARS — of French in the Westport, CT public schools and can’t even manage a coherent sentence?” “Oui,” Brian replied, proving our professor wrong.

  17. Mary Jo Thomas Phillips

    I also took three years of French at Long Lots (’63)…doesn’t anyone remember Miss Yasigian, our petite and extremely buxom teacher? She wore low-cut, cocktail-type dresses and most of the boys were tall enough to look right down into her cleavage. Mr. Topp (?) was also very fond of the view. She used to amaze us with tales of undressing in a cabana on the French Riveria and being nude on the beach. Comments like that today would probably result in her being relieved of her job teaching impressionable adolescents. I have lots of great memories of Long Lots, after moving to Westport from the West coast in the middle of seventh grade! Everyone was wonderful. I made some life-long friends at Long Lots!

  18. Thanks, Dan! I have always remembered Ms. Delagdo as one of the good ones! Yes, we had some of that ALM “Dis Donc. Ou est la biblioteque?” crap, but Carmen had us create our own menus for a field trip to a French restaurant (I still have the awards relic she had us make!) and create a full, formal production of “Batman” in French! Do you have any more info about Ms. Delgado?

    • Zut alors! I had completely forgotten about the sing-song “Dis donc!”

      As for Mlle Delgado, she was not rehired after my 8th grade year, for reasons no one every figured out, and which are probably now lost in the mists of time. She was truly a gifted and passionate educator.

      She went on to become (I believe) an administrator and then educational consultant in the Washington, DC area. Last I knew, she was retired in Puerto Rico. When we spoke last, she asked about “Andre” et “Guillaume” et “Alain” — she remembered us all.

  19. I started my French language learning with the inimitable Mrs. Field at Burr Farms, who taught us to tell time, sing the Marseillaise, and take attendance in La Belle Langue. Formal written instruction began with Mr. Piper and Mrs. Rice at Coleytown JHS, replete with M. et Mme. Thibaut — we memorized the heck out of those dialogues! Flash forward to today: I have a DOCTORATE in French literature and am a professor at a regional university. My love for the language — and my aptitude for it — were identified and cemented in middle school. And there were some amazing skits involving pies in the face and my impression of Roseanne Roseanna Danna making banana-pineapple bread. Madame Rice could hardly contain herself! Vive le français à Westport!

  20. I, too, was an unwitting party to the ALM scam back at Long Lots from ’77-79 with the beautiful Diane Carriera. And while the Thibaults will always have a special place in my heart, for some reason the phrases “tais-toi!” and “tu m’agace!” have special meaning, too. I also got a lot of mileage out of knowing Diane’s maiden name was Scognamigliio, a tidbit which I believe I picked up from my Long Lots soccer coach 🙂

    • Amazing — and scary — that ALM was still being taught in 1977-’79, after having been “discredited” nearly a decade earlier!

  21. Hola, Isabel. Como estas? Caramba! Se me olvido el cuaderno!

  22. 8th grade, French class (ALM!) at Coleytown JHS taught by the straight-from-central-casting Mr. Piper. Most vivid memory would be the massive eraser fight my friend Colin Rankine and I got in, resulting in Mr. Piper literally chasing the two of us to the principal’s office, cussing us out in French (way to stay in character!) as we ran down the curved hallways of Coleytown JHS, trying to stay ahead of him in his incensed state (Mr. Piper’s temper being known to us from the previous “tack on the teacher’s chair incident”). Ah, youth!

    • I remember thinking Ms. Boardman at CJHS was very attractive as a teenage boy. She taught spanish, too – which I still remember a little of.

      I had heard about the infamous Mr. Piper tack on chair incident. From what I hear, the 70s were rough on him.

    • omg, Monsieur Piper. Je me souviens.

  23. Learning any language is difficult. Loved the article Dan! Your former student, Julie

  24. Loved this whole exchange! As soon as I read your headline, Dan, I knew the post was about ALM French.

  25. We were also subjected to the NEW English and the NEW Math in the mid-60’s. Progressive Westport schools, lol.

  26. Ms Delgado, I remember her well, but I was at Long Lots (wasn’t I) still don’t speak french

  27. Scott E. Brodie


    Even your wonderful post does not convey the immense energy and enthusiasm of Carmen Delgado — she was a Force of Nature! I count myself lucky to have learned from her for three years at Long Lots. And not just French — about French culture, about holding one’s self to high standards, about the benefits of hard work together.

    The “Asterix” play was a good example. The year before, we had done “Batman” in French — the Batman TV show was all the rage (“Holy Melon!” became “Sacre Melon!”), but Madamoiselle D. wanted us to do something more authentically French. We worked through both the Asterix and Tintin illustrated books (Hollywood just discovered Tintin this year!), and chose the former. Everyone got involved (I did the lights.) The Staples SSO’s new print shop printed three-color posters. A pyramid designed and hammered together by the students “grew” onstage to the tune of the Grand March from Aida!

