On teaching English in French lycées

I have officially completed my second year as a teaching assistant! And I got my car back Thursday night, so I could drive it to work and back one last time. I finished my last few hours by having the students play Apples to Apples, Scattergories and doing a mock speed dating session.

Over the past two years, I’ve been noticing some common themes in the way English is taught to French students. Foreign language education is more advanced here than in the US, where all I ever learned was verb conjugations and vocabulary lists in high school. However, just because English is taught in this way doesn’t mean the students actually learn more… Plenty of my students apparently learned nothing over the past seven years of English classes. But some of them were surprisingly good, so it really just depends on the student and their motivation and desire to learn.

In France, language education seems to be much more culture-based, with more use of authentic materials, and it involves learning how to write/talk about common subjects that are (stereotypically) associated with the English-speaking world. The focus is more on communication, meaning, and expressing your ideas/opinions instead of on the grammatical forms.

I vaguely remember learning about some aspects of French culture/history when I was in college, such as May ’68 and the presidents of the 5th Republic… but that was in a class specifically called “French Culture.” I never really learned about important cultural differences when I was in high school.

So here are the main topics that my English classes were always learning about:

Blues & Jazz music
Junk Food & Obesity
Speed Dating
Immigration
Gun Control
Environment & Global Warming
Racism & Slavery

Most of these are very “American” topics or problems, so I wonder how much the teachers really know about these subjects since they all studied British English in the UK. Sometimes I got the impression that students were learning overly-stereotypical ideas about Americans. It didn’t matter how much I explained that there are plenty of Americans who don’t own guns, and who are not overweight, and who do care about the environment (like me!!) Some of the students will always believe that all Americans are violent, obese and ruining the planet.

But then again, how can you effectively teach the culture of a foreign country that your students have never been to and may never go to? All they know about the US is what they see on TV or in movies, which we all know is never ever fake… They will never be able to experience the culture, especially one that is so diverse in a country that is so large, so they just take away small snippets of stereotypes instead. Is that better than learning no culture at all?

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  • Alisa

    i think it’s interesting you say language learning here is more advanced… from my experiences i’ve always felt the opposite. in my french class in high school we only used a text book the first two years, and then moved on to more ‘real materials’. we learned french history from a real french collège history book, we read le petit prince and watched french films and had to produce newspaper articles and did plays, songs, role-plays. i feel at the end of high school i was much more capable than my french counterparts. that said, i do think they learn more about the culture, but what good is the culture when 1) half the time it’s wrong/stereotyped info and 2) they can’t use it to do anything useful?

    in any case, this apples to apples you speak of, can you get it here in france? my class wants to play it but i’m not familiar with it.

  • Alisa

    i think it’s interesting you say language learning here is more advanced… from my experiences i’ve always felt the opposite. in my french class in high school we only used a text book the first two years, and then moved on to more ‘real materials’. we learned french history from a real french collège history book, we read le petit prince and watched french films and had to produce newspaper articles and did plays, songs, role-plays. i feel at the end of high school i was much more capable than my french counterparts. that said, i do think they learn more about the culture, but what good is the culture when 1) half the time it’s wrong/stereotyped info and 2) they can’t use it to do anything useful? in any case, this apples to apples you speak of, can you get it here in france? my class wants to play it but i’m not familiar with it.

  • Jennie

    I wish I could have gone to your high school! It’s true it just depends on your teacher and how fluent they really are and what types of activities they bring into the classroom. I agree with the cultural info too – it’s not really that useful for language learning… practical, everyday English would be more beneficial… but then again, French students need to know about culture so they can pass the stupid Bac, because that’s really all that’s on it.

    Apples to Apples is a card game and I bought it in the US – though I have the Kids version so the vocabulary is easier. I don’t think you’d be able to find it here. You can make your own cards though; this site lists all of the words used in the actual games: http://www.com-www.com/applestoapples/

  • Jennie

    I wish I could have gone to your high school! It’s true it just depends on your teacher and how fluent they really are and what types of activities they bring into the classroom. I agree with the cultural info too – it’s not really that useful for language learning… practical, everyday English would be more beneficial… but then again, French students need to know about culture so they can pass the stupid Bac, because that’s really all that’s on it.Apples to Apples is a card game and I bought it in the US – though I have the Kids version so the vocabulary is easier. I don’t think you’d be able to find it here. You can make your own cards though; this site lists all of the words used in the actual games: http://www.com-www.com/applestoapples/

  • Justin

    My French class in high school was decent. We learned culture (just a little, and mostly geography and history other than behaviors) We also progressed pretty far. I remember being able to speak it pretty well by the end (of course I forgot all of it over the past 10 years).

