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EDUCATION

EXPLAINED: Why teaching English in French schools is so difficult

The French government wants schools to improve their English teaching. Question is, will the teachers be able to do the job?

EXPLAINED: Why teaching English in French schools is so difficult
President Emmanuel Macron, internationally renowned as a proficient English speaker, wants to ensure French children become savvy at speaking English too.. Photo: AFP

France is famous for many things, but its people's English-language skills is not one of them.

Compared to other European countries, young French people do poorly on English language testsMany are embarrassed about their accents and will avoid speaking English if they can. 

READ MORE: ‘I feel ridiculous' – Why French people dread speaking English

French President Emmanuel Macron and his government want to change this by improving the country’s English education. Over the past years French schools been told to reinforce their emphasis on English teaching.

But according to teachers The Local has spoken to, the problem is too big to be solved through the curriculums. 

“Not all elementary teachers actually speak or understand [English] well enough to teach it,” said Vanessa, an American English teacher in Paris.

Vanessa taught as a English vacataire (stand-in) from maternelle (nursery) to lycée (high school). She gave birth 17 months ago and is currently between jobs.

In French primary school, children are supposed to be taught one foreign language for 20 minutes every day. (English is preferred, but not mandatory until the children turn 11.)

But the reality is very different from what was written on paper, Vanessa said.

“Schools don't always use the budget for good materials for language teaching,” she said.

“Not always but often it ends up being the same four lessons over and over again over the years.”

“Numbers, colours, food and animals. That kind of stuff.”

Vanessa said France suffers from a “quagmire of education reform.”

 “Every new government tries to impress the voters by messing with éducation nationale,” she said.

“Somehow the reforms never bring what we really need like more money for schools, buildings, education materials, teachers and libraries.”

READ ALSO Why the French are getting (a bit) better at speaking English

Do French English teachers really have it that hard? Photo: AFP

Thomas, a French English teacher in the town Trappes, had similar experiences.

When asked about what it is like to be an English teacher in France, he sighed and said: “Honestly? Terrible.”

Only four years into his career, Thomas was on a long-term sick leave after suffering a burnout in his teaching position at his high school in Trappes.

Trappes is a socially challenged town in the Yvelines département, a Parisian suburb southwest of the capital.

But when it comes to English education, the problem runs deeper than his own school. The French education system as a whole makes English teaching a challenge, Thomas said. 

“The threshold for what is expected of teachers is low.

“When I got my teacher’s accreditation, I was congratulated on my English fluency,” he said. 

Puzzled by the comment, Thomas wondered whether ‘being fluent’ was not expected of French English teachers.

“Turns out it’s not,” he said.

READ ALSO The Paris school with no classrooms where pupils decide what to learn

Photo: AFP

Thomas was hired to teach high school students. But to his surprise the school soon asked him to teach BTS level students too (the two years following the Baccalaureat).

“I never expected that I would have to do that. They just told me I had to,” he said.

There was another problem that bothered him as well. 

“The school system in France is all about perfection. If it’s not perfect, it’s not worth it,” he said.

Children would be reluctant to open their mouths, worried that they would be punished if they made a mistake. 

“I am a language teacher, I am supposed to make them talk,” he said.

Because teachers were supposed to cover everything that is grammar related in collège (secondary/middle school), the students would be terrified of making mistakes when entering high school, he said.

“In theory, they aren’t supposed to have any grammar questions anymore,” he said. 

But the theory was far from reality.

“Even the most serious kids, the most well-behaved and steady, are still lacking at least some aspects because teachers didn’t go over it long enough with them,” he said.

“I’ve never heard of any other country doing it this way.”

EXPLAINED: What languages do children learn in French schools?

Photo: AFP

But not everyone is convinced that an increased emphasis on English education is justified. 

“I think we’re getting better and better at teaching languages,” said Francette Popineau, Co-General Secretary and spokesperson of the largest teacher's union FSU-Snuipp.

“Young teachers are getting much better at speaking English.”

“Of course, we need to ensure that their teaching methods are strong too. You can be very good at speaking a language and still be bad at teaching it,” she said.

“But this English hegemony bothers me a little bit.

“It’s a very practical language, but it’s not necessarily the language the children are speaking.”

Rather than pushing for a reinforced universal English training, Popineau believed the government should reinforce the languages children in France already spoke at home.

“It could be Chinese, Arabic or Spanish. No language should be set aside to make room for another,” she said.

“Besides, after Brexit, perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves to reconsider the place we are giving English in Europe.

“Is the European language really going to be that one of a country that is no longer there?”

Member comments

  1. As it happens, English is the common language of Ireland, and also Malta, Cyprus and Gibraltar. It is a very practical language, as it can be easily understood when it is ‘broken’.

  2. As an English teacher in Toulouse this is my experience as well. The first hurdle is getting students to accept that not understanding everything you hear and making mistakes is OK. Often students won’t listen to ‘real’ material because they don’t understand EVERY word. Equally they are afraid to talk because not every word will be perfectly pronounced and with perfect grammar. It takes a little while but once it’s cracked, students make excellent progress because most students do have a good grounding in grammar they just haven’t had the opportunity to speak.

  3. Even after Brexit English remains the world’s most important language. What a ridiculous comment. Do the French believe people are going to learn French just because of Brexit?

  4. As an American who is trying to learn french, hire me! My french is worse than a childs, almost non-existant. But what I can teach them about english, they in turn could teach me about french. And YES, it would be a funny for sure! But if they understood my difficulties in speaking french, maybe they could give themselves a break in speaking english. I teach them, they teach me. The only way to learn is to practice and use your language skills. And this would be a two way street in my case.

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LIVING IN FRANCE

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Strikes

But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.

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