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Teaching English in France


A few years ago we lived in France and I was offered a part-time post at the local university. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘What could be easier? All those students raring to go. All with a good basic standard of English. A doddle’.

What a mistake-a to make-a!

It should be straight forward. I have an experienced colleague who has all the materials from the previous year and we teach the same content to parallel groups of students taking English on different courses. Mostly it is speaking and listening activities. (More highly powered tutors teach the grammar, linguistics, phonetics etc.) I have a group of second years for ‘cultural studies’ and a group of first year sports students. Also a group of business students who have to take one English session per week.

The language students

These fall into 2 groups, those taking just English and those taking English plus another language or business studies. Because they have chosen to study English at university I assume they have a good basic spoken English. Ha! Not so, although when I try to improve their pronunciation they have a somewhat arrogant stance, ‘What can you teach us? My accent is fine’. I try showing them how much they need to use their lips and jaw to produce certain sounds and I can see the girls thinking, ‘This is not a sexy mouth.’

I should point out that most of these language students do not own a dictionary and have no intention of buying one. How can you learn a foreign language without a dictionary? When they ask,’What does that word mean?’ I tell them that I am not a dictionary and to buy one and look it up. By contrast, the Hong Kong Chinese students have expensive gizmos to help them translate.

My colleague and I ‘do’ listening and speaking activities, using recorded items, as well as games and ‘debates’. The listening exercises would be straightforward if the machines in every room actually worked, but alas, I frequently find that there are not enough functioning machines for individual work (which is the whole point) and sometimes none at all, which means I can be seen traipsing round the campus toting a cd player, (which I hope will be loud enough for the whole class to hear). My not-very-wonderful French rapidly improves as I increasingly seek the help of the technician. But by the year end the situation is much the same. The machines need replacing!

Getting some students to speak during speaking exercises is difficult. One or two try really hard and there are some excellent students in each group, but the Chinese students hardly say anything and I start to wonder how well I am teaching them. At the end of the year I am pleasantly surprised in the oral exam to find that most of them can actually speak rather good, though limited, English. I encourage each one to ‘never mind those French students. You have a go next year.’

In contrast there is one young French man of whom I almost despair. He misses class frequently and his exam is dreadful. He spins me a long yarn about accidents and one thing and another, in French, probably in the hope of upping his mark. When I consult with my colleague she tells me he has done the first year at least 3 times that she knows of and he’s never going to get any better. I cheer up. It’s not me then.

The Business Students

I actually expect that the business students will value learning English from a native speaker. They don’t. Like the sports students they don’t seem to understand why they are in class at all. It seems they have yet to realise that English is the lingua franca in the business world. But at least the course organisers have set a minimum number of classes they must attend, plus I have a photograph to go with the names, so at least I stand a chance of getting the roll call right. [Actually, they sign in. More dignified for them, less bother for me.] This group is twice the size of any of the language student groups so the room gets very crowded.

We cover basic grammar and vocabulary work but they come with a huge variation in ability and English experience so it gets a bit tricky. I want to keep the ‘good’ ones going whilst not losing the less keen. Their body language tells me a lot, especially some of the young men whose arrogance is palpable. I cannot teach them anything they need to know!

In the end it’s work-sheet based stuff. That way they have something to take away from class (no-one buys books so there is no text book we can use) and the keen ones can revise. Games are not a success so I don’t use them after the first couple of times. I just get a good business studies book and photocopy stuff. Why reinvent the wheel or take endless pains for students who don’t care?

What we do try is to get them to choose a real business and to research it for a presentation later in the term. They can work solo, in pairs or small groups but each must do some work and help in the final presentation. We allow some class time for this but a fair amount needs to be done in their own time. Some of the results are excellent, some much less so. There are a couple of students who manage to avoid the task altogether, so annoying.
A colleague who teaches on the Masters Business Studies course finds much the same. Their understanding is so poor that she finishes up doing amazingly basic stuff. She also says they don’t consider how important English is in the modern business world. They’ll no doubt learn in time.

Cultural Studies with language specialists

I have a set number of classes to teach on this course and no guidelines other than the fact that other staff members teach English law, education system etc. so what to do?

I want to make it a relaxing time. These students have really long days, often starting at 8am and finishing at 6.30pm, and if you have to travel any distance to the university it’s an early start and often a late finish.

I bring in TV listing magazines……..English and French and we look at how much TV time is allocated to what. There are some interesting differences between France and UK.

On another day we do a similar activity with newspapers.

We talk about greetings cards, not sold anything like so widely in France as here in England. I bring instruction sheets in English and materials and let them make a card. A nice relaxing activity, with different vocabulary.

Conkering all! I have a couple of short articles about the British conker season, which they find amusing. I also bring in horse chestnuts and string for them to make their own conkers and have a game. Most join in and have fun. Naturally, one or two are above that sort of thing.

Video. I actually have a room with a working TV/video so I bring in Chicken Run so we can watch part of it, laugh a lot and then discuss the British war film genre.

 I might add that I am not supposed to be teaching any actual English in these classes although some does crop up. I do a lesson about ‘drinking down the pub’, with a reference sheet to go with it and we have a hilarious discussion about nights out they have had/can remember.

 Sports students

 can be found on http://www.carefulkaty.wordpress.com so I won’t repeat it here.