Thursday, 31 January 2013

Musings on teaching English to French adults

And speak it you shall, dammit!!!
A substantial number of native English speakers who come to live in France teach English to French people to earn money at one time or another. Teaching work is easy to find in the private sector, so depending on one's circumstances it can be a tempting option, despite the relatively low pay.

And that's why back in the early 90's I used to teach English full-time to all kinds of company staff, from salespeople to CEO's, although I teach much less these days as I decided in the mid-Nineties that freelance translating would be much more profitable. I was right about the profitability aspect of my work but I still enjoy the few hours of teaching I do each week.

As time went by I became aware of two things.

Firstly, trainees with a relatively low level often came up with the same three reasons to explain why they found it difficult to learn English. In fact these reasons were evoked so often and expressed using such similar vocabulary that it was almost uncanny. It was as if they had all been taught to repeat them in the same mantric manner, by some language god in French heaven.

It soon became obvious that these obstacles had to be addressed in order for progress to be made, and so the second thing I realised was that the only way to overcome them was not just by using 'teaching' methods, but also by using humour and reasoned argument in tandem with a tiny hint of provocation.

The issues were the following.
'Je bloque' - which, in this context, means 'I freeze' or 'I have a mental block', when it comes to speaking English.
'Les Français sont nuls en langues' or 'the French are bad at learning languages'.
'Mon accent est nul' - 'I have a lousy accent.'

So, let's take a look at them, one by one. (Oh, and I'd like to stress that what follows does not pretend to be pedagogically proven or viable, it's just an informal look at my way of doing things, which trainees would often tell me had helped them.)

In comes a low-intermediate level trainee for her first session. Lets call her Nicole. Nicole explains before we begin that she can write and read English much better than she can speak it. 'And why is that do you think?' I ask. 'Je bloque.' And she, like everyone else, says it in French, before going on to say that this is because she is afraid of making mistakes and making herself look ridiculous.

Now I happen to think that the best way to get round this is to dig a little deeper into why she is afraid and deal with it. So I go for the jugular and bluntly say that it's because of the French education system, which is notorious for sanctioning errors quickly and being parcimonious with praise. She probably got told she was 'nul' - 'useless' at school more times than I've downed a beer in my life. So I tell her that this is not school and we're adults who are here to achieve an objective and to be objective in doing so. There's no-one to laugh at her here, and no-one to criticise her either. Mistakes are not only permitted, they are inevitable and welcome because they indicate to me what areas we should be working on. I tell her that there are only two kinds of French people who make no mistakes in English, and they are perfectly bilingual people - and there are no more than a few thousand of them in the whole country - and those who refuse to say a single word. Trainees need to feel at ease whilst using English and learn to be confident that they will eventually - and almost certainly - speak much better English if they use it as much as possible and enjoy doing so. That's how I deal with this issue. It's not only about using books and pedagogical methods in my view, it also has to do with gaining people's confidence and working not within a trainer/trainee context, but as a team who are trying to reach the same objectives together.

Here's Laurent. He's just turned up for his first lesson. He has the same level as Nicole. He says that he finds English grammar to be very difficult, adding that he's not surprised because 'everybody knows' that 'les Français sont nul en langues.' This too I have heard countless times over the years, not just said by trainees, but friends and acquaintances too. There are so many reasons why Laurent is wrong that if those reasons were goals in a football match, the result would be 10-0. I tend to find a little humour mixed in with a hint of gentle provocation to be very useful in this situation.

'Ah', I say, 'I didn't know that the Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians and just about everybody else on the planet is more intelligent than the French.' And Laurent, like most other peple, says that no, the French are just as intelligent, but it's not that, it's because English is badly taught in French schools. Ah, NOW we're getting somewhere. So I explain that I agree, but that this isn't school. Then I explain that English isn't just about grammar and structures, as the education system still believes, it's also - and mainly - about expressing oneself happy in the knowledge that by doing so one will become more confident and using grammar correctly comes naturally if people use the language instead of merely 'studying' it. Besides, I add, the fact that the French way of teaching languages, and that includes French itself, implies a heavy accent on grammar, whereas that's not the case in many other countries. This ironically means that French people's theoretical knowledge of grammar and structures and how they work is more extensive than that of others, so for the French to say that they are naturally bad at languages and grammar doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, because they have an advantage over other learners in these areas.

