English as a Second Language
The majority of English speakers coming to France are a little nervous about speaking French as a second language and one finds a similar reaction amongst French students who are learning to speak English. But some 18 to 25 years old French students are paying up to $6,000 annually to master a second language they all studied for six years in high school before earning their Baccalauréat degrees and entering the job market.
But according to some of the students at the Berlitz language school, Paris, a lot of things in France have changed under globalisation in order to keep the French competitive. They say that teaching people English in France has remained old-fashioned and inefficient. Julien Petitpas, one of the 10 young adults who gather for 12 hours a week to improve their English at the school, says “In school it’s all structure, grammar and getting it right on paper and in your head before you ever speak — and even then, you don’t do much of that. There is no opportunity to improve conversational skills. It just doesn’t work.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled an “emergency plan” earlier this month for teaching foreign languages in the nation’s schools with the objective that all France’s high school students must become bilingual, and some should be trilingual. France spends 5.8% of its annual GDP on education — the fifth highest percentage in the world. But its current rank of 69th among 109 countries on the standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The aim now is to expose students to more native-speaking English instructors, increase contacts between French and foreign high schools and shifting the focus in schools from written foreign language to a more practical oral instruction.
French Immersion Programme
Since moving to France, I have found it easier to learn French because I have to speak it, what you might call a French immersion programme. A modern foreign language is meant to be spoken. That may seem obvious. But here in France, Latin is an oral exam on the Baccalauréat while the leading modern language, English, is evaluated in written form.
Getting teachers in France’s notoriously rigid education system to change their ways and encourage students to speak more in foreign-language classes will be one challenge.
Another challenge to overcome is the contradiction in promoting foreign language study among students and yet continuing France’s long standing policy aimed at protecting and promoting the use of the French language at home. As far back as 1635, the Academie Française began its mission to rid the French language of impurities, i.e. the use of words taken from other languages. Then there is the principle objective of “exception culturelle”, which for 25 years has ensured that French language, music, film and other cultural products are not dominated by English language imports. And if you have had any dealings with bureaucracy in France (living here, that’s impossible to avoid), you will know that French translations must accompany any foreign phrases in legal documents, business contracts and even advertising.
Learn a foreign tongue
These efforts to reinforce the virtues of the French language may inadvertently decrease the attraction of learning a foreign tongue for many in France. This especially so amongst students who are made to feel they mustn’t attempt to utter a word of what’s often called “la langue de Shakespeare” until they’ve mastered it on paper. Which may mean that students pass their English language exams, only to find that they can’t actually speak it.
There should also be a shift towards offering courses in which students are taught English business and financial vocabulary, perhaps given help in improving their resumes and job interviewing skills and thereby providing a wider tool kit for the business world.
One day maybe French students will start getting this kind of practical training for free whilst still at school, meanwhile they have to keep paying for it.
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