    The AL-M materials may have been tedious and pedagogically sub-optimal, but Mlle D hardly used them for much more than a starting point, anyway. The fancy “language lab” equipment never worked well, and was rarely used. But we had lots of drills, plenty of grammar instruction, frequent quizzes and tests (no partial credit!), and lots of special projects. The crack about Pasteur curing “Rabbis” came in response to a student’s report on Pasteur, which had omitted this item from Pasteur’s C.V. Mlle. D’s way with the English language was part of the fun, and made us less self-conscious of our own struggles with the phonemes of French (“Je refewse”!, not “Je refooze”!). She had a particular difficulty confusing the pronunciation of the words “where” and “were” — the hapless student who wandered into class a few minutes late could count on a pitiless glare and the scathing question: “Were where you?”

    When all was said and done, three years with Mlle D, and two more years of AL-M French at Staples were good enough for me to satisfy my graduate study Mathematics foreign language requirement, to read popular magazines and scholarly journals to this day, and to enjoy a performance of Moliere by the Comedie Francaise in Paris.

    Our children with their “No Child Left Behind” exams and the attendant standardization of the curriculum should be so lucky!

    Scott E. Brodie (Long Lots ’65-’67).

  28. Yesterday afternoon at The Piggly Wiggly (Lund’s Utpown), near a posh in-store deli counter, here in Minneapolis, i overheard two young women speaking French. So i interjected.

    “Tu es Francaise”? i said.
    “Yes” they said.
    “From the North or the South”, i said.
    “The middle” one said.
    Long silent pause. (Mmmmmm…ahhh..(
    “Burgundy” i said (all i could think was Rick Steves and Wine, as i am not at all clear of Burgundy’s precise location.).
    “Yeeeessss” one said.
    (Whoa i said to myself, did i just say that?).
    “How do you like tc (Twin Cities)?”, i asked.
    “We teach immersion French to kids”
    “Cool i teach esl here”

    “I realize that there is not much to do here sometimes … would
    you like to see a local theater show sometime, a French architect designed the building — ?
    “Yeah! Sure! French women are the greatest!”
    Thank you, 7th Grade French at Bedford with Ms Koelewyn.
    Thank you, 10th Grade French at Staples with Mr. Caron Keenan.

  29. they should not eliminate french at middle school level. the more instruction before university, the better. french is a very important in investment banking, especially for americans interested in working with former colonies of france that are rich in the sources of energy and also the minerals we don’t have enough of here. it’s also important in the biotech sector.

  30. According to Newt, Spanish is a ghetto language.

  31. The phrase that always stuck with me from first-year Spanish (with the fiery Miss Gibbons at Coleytown) was “Que lastima. Que se mejore pronto.” “What a shame. I hope you feel better soon.”

  32. I suffered through French at Coleytown & Staples. I wasn’t a good student. Just Bs. After Staples, made first trip to France. It was those fundamentals I learned at Westport that allowed me to become conversant in French and six other languages, including German, Japanese, Chinese. I have exported millions of $ of US products and created multi_millions in shareholder value over the years. Westport should be teaching foreign languages from the 1st grade, when young minds are most malleable.

  33. Now this all makes sense to me.
    I went to a parochial elementary school in another town and didn’t study french until I entered public high school. My first year french class had students who were new to the language and those who had studied french in middle school. Must have been the same method that you describe above because none of the kids who had studied it before knew any more french than those of us who were new to it. But my husband, who was in public middle school (yes, we were high school sweethearts) every so often still blurts out “allo, passy vingt deux quinze?” I never knew where that came from.
    And I’ve waited all my life for my aunt to loose her pen so I could reply “La plume de ma tante is sur la table”. Unfortunately all my aunts are dead now so I’ll never get to use it.

    Passy vingt-deux-quinze”

    • “Allo, Passy vingt-duex-quinze” seems to have stuck with all of us. Someone should do a study on that. It’s truly bizarre.

  34. Ah oui,
    c’est ca,
    BrAh bon !
    Ah yes, I remember it well.

  35. In the early 80s at Bedford, we were still learning memorizing the scintillating details of M. and Mme Thibaut’s life. I don’t believe it was the ALM system but some brown textbook called “Voix and Visages” (voices and faces). I still have a copied that I “borrowed”. Don’t tell.

    My brother and I also quote phrases to each other. We were quite excited when we got to Paris and were able to see Place D’Italie, where the Thibaut’s supposedly lived at numero dix. (Is there an elevator? Oui, il y a un ascensor.)

    I understand that some languages are more useful than others but phasing French classes out is very sad indeed.

    On a slightly related note — Dan, what about the Westport Individualized Math Program with the unfortunate acronym of WIMP? That was horrendous!

    • I actually really enjoyed WIMP. I finished the semester early, which was great. I wonder what happened to this approach.

      @Dan. I still remember the Thibaut family as well. Very funny.

