Sunday, January 22, 2012

Education in France, Part 1

I've been tutoring a university student who's planning to take an important English proficiency exam in February. He's doing this because he wants to apply to a program at McGill University in Montreal, and I've been really impressed by both his motivation and his focus. This kid knows exactly what he wants and by God he's going to do it, and if Plan A doesn't work, he's got Plan B, C, and D all ready to go. He's also just a good kid: pretty nerdy, but really smart and really, really nice. I'm not sure how effective a tutor I am at a level as advanced as where he is, but I really enjoy working with him and I really want him to succeed.

Anyway, he sent me the cover letter for his application so I can give feedback on his mistakes, and as I'm sitting here looking at it I decided it's time for my rant about the French school system.

I have many criticisms, but the problem of the moment is this: In all of my French classes in the U.S., I was always taught that translating is bad. Not in general, obviously, but as far as creating something in your second language is concerned. You don't write your essay in English first and then translate it into French; it's much better just to write it in French to begin with. American foreign language teachers, at least the ones I had, encourage their students to start thinking in their new language as much as possible as early as possible, because it improves fluency and it helps to avoid the kinds of mistakes where you try to translate phrases or structures that just don't translate directly. It's easier to see the things you don't know how to say coming if you're trying to think about them in your non-native language as opposed to trying to translate your ideas as you go, and that in turn makes it easier to find ways around them. You make fewer mistakes, not to mention less complicated ones, if you're only using the language you know, as opposed to trying to take complex ideas formed in your native language and express them in your fumbling attempts at your new language.

Is this difficult to achieve? Of course. At the early stages it seems impossible, and I still think in a mangled combination of French and English more often than I actually think in French, because I'm just not fluent enough. And there continue to be times--very frequent times, in fact--where I want to express something I just don't freaking know a way to say. (I tried to explain the Peace Corps to a friend in French this morning. That was interesting. And not entirely successful.)

But it really is useful to at least try. It really does help make things easier.

However, this is not a concept I have seen in action in French schools. If anything, I've seen the opposite. French foreign language education still has a lot in common with old-school methods involving lots and lots of grammar and translation and not as much emphasis on actual communication. Things have gotten better, I think; a lot of the teachers I work with try really hard to work in all kinds of oral comprehension activities and want me to do whatever I can that gets them to talk [in English] in class. At least one teacher has discouraged me from having students write anything in my classes, so they're forced to speak without preparation. But it's still not the same kind of education as what I had, and there's still a lot of things like "Listen to this audio file in English and then write about it in French," or "Okay, we've read this English text in class, now your homework is to translate the first two paragraphs into French," and I haven't heard anyone but me say anything about the importance of thinking, rather than just writing and speaking, in English. I've even seen kids using online translators in class instead of dictionaries, and the teacher just kind of shrugs and moves on.

And I don't think having practice in translation is inherently a bad thing, but the fact that there's no distinction being made between translation as one thing and really understanding/speaking a language as a separate thing bothers me. If you can only understand a language based on how it relates to your native language... there's going to be a lot you never understand at all.

And again, it encourages weird, complicated mistakes. Now I'm sitting here looking at this cover letter, and I don't even know where to start, because it's just a mess. I've had conversations with this kid; he makes mistakes, but he can make himself understood, and since most language learners write better than they speak, especially with time to edit and correct, I think he could have written a brilliant letter if only he had just written in English. Instead, he wrote it in French first and then translated it, with the result that he has a very eloquent French letter with a lot of very formal, complex language; and a very awkward and forced English letter with a lot of misused words and poor phrasing, whereas if he'd started out writing in English, he'd have been more or less limited to saying things he knew how to say and it would have come across a lot more clearly. Even if he'd made some mistakes or had had to look some things up and then not quite used them correctly (something I still do all the time in French), at his level those would probably be small things that are easy enough to fix. Instead, he has whole sentences that need to be rearranged or that don't make sense at all. Now I'm going to have to completely take it apart, and I worry it's going to be very discouraging, when I know firsthand that he's actually quite good at expressing himself in English.

It just frustrates the hell out of me.

Obviously no education system is without flaws, and no one is ever going to agree on the best way to teach languages. There probably isn't one, since everyone learns a little differently. And foreign language education in the U.S. definitely needs some improvement, in attitude even if not in method. But this is one area where I really think we're doing it better than the French. I have a hunch that this has a lot to do with the reason some of my students can barely string a sentence together even after years of English classes. We could argue pros and cons all day, but I have right in front of me as I write the evidence that translation as a language-learning approach does not work better than, or even as well as, communication-based approaches.

Of course, I don't even express myself well enough in English to be sure I've explained all that effectively, so...

I'm actually going to leave this here for now, but there will probably be more to come on my experience with French schools and French students.


  1. Also, don't forget, my students at least are learning two foreign languages at once and they only have English for two hours a week, often in a two hour block, which is the very worst way to learn a language. To optimize language learning, you need to have class four or five times a week and you need to have it first thing in the morning, before you've spent too much time thinking and talking in your native language. I really think the school system expects too much from these kids in terms of language learning without giving them the class-time necessary to achieve that level. According to one of the teachers at my school, Sarkozy has said that he wants students who graduate from high school to be bilingual. The teacher who told me this thought we should buy him a dictionary so he can look up what bilingual really means, because it's a completely impossible goal with a system that is structure this way. -TL

    1. It's not possible to "optimize" language learning that way at the high school level (not everyone can have the same class first thing in the morning, and it's probably also not possible for everyone to devote more than two or three hours a week to a foreign language, especially when they're studying two at once), and I'm not convinced that should be a priority anyway. I think foreign language education is important, but I certainly wouldn't take away from math or science or history to focus on it. It's exposure that's key, and the kids who are properly motivated to learn will learn, regardless of the schedule. Although I applaud Sarkozy's sentiment, I think your teacher is correct that he's out of touch. The only way to produce bilingual kids through the school system is to teach (everything) in both languages. Which is also not going to be universally practical anytime soon.

    2. Re: Too-high expectations, I actually haven't seen too much of that, and my students routinely exceed my expectations. I've seen individual teachers demand too much from individual classes or individual students, but I think the overall attitude (not Sarkozy's, mind you) is one that sets expectations that should be attainable by a majority of students who word hard and have good teachers. (The having good teachers part is obviously an issue in some schools.)