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Solving a problem like teaching languages in France

A recent report into language education in France suggests options for improvement, including teaching subjects like history in English. We speak to one of the report’s authors, UK-born journalist Alex Taylor

France could learn a lot about language education from other European countries such as Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands.

That is one of the findings of an official report into language education in France published just after the start of the school year, which was co-authored by English journalist and polyglot Alex Taylor.

“The aim is to boost the level of pupils in English, and also in a second foreign language,” the government said when the report was published shortly after a Europe-wide survey. France ranked 15th out of 16 countries for teaching a main foreign language, and 12th for second foreign languages taught at school.

Euronews journalist Mr Taylor, who came to France in 1981 and is known for presenting multi-lingual news show Continentales on France 3 between 1990 and 1994, was drafted on to the report team as an “interested outsider”.

The report, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Education, recommended children should be taught second languages earlier to take advantage of the learning abilities of younger brains. It also suggested immersion lessons in which subjects such as geography were taught in another language; making use of popular culture – such as cartoons and TV programmes – to pique children’s interest; and even reshaping classroom layouts.

Mr Taylor told Connexion he gave up an early career as a teacher in France because of what he considered to be “negative teaching methods”.

“My job was, basically, to knock marks off from 20 for errors. A mark here for a grammar mistake, half a mark there for a spelling error,” he said.

He said this systemic mark-docking attitude promoted a culture of failure rather than one of success.

“How many French people have you talked to who say they are afraid to speak English to you?” he asked. “Or who say to you ‘My English isn’t very good’?”

Teaching methods have improved since he moved into journalism, he said, but mainstream education still has a long way to go if language teaching in France is to catch up with other nations. He was particularly impressed by methods at a collège in Haute-Savoie, which took language learning into other classes and subjects. He said he was in a geography class in which a pupil explained a complex aspect of geology in “perfect English, without an accent”.

He said the method worked in part because it prompted pupils to pay attention in class. “It was slow to get going,” he said of the initiative, “but after a few years, results are very noticeable.”

Homeowners nearby have definitely noticed a change. One unexpected side effect, he said, was that house prices in the catchment area have risen some 20% in four years as parents look to get their children into the school. 

Mr Taylor acknowledged teachers’ concerns about teaching subjects such as history, maths and science in English.

“We are all supposed to be able to teach a language to our pupils from the CP but many teachers don’t have the skills to do this,” one teacher told Le Figaro. “An entire lesson in English is unfeasible.”

But Mr Taylor said: “That’s why the report has recommended teachers spend some time working abroad.”

One of the key takeaways was the idea of using popular English-language cartoons to engage children’s interest.

“We know perfectly well that if our Scandinavian neighbours are so good at English, it is because they watch films in the film’s original language,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said in an interview with RMC radio after the report was published, adding that state TV would be encouraged to follow suit for children’s programmes.

Mr Taylor said, however, that studies have shown that passive watching of programmes in their original languages (VO, or VM) did not help children comprehend any better.

Instead, he said, cartoons and technologies such as online streaming services broadcasting shows in original languages could be used as learning aids by engaging and maintaining pupils’ interest.

He cited one instance in which a student told him following an English class he had described as “difficult to follow, even for me”: “I’m going to learn more English by watching Netflix than I did in that lesson.”

Mr Taylor said he believed early access to learning a language was the most important takeaway from his involvement with the report. Children in France are introduced to the basics of English from the age of six, but teachers often lack language training and are far from fluent.

Mr Taylor said it was vital to introduce languages as early as possible to take advantage of children’s developing brains. He said: “Young children have the ability to learn every sound they need to speak any language. That ability is lost by the time they get to collège.

He said the report’s authors visited a nursery in a relatively deprived town in Germany, where staff regularly introduced nursery rhymes and songs in a range of different languages.

“Young children learn differently to older children,” he said. “Those who learn a language younger don’t have an accent. From the age of about 11, you use a different part of your brain to learn a language.

“I speak French with an accent, and I have never been able to get rid of it, despite living here for nearly 40 years because I learned French after I was 11.”

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