top cx logo
cx logo
Explorearrow down
search icon
arrow down

Starting school with no French

Pupils head back to school today – readers give their tips on helping your child adapt if they do not have French

By Emma Borroff

THIS morning 12,296,400 children returned to school, and for many little ones it was their first day. My daughter is one of them – she started at our local maternelle and faces the double challenge of knowing just a few words of French.

Thanks to all those readers who responded to the request for tips that we sent out with our weekly newsletter. Lots of readers had great advice to offer to parents of school-starters. Here we share some of them for other parents.

MR said: “We had that experience in a Catholic school in Brussels, some years ago. ‘Total immersion’ seemed to be the ideal. In a very short time my two daughters were playing together at home in French – much to the consternation of my wife, who couldn’t understand what was going on!! Key seemed to be the kindness of the staff, their understanding of the problem and the complete absence of any English. Two sisters in the same ‘maternelle’ class did help, of course.”

SH said: “Our daughter was three-and-a-half when we first moved here and knew a few French colours and numbers. Luckily, at that age their brains are like sponges! We watched in fascination as her brain literally rebooted - she spoke complete gobbledygook for about a fortnight - and then started speaking French without thinking.
Watching French TV helped bring the language home too. I had some French from my university days, but it was very rusty, so sitting and watching the news or a magazine show together (some people recommend quiz shows too) was really useful, and gave me something to talk to other people about besides being English!
Five years on, Eleanor is completely bilingual, our two boys will go the same way and my French is pretty decent. We focus on English writing and reading at home, which is vital as it's a skill that can easily slip away, and apart from the homework, leave the French to the teachers at school. All we have to do now is get Papa talking...”

CP said: “I would suggest getting a little flash card system for her though - small enough for her to put in her pocket. That way she can show a picture of toilets to her teachers, or a glass of water..... you get the drift!! Connect them through a binder and try to find the English and French for the words so that there is no misunderstanding.”

JT said: “My son started school here at Easter in moyen section, with just a few words of French. Now six years on he is totally fluent in French and completely level with the French children academically. He has no accent learning from real French people. Our school gave him extra lessons ‘playing’ where they just talked constantly. At first my son did not speak French to us at home but within nine months he was suddenly talking with the neighbours. We found it the perfect time to enter school before the proper sit down reading and writing in CP, aged 7. It gave him 18 months to learn the language before other areas of literacy were introduced. Your child will get on fine!”

A said: “Start her off with half days, just the mornings. This won’t overload her too much.
Introduce her to easy French by showing pictures of things, e.g. house, dog, car, apple etc and teach her the French words for them.
Relax, give her plenty of praise just for getting through each morning.
If she finds a little friend, see if you can arrange a short playtime at home.
Talk to the teachers but know that the education system seems to think that teachers do the teaching, not the parents. A lot of teachers also need to learn to ‘think outside the box’ so suggest rather than demand but be firm! As with most matters in France, you are expected to know things so you have to do the research. If you can find another English parent to help you, it will make life a little easier! Bonne chance!”

E said: “We moved to France when my son started in Grand Section. He took two terms to become fluent. They learn a lot by watching and body language and it doesn't necessarily bother them as much as us or older kids that they can't actually understand the words being said.
Don't allow any anxiety you have to show when you drop you child off - the more relaxed you are the better they're likely to feel.
If they're clingy or crying my experience (in UK & in France) is that the quicker you leave nursery/school in the morning the better. Any cries were finished within a couple of minutes and they were happily playing very quickly.
Invite a French child to play as often as you can. Get involved yourself in the parents association (APE) to give your French a chance of improving and get to know the other mums.”

MB said: We moved to Berne, Switzerland with our three-year-old daughter way back in February 1971. Nathalie went to the local kindergarten and picked up a few words of Swiss German. Later, she was invited to attend a two-week summer holiday camp for children, organised by my Swiss company employer. Nathalie had always been a confident, outgoing child, eager to play with other children and was delighted at the prospect. When we collected her at the end of the camp, she was fluent in Swiss German, although, to the horror of our friends from Zurich, she had a Berne accent!
It depends on the nature of the child, but in our case we threw her in at the deep end and she loved it. Hope it works well for you.”

To sign up for our weekly newsletter, click here: Newsletter
Share your experiences by email at: news[at]

Previous stories:

Five-day week for all primary pupils

Why 400 pupils are already at school

Resident or second-home owner in France?
Benefit from our daily digest of headlines and how-to's to help you make the most of life in France
By joining the newsletter, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy
See more popular articles
The Connexion Help Guides
featured helpguide
Income Tax in France 2023 (for 2022 income)*
Featured Help Guide
- Primarily aimed at Britons, covers pensions, rent, ISAs, shares, savings and interest - but also contains significant general information pertinent to readers of other nationalities - Overview of online declarations + step-by-step guide to the French printed forms - Includes updates given automatically after this year's site opened
Get news, views and information from France