    I think that many French do have a flawed view on the Americans. My colleagues tell me all the time how I am not your typical American. I eat Roquefort cheese, don’t over-indulge when eating, am not fat, don’t own a gun, etc. But I always argue with them that I am actually pretty typical and so are most of the people I know and am friends with. Of course they never believe me and are still convinced we only eat cheeseburgers and drink milkshakes. But I am happy that I can at least shatter some stereotypes even if they think I am a rare case.

  • Justin

    My French class in high school was decent. We learned culture (just a little, and mostly geography and history other than behaviors) We also progressed pretty far. I remember being able to speak it pretty well by the end (of course I forgot all of it over the past 10 years).I think that many French do have a flawed view on the Americans. My colleagues tell me all the time how I am not your typical American. I eat Roquefort cheese, don’t over-indulge when eating, am not fat, don’t own a gun, etc. But I always argue with them that I am actually pretty typical and so are most of the people I know and am friends with. Of course they never believe me and are still convinced we only eat cheeseburgers and drink milkshakes. But I am happy that I can at least shatter some stereotypes even if they think I am a rare case.

  • Milie

    Hi Jennie,
    I don’t think there are perfect ways to learn languages. But it’s definitely worth it to try using as many means as possible.
    If you consider the case of your students this year, they may have been influenced by your view on American culture/issues, which may have been your subjective opinion. If you consider people traveling to the US, they may not have the opportunity to meet and share ideas with local people because they don’t have American friends to visit over there. They would instead stay in their hostels. And if they are lucky enough to have the opportunity to share some pieces of life with some local people, these persons would not necessarily be representative of the average American.
    So it’s definitely true that there are stereotypes. There are also people interested in other cultures who try to build their own opinions, but we don’t always share their opinions! Anyway, it’s interesting to share (different) views.
    Have a sweet Sunday ;-0

  • Milie

    Hi Jennie,I don’t think there are perfect ways to learn languages. But it’s definitely worth it to try using as many means as possible. If you consider the case of your students this year, they may have been influenced by your view on American culture/issues, which may have been your subjective opinion. If you consider people traveling to the US, they may not have the opportunity to meet and share ideas with local people because they don’t have American friends to visit over there. They would instead stay in their hostels. And if they are lucky enough to have the opportunity to share some pieces of life with some local people, these persons would not necessarily be representative of the average American.So it’s definitely true that there are stereotypes. There are also people interested in other cultures who try to build their own opinions, but we don’t always share their opinions! Anyway, it’s interesting to share (different) views.Have a sweet Sunday ;-0

  • The Late Bloomer

    Yes, I noticed with just a couple of the students I tutor once a week that they deal with a lot of “civilization” and cultural subjects in their English classes, starting in collège I guess, almost more so than the grammar! That blows me away, because as important as the cultural element is, of course, I would think that the basics of grammar, a real foundation, should come first…

    And my one student has been dealing with the subject of slavery and civil rights in the U.S. for like the past three months — I feel kind of sorry for him, because as important as it is to discuss such a subject, there is so much more to discuss as well. Plus, like you said, it does seem to end up pushing the stereotype buttons, which I hate as well… People then just get more generalized notions of what the U.S. is like. But what can you do?! It’s tough to change the whole system…

    When I think back to my French high school classes, I think I did learn some basic civilization and we learned some French poetry, but our focus was definitely on grammar and vocabulary — LOTS of vocab lists! Plus the verb conjugations — how to memorize all the “aller, arriver” verbs! I felt like it gave me a solid base for continuing to study French in college, where I started dealing with deeper subjects, like French literature and art history.

