Let’s hear back from one of our old laureates: Jacob Hamburger!
Back up: Apart from being the leading French language and cultural center of Chicago, for the last 35 years, the Alliance Française has been proud to send outstanding students to France each year under the Alliance Française de Chicago McCormick Award for Excellence Scholarship Program.
Back up further: What is this scholarship? The purpose of the Alliance Française de Chicago McCormick Award for Excellence Scholarship Program is to provide scholarships for American students to study French language and culture in France. The scholarship provides round-trip air transportation, tuition for a pre-approved language and civilization course, at the Sorbonne, and a stipend for living expenses for a four-week stay in Paris.
The Alliance awards a limited number of these scholarships each year to deserving high school seniors from the Chicago metropolitan area who are chosen from among finalists earning top scores on the National French Exam – Grand Concours.
Okay, back up-to-speed: Jacob Hamburger is a graduate student at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, whose work has focused on Cold War liberalism and neo-conservatism in France and the United States. His journalistic writings have appeared in numerous publications in both English and French, and he has translated authors including Michel Foucault and Marcel Gauchet. Jacob covers American politics for the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, with whom he recently co-created a special report entitled “Feeling the Burn”. He is also the editor of Tocqueville 21, a blog devoted to democratic politics and ideas in the twenty-first century.
But before he was all that, he was a recipient of the Alliance McCormick scholarship. We asked him a couple of questions to get into the head of a top scholar and to also see language, traveling and education through his eyes.
Why do you think it’s vital to learn a new language?
“It’s important to learn a new language because until you do, you don’t realize how much of the world is closed off to you. For English speakers, it’s easy to assume that because so many people around the world learn your language, you can travel to more or less any country, communicate with more or less anyone, read more or less any book in translation, etc. It’s only once you learn another language that you realize that people in other countries not only say different words, but speak and think differently, have entirely different assumptions about the world. Even learning a language as similar to English as French opens up a vast territory that is otherwise inaccessible.”
How did receiving this scholarship benefit you?
“Since I received the Alliance McCormick scholarship, learning and knowing French has never stopped opening up new opportunities. When I was in college, for example, I was able to earn a grant to return to Paris to conduct archival research for my history thesis. After I graduated, I returned yet again to complete a master’s degree in philosophy at the École normale supérieure. During this time, I began writing as a journalist in French, notably for the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, as I continue to do.”
Who introduced you to this prize?
“Nobody ‘introduced’ me to the Alliance McCormick scholarship. I had no idea it existed, but during my senior year of high school I took the Grand Concours, sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of French, as I had done every year. I always did well on the test, and I received prizes that included a small French flag, a t-shirt, and a gift card for $5 to Starbucks. Nearing the end of high school, I almost didn’t take the test again. Luckily, however, I did, and a few weeks later my French teacher called me on the phone to tell me I was a finalist for a 4-week language study in Paris. The rest is history…”
We thank Jacob for a continued connection with us, here at the Alliance, and for taking the time to talk with us and his past, present and future!
A bientôt !
This Spring, we had the pleasure of learning more about Robert, Annika and Martiene, former students of the Alliance and Chez Kids Academy! Read more about their fascinating journey with French!
What was it about the Alliance Française that first interested you?
Both Annika and I studied French in school when we were young…more years ago than we want to admit!We met soon after college, and a few years later I surprised Annika with a trip to Paris for her birthday – with expectations that we would return to France in the future and a desire to communicate with the French in their native language, we began to take classes at Alliance Française de Chicago – we also loved the fact that studying French and conversing with the teachers and other students was a wonderful weekly break from my career working in a sports agency and Annika’s career as a management consultant.
Why do you think it’s important to learn a new language?
We asked our daughter this question, and here is her answer – “you can learn about new cultures and meet new friends and your life can be more interesting” – Annika and I agree – we have always told Martiene that the more languages you know, the more people you can meet and the more friends you can have around the world.
What is the most challenging thing about studying a new language?
Figuring out that there are many languages within each language; of course, in French, there’s the niveaux soutenu, courant/standard, et familier…then add verlan…suddenly, it all makes learning the subjunctive look easier. 🙂
What is the most rewarding thing about studying a new language?
Meeting so many new and interesting people and learning about their culture.
What is your favorite thing you’ve done with French?
