The school year starts here all over the country this week so I thought it might be a good time to talk about a subject that’s often on the minds of French students: learning to speak English. Generally, children around age 10 to 11 receive their first formal lessons of “the language of Shakespeare” as it’s called here, in that transition time between elementary and middle school. Our young neighbor and her classmates are also learning Spanish at the same time which seems wise since half of the 2.5 million visitors that Carcassonne hosts annually come from our neighbor south of the border. It continues to amaze us that seemingly anyone involved in the tourist industry here speaks a minimum of 2 languages, if not 3. On the flip side, we recently had a conversation with a taxi driver who was astonished that we were speaking to him in French despite being Americans since that was contrary to all of his experience with any of his passengers who had arrived from the US.
Once children begin their language learning adventure it continues every year through high school, side by side with French and any additional language they might have chosen, and into university if that’s the path they are following. Even with all of those years of education we still encounter plenty of people who are reluctant to try out what they’ve learned and I can understand why. When Bill and I step out our front door we are immersed in a francophone world but when we come back home our conversations with each other are in English. At least we get to practice with native speakers what we’re learning but they have little opportunity to do the same unless their job requires it.
When Bill and I learned German, we found a total immersion situation stressful but effective in acquiring the language in a very short time. You live with a family that speaks only the target language and you take classes most of the day to build up the structure. Interestingly, schools like that exist in France to learn English but the success stories we’ve heard about come from experiences in the UK where you would hear only English both in class and out.
There are a variety of opportunities for those who have the time, and sometimes the money, to review what they learned in school. Private tutors abound all over the country and bigger cities boast international language schools, often at a substantial cost. The first year we lived in Carcassonne both Bill and I were volunteers in an evening school for working adults looking for a place to practice and now I’ve moved to another free institution that offers daytime classes. Since most of the students I work with are retired, their emphasis is on conversation rather than passing an exam, so we sometimes work with online videos that they can watch at no charge before and after class.
For French adults who want to continue their conversation practice outside of a classroom, some cities offer Franglish (link below) that is kind of like speed dating where you spend 7 minutes speaking French, then 7 in English before you change tables and start again. While that typically takes place in a pub or bar, the website Conversation Exchange (link below) allows you the comforts of home while speaking via Skype, for example, to someone in the same town or anywhere else in the world with an Internet connection.
To judge the difficulty of a written passage that I might want to use in English class, I see how easy (or not) it would be for me to say the same thing in French. For example, I might struggle to translate any of the following: under the soaring pillars, enduring legacy, or unabashedly. Seldom do I use the words individual initiative, prowess, or spires in my daily speech; nor do I have to look at a photograph and “describe the attitude of the people in the foreground”. If I were a French high school student and hoped to graduate, however, those are exactly the words I’d need to know to successfully complete the exam. There’s a link below to the English portion of the BACCALAURÉAT GÉNÉRAL for 2019 if you want to see what the students had to face. All I can say is “félicitations” (congratulations) to everyone who made it!
Pdf of English bac test: s-es-l-anglais-lv1-2019-metropole-sujet-officiel
Conversation Exchange: https://www.conversationexchange.com/index.php?lg=en