Learning can be Painful

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By Jen

I had a sore jaw for the first year of living in France. I’d go to bed at night nursing an overworked and unknown muscle. Not because I hit it or I was ill, but because of the darned ‘ou’ and ‘u’ sounds.


It’s not a natural mouth shape for an English speaker. The ou sounds more or less like the ou in “soup”. The u sound quite like the ou in “soup”. Therein lies the problem.

Maintaining euphony in French is not easy; unintentionally complementing a stranger’s rear (see below) is very easy. For a decent u sound, the lips need to be pursed as if you are about to say ‘w’ but you say ‘e’ as in “eagle” (/i:/ for all you language teachers).

It’s even difficult for me to hear (let alone feel) whether I’ve got the sound right or wrong, like interchanging p and b as a speaker of Arabic: it’s ‘chicken or lamp’ on most menus because it’s very difficult as an Arabic speaker to even hear the difference – they are the same. Say “pet”, then “bet”: the only technical difference is a little vibration in the vocal chords.

The French equivalent is ‘Merci beaucoup.’ – the seemingly simple ‘Thank you very much.’ A very basic first phrase.

Get the ‘ou’ sound wrong and it becomes ‘Merci – beau cul’. ‘Thank you. Nice ass!’ It’s a terrible, terrible worry for me every time I address a French male business client.

Anyhow, this language obstacle had me thinking about Katie’s French lessons whilst we are travelling. We’ve done a lot of maths but are behind with her dictation, which forms quite a big part of a student’s day-to-day lessons in France.


I think the reason for this is that although Neil’s and my French is ok, we still and will always have, some pronunciation issues. Those issues are enough for Katie, who can intuitively and very clearly hear us saying ‘Nice ass’ when we are trying to dictate a polite thank you, to be thrown off track.

So we’ve come up with a solution.

Back at home Matt earnt most of his pocket money cleaning out the hen house. There are alas (yay) no hens in the campervan (despite the initial protestations of Katie leaving the hens, the sheep, the stick insects and the dog behind). Katie was too young to be on the payroll. She got the jobs, just not the cash.


Adam earnt most of his pocket money cutting the grass. Or helping with work on the house. Again, no grass or DIY beside the campervan. Their income flow basically dried up.


Our new solution is to pay the boys to give alternating dictation lessons to Katie.

Katie will whizz through her workbook. Neil and I, if we get the chance, can do the lessons too to improve our French spelling and grammar. The boys will earn some cash, and will reinforce their own learning by teaching someone else. They will also learn total and utter patience because that learner is their pesky little sister. Perfect.


Katie was a little concerned with falling behind with her school work. This should ease her mind. I suspect that in fact those return-to-school concerns are more to do with moving up from a school with a role of 10 to a school with a role of 900 (the lower and upper secondary sections combined). The getting lost in the corridor, making new friends, common and understandable concerns most of us had when moving up from primary to secondary education.

The boys don’t express the same lagging-behind concerns. By virtue of the internet and social media, they have been in close contact with their friends and peers back home, and they are at about the same place as everyone else, doing the same maths problems or geography questions, in the set curriculum.

I find that slightly concerning in as much as their friends spend from 8am to 6pm locked into their school environment. The boys average an hour a day with “official” school books, sometimes a bit more. There must be so many reasons for this huge productivity difference, and I am not so sure that those reasons reflect well on our education system.

I teach English to a variety of ages and levels. A lot of students are ages with my sons. The resounding feedback I get from these students is that school is boring. Really boring. That’s sad. Some of these amazing young minds are being shut down to the wonders of learning before they have even opened up.

One thing I’ve noticed as we’ve moved further into our journey, is that I am less concerned about what our kids are learning ie the hard facts (which they can google any time), and am more interested in what they are feeling. Adam said yesterday he is enjoying seeing and experiencing the differences in culture when he moves from one country to another, and the social imperatives which follow on from that. Katie is noticing the differences in the day to day lives of other people, and the different roles and respect (or otherwise) animals have. Matt is quietly taking it all in.

Technology is changing. Jobs and expectations in a new world of technology are changing. As educators, whether as parents or teachers or employers or policymakers, our job must surely be to keep up.

Here’s an interesting video about education: how it’s changing and why it needs to change.

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2 Replies to “Learning can be Painful”

  1. Vicki Meurville says:

    Hi, Jen,
    Lovely to read your post and to watch the amazing video. I will certainly find a reason to show it in my Sciences Po class, as it will certainly generate great discussion in my multi-cultural group.

    Have a wonderful rentrée – all of you!
    Vicki 🙂

    1. Hi Vicki, yes la Rentrée for us this year :). We’ve had a great adventure. Onto the next one now, whatever that may be x

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