‘On enseigne mal les langues vivantes en France’

“On enseigne mal les langues vivantes en France.”*

This is what Géraldine, a teacher at Ecole Rouget de l’Isle, said to me as we followed the CM1s out of her classroom at the start of recess on Monday.

I blinked and wrinkled my brow at her, confused. For as long as I can remember, I’ve held fast to the notion that Europeans take foreign language acquisition far more seriously than their American counterparts.

In some ways, the French definitely do outshine us. French children start having foreign language exposure in school starting at age six (and some of them are even introduced to them in preschool). What’s more, the French government employs bright-eyed, recent college grads from foreign countries to speak with their authentic accents, use idiomatic expressions and discuss snippets of cultural knowledge.

But after observing a full day at each of my three elementary schools, asking countless questions to teachers and principals, and sitting through a (mostly fruitless) three-hour-long discussion/workshop about English teaching at Ecole Saint Exupery (on my day off), I’ve come to understand Géraldine’s statement.

While French students do start learning early, what they learn and when they learn it is far from standardized. From what I understand, the children are evaluated in foreign language for the first time at the end of elementary school. This means that there exists a list of foreign language goals that a child must complete before finishing elementary school as a whole. But this list isn’t further broken down by grade level (because that would be too logical). Instead, it’s up to an individual school (and often the individual teachers within a school) to decide what gets taught when.

The result: Different students learn different things at different times and often relearn basics without expanding on them. It’s not surprising, then, that certain things fall through the cracks.

For me, everything is exponentially more complicated. I’m working with four grade levels, eight classes, 10 teachers and nearly 150 students—all spread amongst three schools.

Everyone—Stéphane, the principals, the teachers (probably even the kids)—seems to have a different idea of what my role is, which isn’t doing much to combat the anxiety I already have about being an untrained, first-time teacher.

My head is spinning trying to make sense of it all. What do I focus on? With whom? When? Which classes do I actually have to plan lessons for and which ones do the teachers plan the lessons for? What do the students already know?

I’m hoping that everything will become a little clearer once I actually start teaching on Monday, but I’m definitely not holding my breath.

Before getting into the peculiarities of each school (that’ll be a blog post for this weekend), it’s necessary to give you a brief and far from complete sketch of the French school system.

Schooling in France is broken into various stages that kind of translate to those used in the United States:

  • Ecole Primaire
    • Ecole Maternelle, ages 3 to 5, the equivalent of preschool and kindergarten
    • Ecole Elementaire, ages 6 to 11, the equivalent of grades 1 through 6 (roughly elementary school)
  • Ecole Secondaire
    • College, ages 12 to 14, the equivalent of grades 7 through 9 (roughly middle school)
    • Lycée**, ages 15 to 18, the equivalent of grades 10 through 12 (roughly high school)

Since I’m employed in l’école élémentaire, it’ll be important for you to understand how that works as well. French elementary school is organized into five grade levels:

  • Cours Préparatoire (CP), children ages 6-7, where a foreign language is theoretically introduced
  • Cours Elementiare 1 (CE1), children ages 7-8, one 45-minute séance of foreign language instruction/week
  • Cours Elementaire 2 (CE2), children ages 8-9, two 45-minute séances of foreign language instruction/week
  • Cours Moyen 1 (CM1), children ages 9-10, two 45-minute séances of foreign language instruction/week
  • Cours Moyen 2 (CM2), children ages 10-11, two 45-minute séances of foreign language instruction/week

I will be working with students in CE1, CE2, CM1 and CM2, therefore teaching each class for 45 minutes either once or twice a week, depending on the grade level.

Given that the system is rigidly organized, you’d think that language instruction within the system could be similarly organized without too much undo angst (or that this would have been figured out ages ago).

But the workshop I sat in on today pretty much proved that wrong. Ten teachers talked over each other in rapid, stubborn French for the better part of three hours, arguing about how to standardize English teaching within their one school and, unsurprisingly, not coming to a solid conclusion. Yours truly sat there, twiddled her thumbs, drank atrocious instant coffee, and wrote things like “teachers almost as unruly as their students” in her notebook.

I don’t even want to think about how impossible it would be to standardize English instruction within the department.

*Translation: We’re bad at teaching foreign languages in France.

**Lycée is really complicated if you look at it more closely. Students settle into their courses of study at this stage, often beginning professional or technical training instead of continuing with the strict academic route that’s common in the United States.

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4 comments

  1. Ashley · · Reply

    The French schooling system gives me the sweats every time I try to understand it.

  2. This disorganization must be so frustrating for you! But just go with the flow, and realize that if there are no specific standards, you have more freedom to go with your instincts in some cases; and you can hardly be criticized by teachers/supervisors for doing things in any particular way since they all disagree among themselves anyway. Right? That’s one way to look at it, anyway.

  3. […] from a shared cultural teaching philosophy, I observed (as I lamented in my last post) that each of my schools takes a different approach to foreign language learning. Beyond that, […]

  4. […] don’t you ever call us by our English names?” one of my CM1 students recently asked […]

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