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Language learning in France and Teacher/Student relationship The teaching of languages in the French
The teaching of languages in the French educational system is slowly starting earlier and earlier, with the students learning some English as early as Ecole Premiere (US equivalent of elementary school). Because France is situated in the middle of Europe, it is very important for the people to have some background in several languages. That is why it is obligatory to study a minimum of two languages, and because English is becoming more and more important as a language, all students are required to study it as one of their two languages. Whichever language a student chooses to study first, the instruction will officially begin in the first or second year of Coll'ge (middle school), thus allowing the student to follow a language to the end of Lyc'e (high school), giving them 6 or 7 years of the language. As for the second language they choose to study, out of several choices including German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian, the instruction begins two years after their primary language, thus giving them a total of 4 or 5 years of the language. This, for the most part, seems like an efficient way to establish a strong background for students in at least two languages. However, the language instruction in France has some negative aspects. One of the biggest things working against the successful instruction of languages is the class size. Depending on the popularity of the language, especially English, the class sizes could be as big at 35 students. While a class of this size might be successful with other subjects like Math or History, where the students just have to listen to the teacher and take notes, it is not very successful when trying to learn a language. Most evidently, this is because the students have such little opportunity to speak the language, and the class ends up mostly being the teacher speaking and the students learning the grammar well and having a high listening comprehension level. This is where the benefit comes in having English conversation classes with an English native speaker. This program is run by the French Ministry of Education and invites native speakers from various English speaking countries to provide English conversation classes to the students. Through the same program, there are also language assistants in Spanish and German. The conversation classes are required to be 12 or fewer students, thus enabling the students to be able to speak and practice the language as much as possible. Many students have said that they enjoyed coming to the conversation classes because it was the only opportunity they had to actually practice and use the language. Generally, the way the school is set up physically makes for an interesting relationship between the student and the teacher. In the United States, in most schools, the teacher is allotted a specific room for their subject. They can decorate the room however they want because they do not share it with any other teacher. This creates very personalized rooms for the students to learn in, with History classes containing maps and posters all over the walls, etc. In the typical French high school, this is not the case. The high school and the classroom situation is set up much like you would find in university level schooling in the United States, where the students AND the teachers change from room to room for different subjects and periods. The French classrooms are therefore very plain, with little to no decorations on the walls.
Another aspect of the classroom I found very peculiar is the use of a platform under the teacher's desk at the front of the room. This would raise the teacher roughly five inches above the floor level and cause the teachers to look down on the students. For me, I felt that this arrangement was very authoritarian in its practice. I believe that this does reflect some of the former teaching methods in France with a domineering style of pedagogy. This is also somewhat reflected in the students' use of the formal version of 'you' with the teachers. From the classes that I observed, I noticed that the students would always use the formal version of 'you' to address the teachers, whereas the teachers, in return, would address individual students with the informal version. This was not always the case however with some teachers using the formal version with students, denoting a level of respect.
Sources: Wikipedia.org article "French Education System"
Discussions with high school students and faculty