  36. Today’s NY Times has an interesting debate — involving several voices — on the importance of learning another language: http://www.nytimes.com/skimmer/#/Opinion//www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/01/29/is-learning-a-language-other-than-english-worthwhile

  37. Gwen Dwyer Lechnar

    I remember Mlle Delgado fondly too. I only found out recently, trying to learn Spanish in my 50’s while living in Mexico, that “delgado” means “thin”. Remember Mlle Delgado?!
    I think it almost goes without saying (as I say it anyway) that languages should be taught at a much younger age than middle school.
    And, Dan, maybe I’m wrong, but wasn’t it “Bonjour , JEANNE”?

  38. “Ou vas-tu?
    Je vais a la bibliotheque.”
    My favorite was “Je te garde une place”.
    (I grew up in a different town, but we had ALM, too, beginning with Miss O’Toole, and later Mr. Cullen – the victim of frequent plots to all drop our pencils at 1:44.)
    Actually, ALM worked to provide us with a sense of language structure, basic conversational style, and better accents.

  39. Mon Dieu — if you had Mademoiselle Delgado you surely recall the wild games we would play in class — relay races (passé la baton!) — and our teams would be the grenouille (frogs) vs. the lapin (rabbits) or whatever animal suited her fancy de jour. I have spoken my pathetic pigeon ALM French in Montreal when my car broke down in the 70’s (Moi voiture est mort. Je pense le voltage regulateur) and in Paris in the 1990s while shopping and apparently serving as amusement for the bored shop girls. (Je marché et pensé — apparently trying to communicate that I was walking around and thinking — something along those lines laid them in the aisles). I have also resorted to my completely inept français to find a common language in Greece (Parlez-vous français? Je parle un peu de français.) enough to find a boulangerie. My name in class was Françoise and I remember that when her nostrils flared — LOOK OUT! She had a temper. When she started swearing in Spanish you knew you had pushed whatever buttons she had to the sticking point. Silencio!! She was a force of nature. But a true treasure. No one has yet mentioned Madame Oulette who also taught at least a year I think at Long Lost (er Lots) ….thanks Dan for bringing back the memories.

  40. In the 1960s, I substitute taught for every one of the magnificent French teachers mentioned above. I loved it. In Weston, they had a French program for 5th graders which I commandeered for 3 weeks. I was exhausted by the end of the day…puppets, songs, games..anything that would hold their attention.

    In the junior high classes, I taught French as a “code” to be broken by my classroom spys. That worked for a while.

    At Staples, a young boy asked me for a pass out of class. When I asked what for, the response: “I’m too stoned to sit in class.”

    But I must add this: Since no schools actually teach grammar anymore, learning a foreign language is the only way the next generation will learn what adjectives, adverbs, etc., are. And how about the subjunctive?

    Like, I mean…ya know?!

  41. Catherine Lochtefeld Sirianni

    Il y a un sapin sur la colline. Chapeaux à Mesdames Bellous et Djakov au bout nord du Westchester.

  42. Ken Arroyo

    I started taking French in high school in the ’70’s. The curriculum used the ALM textbooks. Not only did I squeeze the first two years into one, I aced French III and kept on running with it in college. My high school teacher Mme. Mahieux got us subscriptions to Paris-Match, constantly criticized our accents, and refused to converse with us in anything else but French. To this day I still enjoy reading, speaking, and writing in French and seldom need to read subtitles at the movies. ALM works.

  43. I had ALM French in high school in the 1980’s. I enjoyed reading these posts…really brought back memories of those silly dialogues. I now have an MA in French, but I must say that there was something about those dialogues that helped me with my pronunciation.

  44. I had ALM French in early 80’s. Two years and can’t parlez rien. But every time I’m about to pick a bottle of pre-sex wine, je me souvien of Monsieur Thibault’s undying “je vai cherche du bon vin”.

  45. In our French Level one class one day, the regular teacher was absent.
    The substitute, had our lesson for the day as being the one from the beginning of the week, the word we were studying was “travailler”, (to work),
    he started off the lesson as being for the correct word, and assigned the word the meaning “to travel”!!! He was really upset when I corrected his notion of what the word really meant. I never had any real respect for him after that, substitute teachers, who needs them, send the class to “study hall” instead!!!

  46. La neige est belle aujourd’hui. Si on allait faire du ski?
    Chic alors! J’ai envie d’essayer mes skis neuves.
    Tu me pret tes vieux skis alors?
    Il ne sont pas trop longs?
    Mais non. je suis plus grand toi!
    Bon, d’accord, mais vas-y ducement.

    -forgotten line-
    Allons! Debout! Ne restez pas dans la neige!
    Je ne peut pas. Je me suis casse la jambe.
    Casse! O mon Dieu! Mes skis!
    Je t’en pris. Ce ne pas la moment.
    Ca fait mal?
    Quel question! Va cherchez un docteur!

    From 8th grade, Chatham (NJ) Middle school, 1967-8
    My mind slowly crumbles but this remains….

    Does any one have the line that began the second side of the record?
    We had to write the whole thing out repeatedly AND perform it, playing first one character, then the other. It is embedded in every fold of my brain…