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Parents reveal: What to expect when your non-French speaking child starts school in France

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
Parents reveal: What to expect when your non-French speaking child starts school in France
Parents and children arrive at the Jules Julien elementary school in Toulouse, southern France (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)

Moving to France with little or no French is a challenge for anyone - but for kids starting at French schools the process can be difficult. We spoke to parents who had successfully navigated the school system.

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There's a perception that children simply 'pick up' languages with no problem, but in fact it can be quite a difficult process.

While children do usually learn faster - thanks to both their 'sponge-like' brains and the simple fact of total immersion in the language for seven hours a day while at school - it can still be a stressful period for both children and parents alike.

READ ALSO How to enrol a non-French speaking child in school in France

Enrolment

For parents you first need to decide on the type of school; public school, private school or international school.

All have their advantages and disadvantages - find a detailed breakdown of the schooling options here.

Then you need to complete the enrolment process and - if going with a public school - request a language assessment in order to access extra language tuition.

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Find a full explanation of the process HERE

How does it work in reality?

The big takeaway from talking to parents who have been through the process is the levels of support vary widely between different areas and different schools.

There's also a lot of difference between children themselves - while it's generally true that younger children will find picking the language up easier, some children simply find it easier than others to learn a new language, while some are more self-conscious than others about their 'foreign' status. 

Of course, any French that children can learn before the family moves to France - from textbooks to watching French TV and playing French online games - will help them. 

'Fluent in three months'

The Local spoke with parents of children who had limited to no knowledge of the French language before enrolling in French school, and several recommended tempering expectations of how quickly your child will reach fluency.

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"The typical thing of “they’ll be fluent in 3 months ” is not true. Multiple teachers told me that the children listen for a full year first - and to expect speech the second year," Victoria M, in Dordogne, who moved with maternelle-aged children, said.

"In our case, fluency followed pretty quickly but it can take years of building vocabulary for some kids and that’s okay too!" 

Cara Trott in Charente-Maritime found that language acquisition depended on the child. "Each child is different. We had three boys aged 8, 7 and 3. The 8-year-old struggled with the language most of the time. The 7-year-old was mute for months but picked up the language very well. The 3-year-old picked it up quickly but he struggles with conjugation," she said.

"We were told they would be fluent within six months. It takes longer than that", Cara said.

READ MORE: 'Strict but a holistic education': How the French public school system really works

Extra French lessons

Most schools will offer extra language lessons to kids aged six and over who don't speak French, while in some areas that have a lot of non-French speaking children a programme called UPE2A offers specialised support for elementary-aged students through high school (lycée). 

Children at maternelle - aged three to six - are usually not given formal French classes, but are simply put in with a group of French-speaking children.

Nicola Barfield in Haute Savoie said that her collège-aged children received "French lessons until the children achieved the B1 level of language. They did not take PE, art, music etc and completed the French course instead".

One aspect that went well for Barfield was the ability to anticipate what her children were going to study ahead of time: "The school had a text book system, so we could translate the lesson before they had it in class. The school also provided great vocabulary lists which I painstakingly translated so that my kids could use them for reference".

Another parent, Lisa Kopek, in the Paris area, said her elementary school-aged child received French lessons just once a week - for one hour. 

She said: "He just jumped all into French all day. The teacher knew a little English and his classmates knew English and would translate sometimes, but mostly he was bored and had to figure it out. They did sing songs in music in English, which he loved, and they also had weekly English lessons, of which he was the star."

Another parent responded to the survey, explaining that the UPE2A programme helped their collège-aged child both linguistically and socially.

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"Eventually, as her language progressed, she was put into "normal" classes with other French-speaking students of her age. She went from no French language skills at the beginning of the school year to passing her A2 DELF test last week.

"Having a cohort of non-French speaking students together went well. They were all in the same situation, so she wasn't made to feel bad for not knowing something".

READ MORE: Family-centred society: What it's really like being a parent in France

However, some parents said it was challenging for their children to be taken out of their regular course to go learn French.

Victoria M said that her elementary-aged children "struggled for the first year. They didn't like being sent to another school two days per week with other international students. They wished they stayed in their normal class". 

As for children entering the system at maternelle-age, one parent Phil Gibbs, who lived in a small Breton village, said that his children did not receive any special language instruction. 

"It was only when my kids left Maternelle that they got a teacher who was much more empathetic and patient that things improved", he said.

This was a common sentiment for several parents - experiences, including the volume of French-language assistance offered, often depended on the attitudes of individual teachers and schools.

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Family support

When it comes to what parents can do to help, Gibbs advised being prepared to get involved at school. "Insist on extra help from the school and hold the teacher to account. Pay for home tutoring if affordable", he said.

Similarly, Cara Trott mentioned that parents would need to "check that they are not pushed up through the years too quickly. Insist on extra support", she said.

Since the level of assistance offered can vary greatly, many parents also recommended a proactive approach outside of school - from private lessons, as recommended by Gibbs, to homework assistance to enrolling pupils in extracurricular activities to spend more time in the French language and making French friends.

