Sunday night blues and Monday morning phobia are common, Tuesday evening anxiety less so. Yet, at home, the three of us dread Tuesdays.
Tuesdays are now known as the “six mots” day, a weekly homework writing exercise a native French speaker and skilled translator/copywriter/proofreader is struggling to complete, let alone an English-speaking first grader.
Every week, Mark comes home with six pieces of paper, each with a different word on it, and his “six mots” exercise book. He has to make three or four sentences with these six words, then draw a picture.
Last October, when the chore started, I skimmed through the seven-page printed instructions given to parents—self-explanatory exercise, right? As someone who makes a living writing sentences, I was looking forward to spending thirty fun creative minutes with Mark.
I glanced at the words, assuming he had just learned them at school.
“Kiwi, un ami, arrive, joue, le pupitre, bonjour…Huh, weird choices. You know what these words mean, right?”
He didn’t. Never mind, line two of my resume, I can translate from English to French and from French to English—ta-da, look at me, honey!
“Okay, now that you understand the words, just make a sentence.”
There are plenty of notions that we, adults, have trouble with but that kids embrace very easily if you just present them as facts. “Of course, two guys can be in love! Two girls can be too!” “Killing is wrong.” “It’s completely okay to disagree with someone, we’re all different.” “Girls can be as strong as guys.” On the other hand, we forget that occasionally, basic concepts, figurative language and facts do need to be explained—a heart doesn’t literally break, parents do have parents and movie characters are not real.
Have you ever tried to explain a six-year-old kid what a sentence is? I went from “a set of words complete in itself” to “a… ahem, words that mean something together” and twenty minutes later, I gave up and completed the homework myself, much to everybody’s relief.
I was kind of annoyed with the teacher—how can a first grader learning French make a proper sentence without prepositions? Does she even realize how hard it is to work with “hello,” “kiwi,” the desk,” “a friend,” “to arrive” and “to play”?
Eventually, Mark kind of understood the point of the exercise—the key was apparently to skip the explanation and just do it.
I spent weeks hoping for words that could be used easily. Since it’s a basic French language exercise, why not start with “je,” “suis” and an adjective? Instead, I had to be creative with “brick” (vocabulary for future construction workers?), “glue” (vocabulary for future drug addicts?) or “stable” (for future farmers?). At first, I thought the words were related to a classroom activity, an upcoming holiday, some theme I had missed. But we had “Christmas tree” in January or “chocolate” and “rabbit” in November, so I have come to accept that the teacher probably opens the dictionary and picks six random words. We’re probably going to get “anticonstitutionnellement” before the end of the year.
This is how we tackle the exercise now. First, I make sure Mark knows what the words mean. If he doesn’t, he writes them down in French and in English. Then I come up with a sentence in English and ask him to translate it to French using the words in front of him.
This week, we had “le pain” (bread), “un légumes” (vegetable), “matin” (morning), “mardi” (Tuesday), “par” (by), and “est-ce que” (an interrogative form).
“Mark, you can write… how do you say ‘is bread a vegetable?’”
“Est-ce que le pain est un légume?”
“Perfect! And since it’s a question, what do you put at the end? … Mark? Hey, I asked you a question, Mark!”
Feng bursts out laughing, Mark doesn’t bat an eye. “A question mark.”
“Awesome. Go ahead, write the sentence down.”
Then I came up with “Je vais à l’école le mardi” (I go to school on Tuesday) and “Est-ce que tu aimes le pain au chocolat?” (Do you like chocolate bread?).
“Show me. Okay… so you’re missing the accent on ‘à,’ a ‘u’ à ‘que,’ it’s ‘au chocolat’ not ‘ou chocolat’… oh, and for both ‘est-ce que,’ you need a big ‘e’ since it’s the first letter of the sentence.”
“Got it. No worries. I can do it.”
Five minutes later, Mark comes back with his notebook: “est-ce que le pain est un legume? Je vais à l’école le mardi. est-ce que tu aimes le pain au chocolat?”
“Mark! Not literally a ‘big e’! A capital ‘e,’ like ‘E’.”
“Right. I’ll do it.”
Two minutes later…
“Est-cE quE lE pain Est un lEgume? JE vais à l’écolE lE mardi. Est-cE quE tu aimEs lE pain au chocolat?”
“Mark! Only the first two ‘e’ at ‘est-ce que’! Why did you uppercase all the ‘e’?”
One minute later.
“Ést-cé qué lé pain ést un légume? Jé vais à l’écolé lé mardi. Ést-cé qué tu aimés lé pain au chocolat?”
“… My eyes hurt. Why? Like, why?”
“… Couldn’t remember which ‘e’ had the accent, so I put it on all of them…”
Remind me, how many Tuesdays are left until the end of the term?