Our favorite thing is actually the totality of lots of smaller things, which is to say all of the unique moments we enjoy while living our everyday life in Paris…shopping for groceries at the many different stores on our local market street, talking about wines with the propriétaire of our local wine shop, taking tennis lessons with a French instructor, going to the cinema, chatting with other parents after picking up our daughter at school, dining out with French friends, and even just having a simple conversation with a waiter at an outdoor café.
What has been your favorite Alliance Française class?
We truly loved all of our classes at the Alliance Française de Chicago, and the reason is simple – each of the many teachers with whom we’ve studied have had a wonderful passion for teaching and a strong desire to help us learn, while keeping the topics of discussion very interesting. We have such fond memories of our conversations with Adam about world politics, with Jamal about so many different subjects, and with Philippe about raising children.
What do you want to do with French in the future?
Both the U.S.A. and France will be part of our family’s future, and perhaps another country as well – for now, we will continue studying French while living in Paris and continue to try to gain a greater understanding of the French culture. Of course, one important example is having the ability to properly order popcorn in a French cinema…un mélange de popcorn salé et sucré – c’est délicieux! 🙂
Why do you think teaching your kids a new language is important?
Annika and I want our daughter to think globally – learning another language is one simple step toward understanding both the differences and similarities among us. When a person gets to know other people who speak different languages, come from different cultures, and hold different beliefs about the world around us, friendships and the desire to help one another grow stronger while the racism and bigotry that too often exist in this world begin to disappear.
What is your best “souvenir” at the Alliance Française de Chicago?
For Annika and I, it’s absolutely the friendships we formed with teachers, administrators, other students, and parents who had children in the kid’s program – but we’ll let Martiene have the last word – she said “it’s a happy place where you feel at home and you can meet new friends”.
I had two short but amazing experiences in Paris that started me on my French language-learning journey. I loved the city, food and culture and wanted to go back for a longer stay to see what else France had to offer if I could explore it more on my own. But before I could explore more I had to learn French.
I learned about the Alliance Française from internet searches and other students in my community college French class. The Alliance Française was offering evening classes twice a week and was recommended for language tests by the Teaching Assistants Program in France. Finding out about TAPIF recommendation was what pushed me to start finally taking French classes.
Taking classes twice a week at the Alliance Française
was the best option for me to get into the language. I took classes continually-or as consistently as I could- for a year and a half. Unfortunately, sometimes there weren’t enough people signed up for the next class and it would be canceled. However, in these times I could take the private lessons offered,
which were a great way for me to continue practicing as well as spend time with Anie’s adorable poodle puppy, Gigi.
Learning French at the Alliance Française gave me a foundation I needed when I arrived in France to do TAPIF,as well as providing me with generous help and recommendation letters from my wonderful Alliance Française teachers. Volunteering with the four year olds on Saturday mornings also strengthened my base and gave me an idea of the difficulties of having a small class of children, and it also helped me learn a little more French through songs and simple commands. Even with a great foundation, I found that speaking French in France could be very different than learning in a classroom. Being immersed in a language caused my skills to surge rapidly, largely because I had no other choice.
The worst communication problem I have had in France was when I was moving from one apartment in town to another and I had to cancel my electricity bill. Despite explaining to multiple people the date when I was moving out (not for another week) they still canceled my contract that day. I tried to explain again that I still needed electricity for the rest of the week but all that I could understand from the man helping me was him saying “this is no more” in French. So I asked if, when I went back to my apartment, the lights would work. He told me “don’t worry.” I was worried anyway. Luckily my electricity continued until I moved out, but that was a tense and terrifying week where I thought the lights and internet and
heat would cut out at any minute. I have not had too many moments that were this serious, but these misunderstandings have happened many other times.
Sometimes when I worry about my language abilities I remember that people who speak the same language also have miscommunications and misunderstandings or say the wrong thing, which makes me feel better about making mistakes in French. Luckily I haven’t had any serious encounters or mishaps with the language. Instead I have been able to use my French knowledge to pick up on things I may otherwise not have been able to know.
