Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Les etudiants francais toujours aussi nuls en anglais

That was one of the headlines of the France 2 evening news tonight (check minute 25) and the title of an article in Le Monde.
Umm, toldja so?
This is after the results of the 2008 TOEFL exam came out and found that the French finished 69th out of 109 countries in the world ranking, tied with Belarus and Latvia. Out of European countries, France was 25th out of 49, and as far as the results on the oral part of the exam, only Monaco, Cyprus, and Italy scored worse than France (I assume she meant out of European countries but she isn't totally clear on that point).

Why do the French have so much trouble with English? According to the woman who wrote the article in Le Monde, the French may have a genetic blockage when it comes to learning English. I won't go into the ways in which that is a ridiculous statement.

France 2 interviewed a few people who gave reasons that I definitely agree with: the program in primaire doesn't use effective methods, namely that it doesn't start early enough (which I don't really agree with, I think it's more a matter of insufficient class time), but she also mentions the lack of native English speakers teaching English in primaire, that the teachers themselves aren't good enough in English (oh boy do I agree with that! 2/20 on your habilitation does not mean you can teach English!), and the fact that the French are nervous about being judged by others when they speak English (absolutely agree!). I read some comments that offer good explanations too: shows are always dubbed in French so you can't hear the accent and learn pronounciation, not enough time speaking in class, not enough class time period.

To all of this I would add the fact that the English curriculum itself is pretty terrible. Elementary students have only an hour and a half of English a week, and we all know that kids forget everything right away and especially over the two month long summer vacation. At the end of elementary school they are supposed to have acquired level A1 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Language. I won't go into the whole list of skills they have to learn, you can look it up online, but suffice it to say it's waaayyyyy too much for the amount of time they actually have in English class. You have to spend so much time reviewing things they've already learned and forgotten that it's difficult to learn very many new things. Most of them end up getting a solid base in the very basics of English, and some kids really excel and learn everything you throw at them, but most of them don't get up to the level that the government thinks they do each year, and I assume it's the same in secondaire.

My main recommendations to improve their English skills: stop dubbing the TV shows and movies, get teachers with higher English levels into primaire classes, make English in primaire exclusively oral (maybe introduce some reading and phonics in CM2, otherwise work on them intensively in 6eme), either change the primaire curriculum entirely so that A1 is no longer necessary at the end of CM2 or add class time to English in order to achieve A1. Since I don't know much about English in secondaire, I can't offer many specific recommendations except to have the kids speak more in class and to use more entertaining teaching tools (games and songs never get boring!). I heard universally from teachers and former students and their parents that in college the kids rarely have the opportunity to speak and just sit there writing and reading.

What do you guys think? Why do the French have so much trouble learning English? What can be done to improve their results?


Erika said...

I think that there probably is a curriculum problem, but more than that, there's a cultural problem. French people don't want to learn English because learning English to them is synonymous with losing their precious language (and culture). Americans have already infiltrated on their culture enough as it is--to have the one thing that makes the French French taken away... well, it would be an utter travesty. So their way of resisting? To not learn it... at least not very well. Because if they learn it too well, well then, people would stop using French. This may be an extreme view, but I think it is what suits the French. They are a stubborn people, but in some ways, it's completely understandable and probably the reason why their culture is so unique to this day.

Leesa said...

Hi Mira,

I DEFIN. agree with your main reasons-- My opinion--
insufficient amount of time to be effective, low level English skills of the teacher, and poor curriculum at the elementary level... It gets a bit better as the kids go up in age. There are other reasons, too... But those are the main ones, I feel.
Besides that ... Lack of practice....
The Germans, Austrians and folks from the Neverlands/Scandanavia see pretty good when it comes to speaking Eglish!

Andromeda said...

I think it's mostly the VO thing, not hearing the language sounds enough to be comfortable with them, which might be part of the cultural problem Erika is talking about. And not to change the subject or anything, but Americans aren't too keen on the foreign languages either. The countries are so scary alike sometimes, it's like I never left, lol.

Jennie said...

The teachers in secondaire are a bit better - everyone I worked with sounded like a native speaker, but the curriculum is still focused on reading and writing and grammar, except for the ridiculous 10 minute describe a photo thing for the Bac.

TV and movies in VO would help so much. I believe that's why Dutch and Scandinavian people are always so much better at English than other Europeans. Because they have to HEAR it all the time. Listening to the language is the best way to learn it and practically the only way to learn how to speak it.

I do think a part of it is the French pride too. Just like Americans, they don't think they need to learn another language...

