Emphasizing Oral Skills in Language Education

For once I agree with Sarkozy on something. He recently announced an “emergency” plan for changing the way languages are taught in France. He recognizes that the French system currently emphasizes too much grammar and memorization when basic communication skills such as listening and speaking should be the focus of language education. Even though most French students learn two foreign languages from the 6th grade on, by the time they finish high school, they still cannot actually speak the language. Another recent report indicates that 41% of adults in France report speaking no foreign languages, which ranks France as the 6th worst country for adults speaking another language (behind Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal, and Hungary, which reports a whopping 78% of adults who only speak Hungarian).

After observing and “assisting” two years of middle & high school English classes in France, I can definitely say the teachers did not care so much for teaching listening skills or even exposing the students to authentic language which is absolutely necessary to improve pronunciation and spoken fluency. Of course, with 30-36 students in each class that only meets a few hours a week, it’s a nearly impossible to have every student practice talking. But that’s what homework is for. This leads into questions of motivation and autonomous learning, which are often very different for each student – especially French students who must take two foreign languages even if they don’t want to.

Some schools have been experimenting with using more audio resources for teaching English. I came across some reportages on using mp3 players outside of class to listen to an audio file in English and then the student records his or her reaction to it, or tries to write down the transcription, or answers comprehension questions, etc. The schools provide the mp3 players (since not all teenagers have one already), and this way more expensive language labs or even computers are not actually necessary.

Since my university most likely won’t spend money on mp3 players (because they won’t spend money on new computers…), I prefer to have my classes in the one computer room we have on campus even though the computers are from the late 90’s and we’re stuck using the 60-second-maximum Windows recorder. I’ve been asking for administrator privileges so I can install Audacity, but no luck so far. In my special English class for exchange students, I’ve been spending a ridiculous amount of time preparing interactive lessons using audio and video files so that the students can listen to English as much as possible. Our program does include many language labs that are audio-based as well, but the lecture courses remain writing and grammar-based and the grades for these lecture courses count more than for the labs, which seems a bit backwards to me.

But should all students be forced to learn English? My university doesn’t even offer a degree in a single foreign language. Students must learn English and another language. It’s English/Spanish, English/Italian or English/German and nothing else. Sarkozy was mostly referring to English when he announced the new plan because of its status as a global language vital to international business and also because he’s still upset about France’s ranking of 69 out of 109 on the TOEFL test. But some French people would prefer to learn other languages in order get jobs, such as German. The region of Alsace has launched a new campaign to get people interested in learning German because there are several jobs in the area that go unfilled because they cannot find enough French-German bilinguals to hire.  (The official site is here.)  German is actually the most widely-spoken language in Europe. There are 100 million people (or about 1 out of every 5 people in the EU) who speak it as their native language as compared to around 75 million for English.

Summer to Fall to Christmas in One Week

Last week I was still wearing tank tops because the temperature was still reaching 75° (24 C). This week it’s been probably about 50° or 60° (10-15 C) and the heat has been turned on in our building. We’re supposed to turn all the radiators on full blast to make sure everything is working properly […]

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Switzerland vs. France (Not a Football Match)

Oddly enough, living in France near the Swiss border has more disadvantages than advantages. At first I thought it would be nice to be close to another country that isn’t even in the EU. Geneva’s international airport has served me well over the years, but I’ve got to say that I’ve never actually spent time […]

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Bon jour d’action de grâce !

Un bon jour d’action de grâce à tous mes amis canadiens et canadiennes !!

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PACS is 10 years old

PACSing was created in France in late 1999, originally as an alternative to gay marriage, but straight couples are also allowed to get PACSed. In 2000, there were 22,108 PACS. In 2008, the number had risen to 144,716. However, less than 6% of the PACS in 2008 were gay couples. The majority of PACS are […]

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Where does the time go?

I’ve finished my first full week of classes (all 16.5 hours) and even though I only work Monday-Wednesday, I am exhausted! I would prefer to work 4 hours a day over 4 days, but the students don’t have classes on Thursday afternoons because of sports. So as of 6:30pm Wednesday evening, I am en week-end. […]

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I.D. se prononce Heidi

I somehow came across the French School of Detroit’s site when I was reading France-Amérique and I thought their page on American vocabulary was so cute. The students’ parents are not always fluent in English, so they explained a few American words that the parents will probably encounter. Lunchbox: Concrètement, il s’agit des repas pour vos […]

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My new favorite applet for teaching and learning languages online: NanoGong

I just discovered this awesome applet called NanoGong from the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. It’s a mini-recorder that you can use on webpages (and Moodle) and it will work perfectly in my vocabulary classes! The students listen to my pronunciation (by using flash mp3 players that I already embedded into the flashcards) […]

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Year Four Begins…

I completely missed my 3 year anniversary of living in France! In some ways, it seems longer than 3 years. In other ways, not so much. Year four brings a new apartment and city to discover, the same job but new students to teach, and another year closer to officially becoming French. I feel like […]

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My rentrée is almost here

Tomorrow I will finally start classes again! We are just doing placement tests so we can divide the groups by level, but it’s still work, especially since we’re using our lovely computer lab with Windows 2000 and so far 3 out of 18 of the computers are already dead. New computers will be installed, but […]

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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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