Language is the glue that holds them together

"Join le groupe francaisAlthough the teachers may change, the fun goes on and on for the members of Josette Hendrix's French group. The group meets Monday evenings at 7 p.m. at Hendrix's Clinton home. Since it operates as a class, there is a charge of $15 per session. To join, contact Hendrix at 579-2416.A lot has changed in French class since Pat Westling was in high school.Westling, a teacher at South Whidbey Intermediate School, tried to keep her French in practice during the years after high school. But by the mid-1980s, she realized that she could not speak the language in a way that a French person could understand. She could still read French and write in the language, but it was clearly time to go back to school.She did, along the more than a dozen other people who signed up for the South Whidbey Community School's advanced French course in 1986. Almost everyone in the class thought their studies would last a semester or two -- just enough time to knock the rust off and get ready for a trip to the Continent.Instead, the class's recommitment to the language has lasted a decade or more for some of the participants. Carolyn Sundquist started with the class in 1988 and quickly became addicted to the informal weekly French class.Basically, we met around dining room tables, Sundquist said.Betty Maddeford was the first teacher of the class. Like her students, she also needed to refresh her command of the language. With 20 students signed up for that first class in 1986, Maddeford was surprised to find herself with a pool of French talent. Some of her early students had been college French majors. Others had studied the language for years. But all that study happened a long time ago.A lot of it was just dredging it from the past, Maddeford said.And dredge they did, with the help of textbooks, worksheets, and two hours a week of French conversation. Maddeford helped her students stay the course for 11 years. In 1997, Maddeford was able to take pleasure in a job well done when she handed over her instructional materials to one of her students, Bonnie Thompson. Thompson, a former college French major, joined the class three years ago to keep her skills sharp. Classmates, like Lael Saunders, figured Thompson would not remain just a student for long.She just spectated at first, Saunders said.All the talking around those dining room tables with Maddeford and Thompson resulted in more than refining the language. In 1993, Nancy Francis rented a house in Paris and invited her classmates to visit. Several did, just to be with friends and to have an excuse to use their language skills. The bonds made in a language class are strong ones.It's the closeness we develop by learning something new, Pat Westling said.There was also an unquenchable curiosity that came out of learning. Four members of the current French group took several weeks out of their lives to study French at Paris' Alliance Francaise, the premier French school in the world for non-French speakers. The expense of trips to France or just for the weekly lessons is worth the price.It keeps our minds open for new ideas, Westling said.Thompson recently quit as a class teacher because she moved to Oak Harbor. Without Maddeford or Thompson to run the class, the group now meets for Monday night lessons at Josette Hendrix's home. Fortunately, the students have not skipped a beat in the changeover. Sitting in Hendrix's living room last month during their first meeting with their new teacher, the students read short stories and paragraphs. It was obvious the group members have done this for some time -- it is only in the rarest of circumstances that someone breaks into English. French is the official language of the group from beginning to end, and even a bit beyond the end some Mondays.The tales group members tell often start predictably with the phrase Mon mari et moi ... -- meaning My husband and I. Not a big surprise, considering almost everyone in the group is female and married. The phrase is often rewarded with a good-natured chuckle from one or more of the students. Everybody has to have a sense of humor to be in this class, Nancy Francis said.These days, class size hovers between eight and 10 students. Students join the class, students quit the class. A few return, and even fewer stay on for the long haul. Both Maddeford and Thompson attribute the attrition to the work required in their class. While class members generally enjoy speaking French, the reading and writing assignments the two teachers handed out tended to turn some students off.People want to converse, not study, Maddeford said.The students who do stick around say they can hardly help but show up every Monday.We're all francophiles, Sundquist said."

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