Teaching English to French speakers


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Despite the great similitude between French and English, many French speakers cannot speak English properly. This contrasts sharply with the ability of Dutch speakers. Belgium is a perfect example. Even when the country's education system was the same in both language zones, the gap was enormous. Yet, the two closest relatives of English language are Dutch and French. In fact, English can almost be seen as a blend of Medieval Dutch (extremely similar to Middle English) and Medieval French (imported by the Normans).

Failing method

The reason of this gap in abilities is due to the way English, or languages in general, is taught in French-speaking schools. French language being so grammar-based, Francophone teachers of foreign-languages instinctively put the same emphasis on grammar as they were taught at school when they learnt French. Incidentally, that is also why most native French speakers cannot write French properly (ironic, but true).

The more rules there are to remember and the less likely people will be to remember them.

On top of that, the approach to teach any subject (not just foreign languages) in French speaking schools is always much too theoretical. Yet, practice is a better teacher than theory and useless memory drills.

Memory works in such a way that one remembers better things in the context in which they have learnt it. So, if one was taught vocabulary by memorising list of words out of context, they will remember words alone, or associated with the others in the list, but will have blanks when they need it in real life.

Favour the easy over the difficult

It may be against common sense, but the best learners tend to be the laziest ones. Why ? Simply because the lazy person will find tricks to remember more easily.

Dutch speakers have the advantage that their vocabulary is closest to the easiest words in English, those most used in everyday language. That's why they can be more confident from the start.

The Francophones' advantage is that once they have reached a good level, they will know already know over 90% of the difficult or unusual words in English, as those tend to come from French.

What tend to discourage people, and especially children, to learn a new language is the amount of new words to remember.

As English often has one word from Germanic origin and one of Latin origin for the same meaning (or "signification", to illustrate with an example), why not teach the most similar first, rather than the most commonly used ?

In order to facilitate the task for Francophone learner, one of the most important thing to do is to teach them as many useful words as possible that are similar to French.

A primary schooler will remember more easily that the French verb commencer is "commence" rather than "begin" or "start". So teach them these ones first, and they will learn the others later, once they can already make a few sentences by themselves. What is more, English verbs coming from French tend to have almost all regular past tenses.

Stimulate your audience

My memories of language classes at school are of terrible boredom, mostly because the textbooks had stereotypical situations too different from the reality, and especially too different from what students of my age found useful or interesting.

In the same way as it is useless to teach 12 years old business meeting situations that they do not understand or care about, it is also useless to use textbooks with travel situations or nightclubs to 7 years old. The important is to adapt the content to the audience. The problem is that school often fail to do so, because people who make books are out of touch with the interest and "culture" of today's children. At best, they still think in terms of what they would have liked to have in their textbooks when they were the same age. But the generation gap usually makes it as boring for children as if you taught marketing strategies to a 12 years old.

Games are a great way to learn, especially for children, but for adults too (not the same games, of course). However some games are just too old-fashioned for today's children to enjoy. If they like video games, then give them video games in English. If they like cartoons, make them watch cartoons. There is no better stimulant than trying to understand something/someone you really want to understand, whatever your age. That's why it is often said that having a boyfriend/girlfriend who speaks another language is the best way to learn that language. I personally learnt a lot this way.

That is why I believe that, once the basics have been learnt, students should be given more freedom to learn through their own interests, even if that means that less is being learnt in the classroom. The important is to give them the tools to learn by themselves. At the end of the year instead than having standard tests for everybody teachers should look at the improvements of each student based on their field of interest of the moment. The grades would be given according to the number of new words learnt and the improvement in the sentence structure, rather than on the knowledge of content of textbooks.
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Your ideas could also be applied to English people trying to learn French! :p My French is not perfect but I can honestly say that of most English people I have met, there are very very few who can speak French even to a slightly reasonable level even if they were taught it at school :souka: (I mean people my own age and older - since then, also, foreign language isn't compulsory in school any more, which will make the problem worse.)

Mainly the French lessons at school were really boring and irrelevant; I think I really got to learn French at home and not at school (or certainly would not have learned very much at school). Once the classes were more advanced (ages 16-18) the teacher was better but it really is just luck if you get a good teacher or not.

Personally I don't have problems with vocabulary because I can learn it quite quickly and enjoy it, but find the grammar harder, naturally, because it has to be learned in the context, but it's more rewarding. :cool: French vocab was easy because of the similarities with English (if not always obviously, but usually in some more distant connection at least). :)

All of the Dutch people I have met have seemed to have very good English speaking skills! Of course, I can't say if that's generally true or if I happened to meet well-educated people, but that is my experience! :)

In France, I never really got to hear people's English skills because I prefer speaking French with them. I met some French people while I was on holiday this year (in Ireland :D) but again we talked in French. Their English skills certainly did not seem as good as most Dutch people's that I have met. But then again, I have met with German and Spanish people who have pretty poor English as well. Guess it is a matter of chance.

I do think that England's foreign language teaching system largely sucks, though. :eek:kashii: It is really useless. A large number of English people I have talked with, if the subject of foreign language comes up, they say they learned either French or German in school but did not like it and can remember hardly anything... and in their minds it is associated with boring lessons and failure. The number of people who say "Oh, I don't like French" and think they are no good at it, but certainly they could learn it quite easily and probably would not hate it! except the teachers make people feel no good.

Err, rant over. :bluush:
I recently went to France and met a few people that had learned English at a very young age that spoke very well. I think the age that one begins to learn a new language is key to proper pronunciation. Most of the people I met actually did not learn until their later years in life and you they fell into the categories you mentioned.

In general it is true that people who speak English without accent learnt it from an earlier age. But I know people who went to bilingual schools (French-English or Japanese-English) from the age of 6 and still have a accent as adults. I also know people who learnt English from their late teens and could pass for native speakers.

English and French are two of the most difficult languages for pronunciation. In 99% of the cases it is possible to tell who is a native speaker and who isn't. That is not the case for many other languages with very a simple and standard set of sounds, such as Italian, American Spanish, Japanese or Malaysian/Indonesian. Native English speakers have the big disadvantage of having completely different vowels from most other languages, which means that they will almost always have a typical English accent.
Well, I am Dutch and I speak English better than some native English speakers.
Some British with a higher education told me so.
English is quite easy, at least if one also speaks Dutch and French.

For French speakers it's a bit more difficult.

Peter Sellers made lovely jokes about that...
Duu yuuu have a ruuum?
( Do you have a room?)

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