Prior to learning French, I took Spanish for 7 years in school, so learning the similarities and differences between Spanish, French and English was fun in class, but became crucial in France. I noticed a difference when traveling to other parts of Europe. Spanish in Spain is different, but close enough to the Mexican Spanish I learned in school, while Catalan is like a stranger masquerading as a friendly acquaintance. Dutch and German were once so foreign and confusing they might as well have been using the Cyrillic alphabet. After learning French, I found that all of these languages were sprinkled with tiny clues that I could finally see to get one step closer to a translation and make sense of a sign or even something small like the name of a restaurant. Having another key in the Latin-based language puzzle and, sometimes, Germanic languages has felt rewarding, but so has the fact that I now feel like the travel possibilities for me have opened up in a new way.
While traveling to these different parts of Europe, I was often with a friend I made in this program who is from Spain. It was a new but exciting challenge to travel to different parts of Spain and then Amsterdam with him because our common language is French. So in Spain he would translate for me, and in Amsterdam I had to figure out how to translate for him. I also realized that with three languages between us, the travel possibilities were far reaching. Recently some friends and I went to Andorra.We were in a place that speaks Catalan and between us we had a pretty strong, but not fluent knowledge of Spanish and my own knowledge of French. At one café we went to, a woman spoke to us in French and I was able to order for us all.While asking about hiking at the tourist office, the woman working there kept adding French words and expressions into her speech. In these rare and random moments, I felt like I was in on a secret.
It was thrilling to be able to have another way to communicate with someone, and that is truly my favorite part of having learned a new language. Even when I’m travelling alone, I still feel that I have more opportunities than I had before.
I hope to continue using French in the future,though I don’t yet know what form it will end up taking in my life. It was hard work learning the nuances in pronunciation (French R’s are still difficult), figuring out how to phrase questions, remembering conjugations, and having to rely only on my memory of how a certain phrase sounds so that I could know the proper grammar of a sentence. The easier part was that many words could sound similar, so speaking gives me more leeway, but writing is still a challenge. Text messages take about five minutes for me to craft even a simple response. After this experience in France I hope to continue finding ways to speak French with others so that I don’t lose this ability. I am glad the Alliance Française has many different classes, events, and opportunities to practice and I plan to take advantage of those options in the future.
Thomas was a fantastic student, an avid Francophile and an even better person to be around. We feel lucky that we got to know him and interact with him on so many occasions, always with a smile.
He will be missed by staff and fellow students alike.
Our thoughts are with his family.
What was it about the Alliance Française that first interested you?
I was interested in the Alliance Française because of its reputation as being one of the best French language schools in the world.
Why french/francophone language/culture?
For me it was essential to learn the basics of French because my plan was to move to Paris the following year to get my Masters in Global Communications.
It’s important to learn a new language because it helps you build more meaningful relationships with the native people of that country.
The most challenging thing about studying a new language is understanding that it takes time to become fluent and you will definitely make mistakes.
The favorite thing I’ve done with French was using the language while I was studying abroad in Paris and having the chance to work overseas.
By Monica Fredette (With input from Yves Fredette)
I met the love of my life on March 10, 2007 at Le Festival de la Francophonie at Chicago’s Alliance Française.
It all started with a look at current events in a “Time Out Chicago” magazine while awaiting my hairdresser, Parto Nadiri. As I searched for upcoming events, I circled quite a few things of interest, but quickly honed in on the French event since I felt very at ease using my language skills learned in college and while studying in France.
At the time, it was a $15 ticket and I had a few friends who I thought would join me for an evening celebrating a culture I loved. Unfortunately, none of my friends were free that night. It was only due to my mother’s insistence that I go (because I had reported many wonderful experiences with FAC in NYC), that I braved it alone.
On that night, I decided to wear a beautiful Carolina Herrera dress because when I called to find out the dress code, a gentlemen at the Alliance responded: “Madame, the ambassador of Haiti will be in attendance!”
So in I went with my navy Inès de la Fressange wool swing coat and high heels. No one at the desk informed me that there was a coat room after I checked in, so up the staircase I went. It seemed like a much bigger and wider staircase than in reality, but I was nervous about who I would see once I got to the top of the stairs. I figured I would leave if I felt uncomfortable.
My eyes instantly caught sight of a very handsome man standing close to the top of the stairs. It was obvious, I was out of place in my coat, and without hesitation, I said (as Polly Platt of “Savoir Flair” would have suggested): excuse me, sir, but where is the coat check?” Of course, she would have advised me to say “excusez-moi, Monsieur, mais où se trouve le vestiaire?”
