My experience in France as a university English teacher

Teaching English in France has taught me so much about the language learning process

Teaching English in France has taught me a lot about language learning. Photo for illustrative purposes only
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I am currently working as an English teacher at a university in the south of France. My ‘official’ title is lectrice d’anglais (reader of English) but frankly, that means nothing.

Technically, the job requires you to have a master’s degree, a B2 level in French and a native level of English (my Scottish accent has so far sufficed).

There are English lecteurs and lectrices teaching the language in universities throughout France, and one of the best aspects of the job is that it provides you with a golden ticket to obtaining a visa.

I first arrived at my university in September 2022, knowing next to nothing about what my job was going to entail - my interview when applying in May 2022 lasted all of seven minutes, and then I signed a contract one month later.

Flexibility of the role was scary – but helped

Although I studied French at university, it had been three years since I graduated, and my French was rusty.

In my first few weeks I said “oui” a lot to things I had not understood and hoped for the best - results were mixed but on the whole the strategy turned out successful.

Not long after, I was thrown in at the deep-end, and my first classes saw me teaching students who had just arrived at university.

I had expected there to be some form of curriculum, but it was completely up to me to plan all of my classes, including finding or making all of the aides I use when teaching.

This was slightly overwhelming at first, as I had no idea of the students' level and I did not have much teaching experience.

Now I have been here for almost two years, however, I can say this has truly been a gift.

It meant I was able to learn how my students engage most with the language without following a predefined method, and how to make classes as fun as possible.

The university I work at focuses on careers in the social sector, and since English is not their primary subject – I am the only English teacher – classes have to be entertaining or students will just zone out and not participate.

Read more: Five tips for learning to speak French in later life

My students are not English masters, but have fun

My main takeaway from teaching English in France has been that in general, French people think they are rubbish at English.

This is categorically not true. My students who struggle the most in English could all still go to the UK and muddle through a day, ordering in restaurants and finding their way.

There is simply no way that the general British public would be able to do the same in French.

I think the lack of confidence, despite their comparatively good levels, must come down to how English is taught in schools in France.

Talking with my students, I realised English classes in French schools (pre-university) are extremely formulaic, memorising verbs and past participles and talking about “Brian” who “is in the kitchen”.

I do partially understand this approach, but I think it is unsurprising that people do not enjoy English if this is all they have experienced.

Language learning for me is all about communication, and the chance to communicate with an even wider proportion of people in the world.

Due to this, the main aim of my classes is increasing people’s confidence in speaking English.

The example I always give them is that when I speak in French to my students, and inevitably make some glaring grammar mistakes, do they care?

It is the same when non-natives speak English - we do not care if someone speaking to us does not use perfect grammar, because we still understand what they are saying.

Read more: How to learn French through language acquisition

We can all learn from my students

Some people say that language learning is intrinsically interesting, but I do not agree.

I am not a fan of learning grammar, and it can require a lot of self motivation and focus which can be difficult if you already have a job or other studies.

That is why – for me – it has to be about engagement and fun. One day I think I will return to the UK and become a French teacher, and this is certainly something I will take with me.

Language learning is declining in the UK and I think it is because we have our priorities wrong.

At university, my French teacher told us every week: trompez-vous mais trompez-vous avec confiance (make mistakes, but do so with confidence).

It is not only the best piece of language learning advice I have ever received, but also one of the best pieces of life advice too.

Mistakes mean nothing if you cannot learn from them, and if you are scared to make the mistakes you will never move forward.

Working with my students has genuinely been one of the biggest privileges of my life; they are fun, silly, kind and interesting people and the future of the social sector in France is bright with them at the helm.

I have probably learned more from them than they have from me and I still cannot quite figure out how I got so lucky.

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