Language Learning in School. It’s getting better – Oh no it isn’t

I was talking to my 12 year old son Max, the other day about learning a language  – I’m English and he’s French – wow that seems weird seeing that in print but it is true.

We were trying to speak English together – easy for me but not so for him nowadays – especially as he has entered the French éducation nationale programme which includes English lessons.

I spoke to him uniquely in English up to the age of about 7, where, when his brother started speaking we just abandoned speaking only in English as, well I don’t know why, we just did.

The point is that Max, although a very bright boy, has a certain creative streak in him that doesn’t always fit into the rigid framework of formal schooling – he likes to experiment and try things out and, ultimately find things out for himself – which, as you can imagine sometimes gets him into trouble.

I can still speak to him in normal speed, slang ridden English and he understands everything – he watches some Dvd’s and television programs in English too, without flinching and actually enjoys them.

That said he is not by any means a TV addict – he prefers to listen to or play music – which he does in English too (Nirvana & Green day being the latest repertoire ….).

So what is the problem? Well the problem is that although Max has better listening skills in English than his teacher – he has never really read anything in English, so the things that let him down are his spelling and his grammar.

He can hear words but not always represent them accurately on paper – for example “over there” becomes “over their”, “I think” becomes “I thing” etc.

The problem is that the English that kids learn at school, and he goes to a good school, in no way prepares the kids for second language communication in the outside world.

English lessons are spent examining things that I never experienced in my own language like examining all ‘labels’ for each and every function of grammar – great training for a linguist but not much use for working life outside of academia.

Then there is the killer blow – the need to be able to translate everything into French. Why?

Ostensibly, I imagine, that this is to ensure that the meaning is understood as a form of checking mechanism – but here they are preparing children in the most unsuitable ways for incomprehension at a later stage and the almost useless and fatiguing practice of translating whilst listening – VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO DO!

I see the results of this on a daily basis where people try to translate each word that flows out of the mouth of an English speaker only to realise that they JUST CAN’T do it in any effective manner.

Attempts are made to form a parallel between English and French tense forms ) – now that IS a difficult job.

Take for example the future tense which is a tense in French but only a form in English, we do not have a future tense, so what do we do here?

They say that language learning in schools is getting better – oh no it ain’t, not from where I’m standing!

People who I see in business settings who attempt, with varying levels of success, to improve their English communication skills always reassure me with a comforting voice that things have changed in school language learning – from my experience it has not!

Of course English mother tongue children could play about with the language as they will probably only use it to impress mum and dad during holidays to France – in France the reality is that if the level of English is not high enough they will NOT graduate from certain universities.

It really is that important.From what I have seen thus far, I cannot see much logic nor pragmatism in the way English is taught in school.Max’s brother, Etienne (yes another French boy in the family) is in the last year of primary school where he learns English through songs and games and he absolutely loves it – as max did when he learnt English in this way.

Max is fortunate in as much as he listens to English radio, news and some TV, if only passively and we do speak the odd word now and again – we even set contracts between us for example when we go skiing for the day, we will speak only English – it’s fun – ooh, now there’s a thing, fun in learning … that could be a good idea…

But there are children in his class who will never listen to English – how do they get on.

Listening in the class is reserved for listening for detail – which seems almost futile being as they have problems understanding globally – a bit upside-down in my eyes.

Well the simple answer to this is swimmingly in the French Education Nationale – but just up to the time where they will graduate from university – when they will have to be ready to pass with minimum points TOEIC or TOEFL – this is usually where parents have to shell out to send their kids to England or other anglophone countries to catch up on what has not been effectively accomplished.

I worked for a very brief time in the education Nationale with kids from 15 to 19 years old and I distinctly remember a time when, to help the kids remember and use numbers – which they didn’t know at that age!

So we set up some spelling and number games – battleships and bingo to get them using the language – only to be told by the director of the establishment that games had no place in learning in his opinion and this must stop!

I remained until the end of the month before resigning!

What he didn’t see was how the injection of fun and competition boosted the motivation and retention of the subject – but that was that.

Just to finish this mini rant – a shout into the desert, my son said, in English that he needed to buy some new closes – pardon?

In fact what he meant was “clothes”.

I asked him why he pronounced it like this and he said he pronounced it as I did, or as any other anglophone may, only to be corrected by his teacher – “Maxence – it is pronounced CLO//ZÎS” he was also corrected on favourite – which apparently should be pronounced “FAH -VOR-REET” according to his teacher.

Now this may seem very piffling and pedantic – perhaps it is, but I cannot see how people can hear, let alone understand, words spoken by an anglophone if their only reference is badly pronounced models given by a teacher who, quite frankly knows very little!

This is a tad ranty, so I ‘d juts like to say that I know there are some really great teachers out there who endeavour to do their best with what is available – are they in a minority as far as language learning goes?