My husband apparently winked at the man with whom he was chatting (confident he would spend the rest of the evening talking to me), and whisked me down the stairs to help me with my coat. I guess he did not want to be presumptive that I wanted to go back to the party with him, so he left me on my own after hanging my coat….
Back up the staircase I went. For no reason other than it was the first
room on the right, I walked into Canada. It turns out my husband is a French Canadian, and he seemed to be on his way out as I walked in. I made the visit brief, then entered the Switzerland room across the hall and got in line for my all time favourite thing, La Raclette. There was the heavenly nutty fragrance of the melted gruyere cheese that they were sliding onto boiled potatoes and serving with cornichons pickles, cocktail onions, a dash of paprika, and a glass of white wine — an incredibly seductive combination! (I don’t ski, but am told this is what everyone eats in the mountains après-ski).
Even more seductive was the man who had helped me with my coat had reappeared in line behind me! All I know is we never took our eyes off one another the rest of the evening. We went back at least 2 more times for more raclette. We conversed about all the ways his French name was spelled throughout history: Fradet, Fradette, Fredette, Frédette….and he wrote all spellings on a Romanian Consulate card (another guest at this event). Then he wrote down 2 of his phone numbers and an e-mail! We perused a table full of French books for sale, and I bought “Lisa in York,” which I still have on our bookshelf. Throughout the night, we spoke French.
Eventually, he offered to walk me home. It was a beautiful night as we slowly strolled toward Chicago Ave. Not far from the Alliance is Holy Name Cathedral, which we saw as we approached the corner of Chicago and State. I told Yves that Holy Name was my church. He said he went there, too! Who knew that in 2008, we would be getting married at that very church?!
Just this past week, we went for our 10th year in a row to Le Festival de la Francophonie. It happened to fall on the exact day we met 10 years ago! The funny thing is that my husband had been going to this particular event on and off for 10 years prior to me showing up. Guess luck was on my side that night as it was my first time going.
We cannot thank the Alliance enough for their dedication to bringing all French cultures together for this special night and for all the cultural events they host throughout the year. We have met so many interesting people with whom we connect based on our shared love of the French language, French food, film, cooking, literature, decorative arts lectures, etc. We feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to have this cultural institution within walking distance from home. It has transformed our lives! Thank You Alliance Française for making our lives better!!!
AF Student Spotlight: Dennis Smithenry
When Dennis Smithenry learned that his ancestors were from Alsace, France, he became motivated to learn French in honor of his family heritage. His journey at the Alliance Française de Chicago began in 2012 when he became a member and started taking French classes.
Growing up in southern Illinois on a farm, his community did not place much value on learning foreign languages. Before starting French classes at the Alliance, Dennis had only taken French in high school, where the curriculum was more focused on writing than speaking. Dennis now benefits from a more well-rounded approach to learning French. “I try to balance the main four: listening, speaking, writing, and reading,” he says.
An education professor at Elmhurst College, Dennis is passionate about learning. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Dennis also conducted postdoctoral research in environmental engineering and science education at Stanford University. You can view his professor bio here.
During his sabbatical, Dennis has been able to combine his academic interests with his love for French by presenting his research in French at a conference in Montréal. Dennis attended the Congrès de l’ACFAS (Association francophonie pour le savoir) from May 9 to May 13, 2016.
In his 25-minute presentation, entitled “Conceptualisation et enseignement – planifier et enseigner à partir des concepts,” he discussed how to plan a course from start to finish, and also, how to teach a student to plan courses effectively. One of the main ideas that Dennis covered was “macro-planification à rebours,” or backwards planning. This method involves starting with the end, or the learning, first. Then, a teacher designs an effective course from start to finish based on the desired end result.
Dennis loved being immersed in the French language while he was in Montréal, both at the conference and with a language partner that he met online. He went to see a play in French and also conversed in French with his AirBnB host. He is thankful for the experience.
For four years, Dennis has been dedicated to taking French classes at the Alliance and learning French in his free time as a hobby. “I think this speaks to the well-thought-out program,” he says. “The books build off of one another very well and the curriculum is more focused on speaking French rather than just writing it.”
Dennis said that he is often critical of curriculum and pedagogical techniques because he specializes in education. However, he believes that the pedagogy at the Alliance Française de Chicago is extremely effective.
He enjoys how challenging the French language can be and looks forward to continuing his studies.”Language learning is a puzzle,” he says. “The more you learn, the more complex it becomes.”