A Conversation with Maria Ali

Maria Ali was une professeure stagiaire—a trainee French professor—here at the Alliance Française de Karachi from June to August 2019, visiting from Paris where is a graduate student studying language education and didactics at the University of Paris Descartes. As she gets ready to head back to her final year in graduate school, we sat down with Maria for a chat about the relationship between the languages we speak, how her field experience teaching French in Karachi informed her research, and the things that surprised her along the way. Here’s the conversation between Maria Ali and Maliha Ali from the Alliance.

Students at the Alliance Française in Karachi study with lots of dedication. Everyone has different motivations and their own purpose. It’s amazing to see how they make time for their French classes because most of the classes are in the evenings or on the weekends and from that you can tell that they are really willing to learn. —Maria Ali

Salut Maria. Could you tell us a little about yourself and what brings you to Karachi?
I live in Paris, where I was born and raised. My parents are originally Pakistani so I grew up both in the French and Pakistani culture. I’ve travelled to Pakistan multiple times to meet family but teaching French at the Alliance Française de Karachi is my first professional experience here. I’m currently doing a masters at the University of Paris Descartes in « didactique des langues », in other terms how to teach a language. I want to teach abroad in a non-francophone context which is what brings me to Karachi, to teach French and observe language learners in a non-francophone context to be able to write my thesis about it. I want to understand what pushes non-francophones to learn French and what challenges they go through.

Learning French in a non-francophone context, such as Karachi, is unusual. What got you interested in this topic?
I was initially wondering why a Pakistani would choose to learn French when the language is so different from their own. Being half-Pakistani, I thought it would be more interesting to focus on Pakistani students to be able to link my origins with my thésis. Also, I wanted to find out what difficulties they had to go through especially when they are learning French in a non-francophone context like Karachi. It is also interesting to compare the way French is taught in France to the way it’s taught here in Pakistan.

So in a way your research is about the relationship between languages. We know you’re a polyglot, constantly switching from one language to another. Which one do you consider your first language, which one is your mother tongue?
I speak multiple languages: French, Gujrati, English, German, and Urdu. I actually consider Gujrati my mother tongue as that was the first language that I ever learnt. It is also the language that I use to communicate with my parents. French is the language that I consider my first language because it is the language that I think in. They say when you are angry the first language you react in is your first language. For me that would be French!

Why do you think learning a foreign language, such as French, is so important?
Learning a new language opens you up to the world and makes you more open-minded. The French language has lots of history and is a very unique language but spoken in a large part of the world like in Africa, North America, Europe and also South India. The more languages you know the better.

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Have you found something you were not expecting to find in your research so far?
The first thing that I was surprised about was the level of French here at the Alliance Française of Karachi. I have taught students who are living in France to improve their French and when I compared my students in Karachi, I realized that their French is as good as those who are in immersion despite the fact that they can’t practice in their daily life.

Moreover, even though these students are pretty scared when they first discover French grammar, they actually get used to it automatically just when you learn a new math formula.

I was surprised by the amount of English used during the class though. I was taught as a student in Master FLE not to use any language but the one that you have to teach while teaching but working here made me realize that it is very complicated to stick to French without using English especially if you don’t want your students to lose interest.

Did your experience and field work change anything about your thinking and your practice?
Experience and field work showed that you cannot stick to what you have learnt in theory. As a student in Master FLE [français langue étrangère or French as a foreign language] we are taught lots of methods and theories but they don’t necessarily work once you move to a new place. As a teacher you need to be flexible and understand the difficulties of your students.

What did Karachi and its people teach you?
You have to be mentally prepared to teach in Karachi because the lifestyle there is very different from France. Teaching at the Alliance was a great experience though. Students come here and study with lots of dedication. Everyone has different motivations and their own purpose. It’s amazing to see how they make time for their French classes because most of the classes are in the evenings or on the weekends and from that you can tell that they are really willing to learn.

I learnt also a lot about the Pakistani culture, the traditions and the history of Pakistan. Indeed, my class was a lot about sharing our cultures with my students. And I improved my Urdu!

I also noticed that Pakistani youngsters are very different from French youngsters…

Any word of advice for FLE teachers teaching in non-francophone environments like Pakistan?
They need to be open-minded and accept the challenge to teach there. For instance, Pakistan is a country full of history, with a beautiful culture, so they need to be willing to discover something new. They can’t have prejudices and rely on what they heard about it without trying to figure out by themselves what kind of place Karachi is. They can’t be scared about the unknown.

Once you start working at the Alliance, it is actually amazing how the institute can make its space in a country that has nothing—at least superficially—to do with it. Sometimes you have the impression of being in a small France.