  • The Late Bloomer

    Yes, I noticed with just a couple of the students I tutor once a week that they deal with a lot of “civilization” and cultural subjects in their English classes, starting in collège I guess, almost more so than the grammar! That blows me away, because as important as the cultural element is, of course, I would think that the basics of grammar, a real foundation, should come first…And my one student has been dealing with the subject of slavery and civil rights in the U.S. for like the past three months — I feel kind of sorry for him, because as important as it is to discuss such a subject, there is so much more to discuss as well. Plus, like you said, it does seem to end up pushing the stereotype buttons, which I hate as well… People then just get more generalized notions of what the U.S. is like. But what can you do?! It’s tough to change the whole system…When I think back to my French high school classes, I think I did learn some basic civilization and we learned some French poetry, but our focus was definitely on grammar and vocabulary — LOTS of vocab lists! Plus the verb conjugations — how to memorize all the “aller, arriver” verbs! I felt like it gave me a solid base for continuing to study French in college, where I started dealing with deeper subjects, like French literature and art history.

  • Muratos

    I would buy my students the best classics of French cinema. Learning a language is funnier in such way.

  • Muratos

    I would buy my students the best classics of French cinema. Learning a language is funnier in such way.

  • The Duchess

    Your themes from this past year look very similar to the ones I did with my classes 5 years ago! Most are quite stereotypical, but seem to be the most focussed on themes for America.
    My frustration with the lycee level was that they only seemed to learn a very fixed list of vocab and phrases, alot of which were antiquated because their other English teachers last visited the States or the UK over 10 years ago!

  • The Duchess

    Your themes from this past year look very similar to the ones I did with my classes 5 years ago! Most are quite stereotypical, but seem to be the most focussed on themes for America.My frustration with the lycee level was that they only seemed to learn a very fixed list of vocab and phrases, alot of which were antiquated because their other English teachers last visited the States or the UK over 10 years ago!

  • rob33

    hi jennie,

    just letting you know i’ve posted your link to my blog, thanks,

    http://freefrenchlessons.tumblr.com/

  • rob33

    hi jennie,just letting you know i’ve posted your link to my blog, thanks,http://freefrenchlessons.tumblr.com/

  • Marilyn Godard

    Jennie:

    As a Francophile , my only regret is that every French language student is not aware of your website. What a wonderful resource. One of my daughters participated in the Assistante program from Canada to Epernay, France and this website would have been such a bonus.
    Merci bien pour votre travaille et bon courage en France !.
    Salut. Amicalement, Marilyn

  • Marilyn Godard

    Jennie:

    As a Francophile , my only regret is that every French language student is not aware of your website. What a wonderful resource. One of my daughters participated in the Assistante program from Canada to Epernay, France and this website would have been such a bonus.
    Merci bien pour votre travaille et bon courage en France !.
    Salut. Amicalement, Marilyn

  • sweetie1801

    focus on communication. hell, no. They have only-grammar approach and that sucks

  • Romaine55

    I enjoyed your article on teaching English in French lycees but I think you are misguided if you think the topics Blues & Jazz music, Junk Food & Obesity, Speed Dating, Immigration, Gun Control, Environment & Global Warming & Racism & Slavery are just “American” topics.  I come from the UK and the subjects you mention are all very topical over there; and now with globalisation as it is and countries dipping in and out of each others culture, they are all just as topical in France too.  It would be no more correct to say that the English language, having  come from England, is only relevant to England than it would be to say that blues & jazz are only relevant to Americans, because this music form emanated from the States. We are all in one big melting pot now and cross-cultural references are a normal part of daily life.

  • Émilie

    I’m about to start the TEFL/TESL program at UC Berkeley, I just got my bachelors in linguistics, and while I originally wanted to teach in St. Petersburg (I did my linguistics language requirement in Russian), with the political atmosphere in Russia the way it is now, my parents convinced me to go to France. I have some “family” in France (in-laws of cousins and siblings of aunts, none that I’m actually related to), the reason why my parents suggested it. I don’t really speak French, but I guess you can say it’s my second language, from actual family (they all live in the states now) that are French and from 13 years of growing up in ballet.

    While I’m sure that the TESL people at Cal can advise me on how to get employment and a visa (shoot, the French consulate is right here in San Fran), I kinda want to know how someone who is actually doing it started out, hence why I’m asking you. But I also hear there is some fierce competition with UK and Irish English teachers there. Is it even worth it?

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    It’s not impossible to get a job in France teaching English but it is very difficult if you don’t have working rights. Doing the assistantship or being a lecteur/lectrice is usually the way in, and honestly most people I know only got to stay and work in France thanks to their French or EU partner. I still think Asia is the better market for Americans since there’s equal competition with other nationalities, unlike Europe where the Brits and Irish get priority.

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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