Of that I’m not sure, but I hope not …

This does appear to give credence to the well-known saying, “We teach best what we most need to learn.”

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  1. It is very interesting that this post was created the very day my upper level students and I were talking about language proficiency and how to improve it.I have a German exchange student in my French class and she asked me in French when did I realize that I was fluent in French. I responded in French that I really became fluent when I started teaching French and had to use it every day. What has really made me proficient is speaking and writing in French to native speakers and and really paying attention to their way of speaking and writing.Because I am not a native speaker of French it is important that my students hear many other voices than my own. Podcasts, video, and using native speakers whenever possible is extremely important in a second language classroom.I want my students to actually USE their French and not only to be able to talk ABOUT it. I’m not training my students to be French majors. I want my students become francophones who are also francophiles. Our national standards have a thread of being life-long learners. This is my ultimate goal.

  2. Very interesting article. I have to say language learning in England a few years ago (3) wasn’t too great either. Kids are unresponsive to how languages are usually taught and as they quite rightly point out, not all of it is useful.Then there’s the government who only care about meeting target grades…grades are not everything, especially with languages. For one thing language proficiency flows up and down quite a bit with confidence, knowledge etc. Also kids can quite easily memorise only what they need to know for exams yet not understand it. It’s a bit of a joke. I have to say that at university it gets a little better, but the easiest way to efficiently learn a language is to have access to native speakers – I’m currently on a study year abroad in France and though the actual modules I’m taking are similar to what I do in England, the teaching is quite different – but it’s being surrounded by native speakers which is improving my French.

  3. OMG! I LOVED the post. I recognize what you say when I hear my husband trying to speak English (he’s a native French, born and raised here, so he learnt English as foreign language in school). He says he’s “speaking English like a Spanish cow” which means he admits he can’t put two words together. I can’t tell him he’s wrong, and I don’t know how to help him to improve. Listening to him, or to any other of my friends or co-workers speaking English, I realize I don’t understand most of the time what they are saying (yes, it is that bad). I remember it took me two freaking days to find out who was (Michael) Douglas (pronounced DOU//GLASS). It’s… how can I say this. Like they are still speaking French, only using odd words. They pronounce bad, they use wrong terms, there is no logic when using present, past or future actions. Worst, no one’s fluent. Not being able to “think” in English, to answer instantly an inquiry, unable to remember simple terms of every day life. They all studied English as foreign language in school, like Max. We can only think their teachers used the same methods, when I notice the low level everyone has attempted. I’m not a native speaker of English either, nor of French. I speak French with an accent and English with a thicker accent, but there is a HUGE difference between my approach of foreign languages and theirs. I’m completely bilingual French/native language and fluent in English. I studied both for many years in school, without success, like many other people. What saved me was, as for French, interacting with native French people as a student; lucky enough, I found a little job in the University’s French library, so I could listen, talk, read and eventually breath French all day long for some years. That was pure LUCK and lucky me, but what about the others? It’s simple, when I graduated, I was the only one able to speak French fluently. Graduating of a French section of University, huh.How did I learn English? I had the lamest level, after 11 years spent in school “learning” it (no, there is no problem with your view, you have correctly read 11 -fucking ELEVEN- years). Well, let’s say I had a basic approach of English and anyway I hated this language with all my heart (it’s not the case anymore, today). You know, when you’re trying for many years to attempt something and all you get it’s frustration, you somehow start to hate the thing, in the end. I was lucky -again!- and found charitable souls, American native people, who took time and patience with me, and we have been chatting almost every day during two years using instant message systems on Internet. I’m still in awe for their courage and I will never thank them enough, even though we’re not friends anymore, unfortunately (but this is another story). Anyway, the thing is, I learnt English without realizing I was learning! It was like a game, simply exchanging about every day life’s small events, talking about all and everything.I’m not surprised when you say your game methods weren’t approved by your superiors, while teaching English in schools here. It’s like people are afraid, if kids don’t learn exactly all grammar issues, they won’t be able to learn a language correctly. What’s the point in knowing a long list of regular verbs, if you can’t answer to a tourist asking their way in Paris?Concerning foreign languages, I know I learnt more words from songs and cartoons, than I learnt from boring school books and boring teachers.

  4. I so get this rant – not for my kids who are effortlessly bilingual (lucky kids!) but for me. I grew up in Canada where you learn French from a very early age, but it’s all vocabulary and grammar, not conversation. The worst part was that I got stuck in a mindset that you have to speak perfectly in a second language. We moved to France in September and I learned immediately that you don’t have time to translate and conjugate in your head when you’re talking live to someone. The goal is to just be understood and to understand them enough to communicate – even though you’re making mistakes. It was hard to get over that mental block (a glass of wine helps a lot!). I really feel that school added a mental block to my potential bilingualism more than it helped me achieve it.

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