Laurent's real problem, as was the case for Nicole, isn't the language, but fear of failure. So he needs to relax and have fun using English and I tell him that we will be speaking English in lessons much more than 'studying' it. Work, football, politics, women, food, I don't care what we talk about, but talk we shall, and it's my job to make it fun so he will look forward to his lessons. And he will mechanically improve his level if he uses this approach.

New trainee Danielle has a different problem. She says that her 'accent is awful.' She adds that 'everyone knows' that the French have an atrocious accent when they speak English. Now let me tell you that if I had been given €10 for every time I have heard that I'd be a millionaire! Again, a little goading and humour can do wonders.

'I see' I say, straight-faced and mock-surprised. 'So if you're saying that you must know a lot about the English accent. You must have lived in an English-speaking country for years to know that, or taught English to a lot of French people. I wasn't told that. I was told you had a relatively low level.' Danielle says that she has a low level, that she has never lived abroad, that she has never taught English and that she has hardly ever heard other French people using English. 'Oh', I say, fun-maliciously, 'so you don't in fact know much about English accents then? Fine. But - and luckily for you - I do, so how about if I give you my humble take on that?' And I tell her that I'm English, I have spoken it with thousands of French people, and like most English people, I adore the French accent. Danielle is surprised. And she's even more surprised when I tell her that - and this is at least partially if not entirely true - every time I hear a French woman speaking English I fall instantly in love with her, although I switch that button off when I'm teaching, don't worry. Besides, look at it the other way round. I may be pretty much bilingual but there are still traces of my English accent. Do I do anything to improve that? No, because people often tell me that my accent is 'charmant', and seeing as I appreciate a little flattery now and again just as much as the next person I see no reason why I should bust a gut to have a perfect accent.

This 'bad accent' thing is strange. I have no idea why so many French people say that. Trainees need to work on their accent, of course, but as long as their accent is good enough for them to be understood it's not a big issue. And, yet again, the best way to improve is to speak English as much as possible and listen to as much English as possible. Technical lessons on accent help, sure, but they're not everything, and confidence is, as usual, just as important.

Anyway, those are my ideas about the three most common reasons that I was given by trainees to explain whay they had, or believed they had, difficulties learning English. As I said above, I'm no expert in pure pedagogical subjects but it does seen to me that many of the 'problems' people say they have with learning English aren't really problems at all in a linguistic sense. The sheer number of times that I have heard people say this kind of thing about English, and saying it in an almost identical way, makes me suspect that they may be more akin to popular myths that people have heard so many times that they end up believing them.

So the best way to tackle them is head-on with the help of a little chiding and teasing, analysis and humour, and a LOT of encouragement, all of it designed to break these unfounded ideas down to nothing and start again by instilling the kind of confidence in English learners that persuades them that they can be just as good at English as anyone else.

What do you think?


  1. While my husband was getting his Master’s Degree at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia I taught French to rich American kids. I did not like to teach as I don’t have much patience. But everything you said about the French saying they can’t study and don’t have a good accent, they said the same here about learning French. I found a lot more people speaking English in France than French in the US. I found that if you are very good in music, you can get a better accent. Some people are better at it than other, and also it depends at what age you study. I still have a French accent, but not too pronounced because most people don’t know what it is, they usually think I am Russian or German, but rarely French.

    1. Hooo, I too don't have much patience when it comes to teaching language to kids Vagabonde. It's completely different to teaching adults, which is why I made clear in the headline that I was referring to teaching adults only. I taught English to French kids for a short while but I found them difficult to cope with and wasn't able to succeed unfortunately. I think it takes a particular temparament to teach children. Oh well, we can't all be good at everything...