Nicola Barfield, like several other parents who responded to The Local's survey, said that a key aspect was making friends to "help them communicate".

Scheenagh Harrington agreed, saying; "For our daughter, the children around her were invaluable and their support also helped her integrate. We could hear her brain reboot as she picked up the language as she went."

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One way to help your child along in this process is through extracurricular activities - the English-language handbook sent out by the French ministry of education to parents of 'new arrivals' even made a point to encourage foreign parents to help their children learn French faster by "involving him/her in sporting, cultural or social activities in your area".

In terms of how to find nearby clubs and activities, dad-of-three James Harrington, in an article about raising kids in France, said that in his experience, "most children get their sport through clubs in their town. In early September, there may be a large-scale event nearby in which the - hopefully many - sports institutions in your town tout for members for the next year". 

Harrington also mentioned signing children up for clubs during school holidays. "Every town and city has ‘maisons des jeunes et de la culture’ - MJCs -  community centres that take in local children and entertain every drop of energy out of them from around 7am to 7pm, five days a week, every school holiday. 

"For a few euros a day, the MJCs’ vetted staff look after youngsters aged from three to 15, sometimes older, bombarding them with activities from sport to cooking, art to dancing, often with an over-arching theme for the duration of the holidays. Morning and afternoon snacks, and a typical French three or four-course lunch included", Harrington explained.

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Aside from after-school activities, several parents also referenced a need to support children with their language-learning when at home, including trying to teach some French before moving. 

Victoria M said that prior to coming to France, it would be wise to get some "French books or picture books so they can familiarise themselves with common words and very importantly - switch the language on the television to French so they can start absorbing the rhythm and melody". 

And once you arrive, to help remedy some of the confusion around what is happening in the classroom and when your child might be expected to bring special materials in, Lisa Kopek offered practical advice: "Make sure to get in the parents WhatsApp group".

She also recommended patience. "It’s a process. Have all your documents and be ready to wait at the Mairie. You feel behind, but nothing really happens until the first day of school. Also they give a crazy school supplies list and you don’t really need it all".

Type of school

The type of school that children attend is also important, and several parents reported switching schools once they found one that was better suited for their child.

Roger Calixto in Provence-Alpes-Côte d-Azur said: "There are semi-private school that are an option over public schools. The class sizes are smaller and therefore are much better for integrating. I'm very glad someone pointed us to them".

He said that in the private school, he found that "school was very helpful and the teachers were super encouraging. The first year the teacher took the time and effort to create specific homework that was within the capabilities of my children, so they did not feel overwhelmed. There was a lot of psychological support from the teachers and school for them to feel included and integrate".

Although private schools are the preserve of the wealthy in some countries, in France they can be surprisingly affordable so it's worth checking out what is on offer in your area. They usually offer smaller class sizes so can provide some specialist help.

Many private schools are run by religious organisations, such as the Catholic Church.

READ MORE: Fees to class sizes - what you need to know about private schools in France

Some other parents, like Scheenagh Harrington in the Tarn area, also started their children in private school. She added that she wished she had known that "the reputation of a school isn't everything. It's worth finding out exactly what they can do to support your child".

As for Phill Gibbs, he said: "Any child who is a little different in their approach to learning will have difficulties in the French public school system as it is rigid and unforgiving. If I had my time again i would have home schooled my daughter and found a group of parents who did the same. Any child who fits the rigid French system will flourish".

Although home-schooling is possible in France it is strictly controlled - parents are required to register with the local education authorities and undergo regular inspections to ensure that the child is receiving a balanced education with a full curriculum.

Some parents also noted that the public education system can be even more challenging to navigate if your child has special needs. If this is your situation, you may consider getting in contact with the 'Maison Départementale pour les Personnes Handicapées' in your area to seek extra support.

Regrets?

Although many experienced difficulties along the way, particularly during the initial transition and the first year, most of our survey respondents said they had no regrets.

Nicola Barfield said putting her kids in French school was "the best decision that we’ve made".

One respondent, Monica Meyer, who moved to France as a child from the United States and went through French public schools in the Ville d'Avray, west of Paris, said that enrolling a non-French speaking child in French schools is a "wonderful idea", even if the "first few months may have been a little difficult".

"My father always said it was the best decision he ever made," Meyer noted.

Rogier Van Leeuwen, originally from The Netherlands, said like others that the situation depended a bit by child, but by "all aspects went well for my three children although the youngest, a boy, didn't speak so much the fist year.

"[He was] too afraid to make a mistake and a bit shy", Van Leeuwen said. Nevertheless, he reported being "very satisfied" with having sent his kids to French-language schooling. His advice to other parents considering the same thing: "Just do it".

Scheenagh Harrington also said she would still recommend putting her child into French schools, but parents should "look around for any extra support you can give them if they need it".

She added: "Last week our daughter did her Grand Oral for the Baccalaureate and got 20/20 in the mock exam." 

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