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EXPLAINED: The foreign languages children learn in French schools

Ingri Bergo
Ingri Bergo - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: The foreign languages children learn in French schools
The French government has been pushing to reform the country's education system. Here are the President and the Education Minister visiting a pre-school. Photo: AFP

Compared to other European countries - especially Nordic ones - France is not exactly famed for its foreign language skills, but French schools are being asked to place a new focus on learning languages.


Navigating the complexities of the French school system can be tricky, especially for international parents, so we spoke to the French Education Ministry and broke down the curriculums from pre-school to high school.

Maternelle (nursery school)

Children in France start école maternelle at three years old. This is also when their foreign language education starts.

The French government in 2019 made schooling compulsory for all children from the age of three (although the curriculum in maternelle is very focused on play and social skills). 

All French pre-schools must teach their children one foreign langue vivante (living language). It could be English, but also Spanish, German, Italian or Portuguese, but not Latin.

Schools may choose the foreign language “depending on the available resources,” the French Education Ministry confirmed to The Local on Monday.

Native English parents who want their children to be taught English in pre-school should therefore check with their local school which language is taught before enrolling their children.

The rules are the same for public and private schools, except for private schools hors contrat (more on that later).

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English is made mandatory as a foreign language when French children turn 11. Before that, the foreign language can be adapted to the respective schools' available resources. Photo: AFP

Ecole primaire (primary school)

The rules are pretty much the same in elementary school as in école maternelle, all children must attend lessons in one foreign, living language. This language is selected by the school. 

A minimum 20 minutes a day must be dedicated to this foreign language.

Collège (secondary school/middle school)

This is when English lessons are made mandatory. Starting 6ème (at age 11), children in French schools must be subject to four hours of English lessons a week.

English lessons were made compulsory for all children starting 6ème in 2016 to reinforce English skills among children in France.

All public schools and the vast majority of private schools are subject to these rules.

Some so-called bilingual schools (for example Montessori schools) teach their children two foreign languages already in 6ème. English must be one of the two foreign languages taught in these schools.

In 5ème, the following year, children choose their own langauge to study as an addition. 

Daily English lessons remain compulsory for all children. Children can also request to do one subject (like mathematics) in a foreign language.

Lycée (high school)

Starting high school at age 16, pupils have the option of choosing a third ‘living language’ to supplement their English lessons and their second language lessons. 

All children in French schools must undergo final language exams in their Baccalauréat.

French high school students must learn at least two foreign languages. Photo: AFP 

Public v private schools

The majority of France's 9,739 private schools are schools sous contrat, which means that they are on a contract with the French state and are subject to the same rules at public schools when it comes to the language taught to the children.

For the 1,530 schools hors contrat, the rules may differ.

What is a school hors contrat?

A school that is hors contrat (without contract with the French state) are private schools that are completely autonomous.

These schools do not receive any public funds, not even for their operating costs (whereas the French government actually pays teachers working in private schools sous contrat).

Autonomous private schools may choose their staff freely and are not bound by the general requirements regarding teachers’ diplomas. Nor are these schools subject to state curriculums. 

Of the autonomous private schools about 300 are religious schools, according to a breakdown by AFP back in 2016.

Back then autonomous private schools numbered 1,300, slightly less than the 1,530 schools in 2020. Of these 300 religious schools, 200 were Catholic, about 50 Jewish, while roughly 40 were Protestant and Muslim respectively.

The remaining 1,000 autonomous private schools were of the Montessori type. These schools - which pursue alternative pedagogical paths - sometimes offer more English language training than schools that are subject to the state curriculum. 

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For example, Montessori has a series of 'bilingual schools' that they say "totally immerse" children in a second language starting nursery school.



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