      And you're quite right to refer to music in this context. I may not be an expert in general pedagogical methods but I do know a lot about phonetics and why the existence in English of stressed and unstressed vowels is what makes it, unlike French, which doesn't have those characteristics, a 'langue chantante' as the French quite rightly call it, even if they don't know the technical reasons why. English is a language of variable intonation (not to be confused with emphasis), whereas French is more 'horizontal' in nature. I love this subject and could rattle on about it for hours! :)

  2. Oui Monsieur le professeur! Vous avez raison!
    Maybe this is for another post, but do you think french people have a complex of inferiority? (while so many others have a complex of superiority?)
    Like vagabonde, people always ask me if I am from Scandinavia or Germany. My accent is not as strong either. I would love to lose it and could make the effort to do so, but I think it will stay with me forever.

    1. " you think french people have a complex of inferiority? (while so many others have a complex of superiority?)"

      Now there's an interesting question Nadege. The first answer which comes to mind is 'both'. It is difficult to deny that the French education system drums into kids that errors are 'bad', that which makes them less likely to speak other languages freely because they feel inadequate and incapable, but then again, the French have just as much of a superiority complex as the Brits or Americans when it comes to defending their way of life and social structures!

      Go figure, as they say. Maybe it's just one more of those 'French paradoxes' which make France such a fascinating place to live in?

      As to your accent, I'd advise you to keep it for the reasons I mentioned. Foreign accents are as charming as charming gets in my humble view...

  3. How about that, Fripouille: We are COLLEAGUES. I, too, am self-employed and have worked as an adult educator here in the US for over 12 years. Difference: I teach French and my audience is American. www. is my website :-)

    Guess what? I have to agree with Vagabonde here. All the "excuses" your French students come up with, I have heard here too, from my American students. Over and over again. I know for a fact that the French are not any worse at foreign languages (or English) than other countries. I do believe that being overly self critical; experiencing fear of failure; etc are an attribute of adult learners. Kids learn faster because their brains are wired differently AND because they do not care if they sound "too this" or "not enough that." They jump in and go with the flow.

    Poor adults are so used to being "pros" at what they do (professional life, etc) that they can't stand situations where they have less control. The fear of being ridiculous is intense. In France, it's probably even more acute since, as soon as you start school, they drill into you the NECESSITY of speaking the [French] language properly and with great precision. As you mentioned, there is a lot of time spent on learning grammar for example. Wish they did the same here. How many times have I had to teach a grammar lesson in ENGLISH first before I teach the French component? (My M. A. in English has certainly come in handy here in the US :-) Most of my students are clueless. Direct object pronouns? Reflexive verbs? What's that?

    My kid attended a local Montessori school for several years for a reason. Today, he knows English grammar a lot better than some of his friends.

    As you wisely point out, even with the least confident student, humor always, always help. Make people smile or laugh, and they relax. That's just the way it is. I have a lot of fun with my students, and many have become good friends over the years.

    See, Fripouille, isn't that great? Here we were yesterday, marveling at how different we were. Little did we know we are both educators! Life is funny that way...

    PS: Sorry for the long, very long comment.

    Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

    1. Hi Véronique, and I agree that the French are just as capable as anyone else of speaking other languages, and that the 'NECESSITY' of perfection, old-school style, dampens their confidence and enthusiasm. I was also interested to read that you see the same reasons invoked in America, although I don't necessarily think that they come up with them for the same reasons as I know the American education system to be more based on praise where due and encouragement than the French system.

      And as for humour, sure. It's absolutely essential. Used with kids it makes them feel that they are not merely being treated as recipients into which facts must be crammed, and with adults it breaks down social and hierarchical barriers. In other words, be it kids or adults, it removes the traditional and old-fashioned teacher/pupil divide, it makes us all more human, it puts us all on the same level, and all that fosters the idea of wanting to reach a common goal.

      In other words it makes learning a fun experience which both students and professors look forward to with pleasure.

      'Que demande le peuple!'

  4. Thanks for sharing this nice post. If you are seeking a cool way to receive money and want to tour the world,than teach English in abroad.