And the negativity factor in schools probably plays a part. the way so many teachers put down students in class and call them stupid. Yeah, that really helps the motivation of poor teenagers trying to learn!

Isabelle said...

I saw the news on France 2 too last night and was wondering if you would write something on the subject!!

Learning English in primary schools is pretty recent (about 10 years maybe), before that all kids started learning English in 6th grade (or 8th grade for those who were choosing another foreign language like German for example).

Like everything with education in France, the decision to start teaching English in primary school was a good one, but by lack of a proper budget I see it as nothing more than a gadget. Like you said, most teachers can't speak English properly and there are not enough hours dedicated to it. English in primary schools is just a huge joke, and kids start learning the language all over from the beginning when they start 6th grade...
From 6th grade to 12th grade, again, not enough teaching hours, classes where you mostly learn about grammar and litterature. Not enough time is dedicated to the "laboratoire de langues", and there are too many kids in a class to make each one try to speak!!

Parents are very well aware that learning English nowadays is essential and those who can afford it send their kids spend some time in language schools in England. The market of private lessons and linguistic trips to England is a huge one in France, so I'm not sure that people are so resentful of learning this language...

PS: I wonder how some primary schools can hire native teachers like you, and others don't. My kids have never had a native English teacher in primary school (they went to 2 different primary schools, but in the same town)!!

Eileen said...

I'm not sure the disliking English argument holds up when the kids aren't walking around fluent in German and Italian and Spanish either. But I'm definitely with you on the negativity in schools, Jennie--in language learning people have to feel comfortable making mistakes and my students never wanted to open their mouths, past 6eme anyway.

au soleil levant said...

Great comments guys!

Erika - the cultural argument is an interesting one, but I think it only holds up in certain parts of French society. Most people I encountered do acknowledge that it's necessary to know English and wanted to learn it or to speak it better, and the kids especially love learning English, although that's probably mostly because we play games :) The cultural argument could be the reason behind the terrible curriculum passed down from Education Nationale though.

Leesa - your students are lucky that they have you to make up for their bad education at school! Austrians are especially good at English, I hear :)

Andromeda - true that Americans aren't that great with languages, but we also don't have a huge national curriculum that wants us to be fluent in a second language at the end of high school. I just did a quick search and apparently only 16 states require an average of 2 years of foreign language for high school graduation, so you can't really compare the language curriculum in the two countries.

Jennie and Eileen - I had to reprimand my students a few times for making fun of kids who made mistakes (not to mention some of the really horrible treatment of students by the teachers that I witnessed). One time I told the kids that the point of speaking a language is to make mistakes and then learn from them and I said "how many times do you hear me make mistakes in French every day? 10, 20?" and this kid said "50." Nice, right? But I think it does put the kids at ease to have a non-native French speaker as their English teacher because they can see that I make mistakes all the time, but I get along pretty well quand meme.

Isabelle - as always, you add the interesting historical dimension! Having an American or other anglophone assistant in the classroom is really up to the school. The school or circonscription asks the rectorat or IA for an assistant, and then it's up to them to place an assistant in the school. The schools in your town may not have requested an assistant, or maybe there weren't enough assistants named to your academie to place one in your town, or maybe all your teachers are habilite and they don't "need" an assistant. Unfotunately starting this year the government is reducing the number of 9 month primaire positions (which is the contract that I had) and I think it will be disastrous for English education in primaire. The local districts don't have enough people who are habilite in English to teach it or the money to pay them and the assistants fill this huge gap in resources. In my circonscription this year there was one town that didn't have English at all because they ran out of money.

Isabelle said...

Your answer to my comment is just another proof that learning English in primary schools is nothing else than a big joke ("poudre aux yeux" like we would say in French).
Either they dedicate enough money and time to it or they don't do it at all and focus on French grammar and spelling ;)

shannon said...

It might not be like this in every lycee, but my students (with the exception of the 2ndes) only had English for two 55 minute (usually shorter though) class periods. So that's still next to nothing!

OMG! This just made me think about a teacher Natasha worked with. She was the English teacher, and she literally spoke the entire time in French, and when she needed to say a word in English, she pressed "Play" on a cassette player. Yikes!

But I have to agree with Jennie, the teachers in a lycee are much better at English - close to native speakers (with the exception of a few of course).

As for making mistakes, I think that was part of the reason Claude had "Torture Shannon time". If they saw me making mistakes in French, it was proof they didn't have to be perfect. Still, the system of teaching English is not that great in my opinion. Aside from a few of my star students, the rest can only regurgitate what the teacher wrote on the board (if that). When we were in London, very few (i.e. 2 or 3) had the courage to speak to someone in English.

I agree with the need for more in VO. And definitely more encouragement inside the classroom (which will never happen).

au soleil levant said...

Isabelle - exacte

Shannon - your students only had 55 minutes twice a week?!? I guess the technical lycees don't see a reason to teach them English?

Teachers like the one Natasha worked with are what happens when they are habilite with 2/20 and don't feel comfortable teaching English but are forced to because of a shortage of teachers. Last year for the CM2 A1 test there was a CD for the teachers to use to administer the listening part of the exam, but if we wanted to we could just say it ourselves. Seriously??? If a teacher doesn't feel comfortable saying "the pencil is on the desk" and "the monster has 3 red eyes," you should NOT be teaching English!

I think this phenomenon plays into the lack of speaking time during class too. If the teacher doesn't feel comfortable speaking and listening in English, she is certainly not going to work on the childrens' speaking skills.

L said...

When my husband's cousin took the Bac 2 years ago, he showed me the English prompt afterwards. Many of the questions required you to answer in French, explaining something about the English text. I think that's a huge problem right there when the English test is mostly in French.

Isabelle said...

@L: I wonder what BAC your husband's cousin took, because in the BAC general, the English subjects don't ask you to write anything in French, except for the translation in French of one part of an English text.

I agree that there shouldn't be any questions in French or answers in French (except for a translation) when taking an English test. But according to the kind of BAC you are taking (general or professional), the required level of English will be different.

shannon said...

It's not just the technical lycees. Some of Paul's and Guy's students had the same amount of English as mine. It might depend on the type of diploma. Maybe the BacL students take more??? Maybe???

Also, part of the BTS English exam is in French. They listen to something in English, but the questions and answers are in French.

au soleil levant said...

L, Isabelle, Shannon - The directeur of one of my schools told me that when he took the Bac the Latin Bac had a written and oral part, and the English was only written. I assume the Latin oral was in French about a text in Latin, but you never know, maybe they were speaking the latina. Quid agis?

Anyone know about the program and Bac for other languages? Is it just as ridiculous or slightly more acceptable?

Isabelle said...

I took the Bac L (L meaning littéraire) and I had to take written and oral English, written Spanish and they took into account the marks that I had all year long for the third language (in my case it was italian, but it could have been latin or ancient greek or russian etc.)...

If you look at the following link, you can take a look at all the subjects (including languages) for the bac général:

On "Annales" on the left, clic on the serie you are interested in (serie littéraire requires a higher level of English than the other series),
then scroll down to find Anglais LV1 (meaning Langue Vivante 1), clic on this one and then on session 2009 (so you'll have this year's subjects), then clic on métropole sujet.

About 60% of kids choose a bac général, the rest go to a bac technologique or BEP or CAP.

Zhu said...

Eh, I got 115/120 at my TOEFL Test last year!

... Oh, wait a minute, I guess it's my Canadian side. Never mind :D

As a former French, I don't think we suck at English because we don't want to learn it. I mean, kids never really want to learn anything anyway, right? My students don't always want to learn French, yet they do (and some are actually surprised!).

I took Chinese as a second language, so I barely learned any English in school. I picked it up once in Canada. But anyway, the few classes I had in French were terrible: the teachers weren't even close to be native speakers and their last trip to an English speaking country must have been before Woodstock.

I don't know anybody fluent in a language just learning it at school anyway.

I cringe when I hear these story "after a two months trip to the USA, X was fluent in English". Er... I don't think so.

I pick languages pretty easily (I think!) but it took me at least a year or two of living in Canada full time and not speaking French to be fluent. And I know I still make mistakes!

au soleil levant said...

Great points Zhu. Do you think that the teachers you had in Chinese were effective? Did they have a better level/accent/more visits than the English teachers?

DiaryofWhy said...

A genetic blockage! That is fantastic...and makes me laugh a lot. Just another example of the French "nothing is ever my fault" attitude! This is a really interesting topic, and some great thoughts going around the comments section too.

Zhu said...

To answer your questions... I was in a "classe pilote" and we had - I think - 8 hours of Chinese a week, which was quite a lot.

My teacher (I had the same teacher through junior high and high school) was Chinese, her name was "Red Flag" (no kidding) and she took her mission (educating stupid white people) very seriously. She taught us the Chinese way: punish ignorance and study hard :D

Plus, we were only 8 students in our class, which helped.

au soleil levant said...

Diary of Why - My first thought when I got to France is that it must be a genetic blockage. Wasn't it yours? :)

Zhu - wow, if only English were taught like that! Sounds like it was a tough but good class.