Teach English in BaotAn Zhen - Huai'an Shi

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Students start learning English in France from a very early age, with most students studying as many as two foreign languages or “langues étrangers” before they are even 10 years old. However, regardless of the developed European education system in place, there are still very specific problems for learners and issues to overcome as an ESL teacher in France. For the past two years, I have worked at lycee/high school level in France, teaching and running conversation based activities for 15-18 year olds who have been studying English in the French school system for the last 5-8 years. Given the length of time and exposure to the language, I was intrigued and excited to see what I could bring to the table as a native speaker. However, I quickly realised this would be a completely different challenge than what I had encountered teaching in the Caribbean. While teaching in France, I have often been met with blank stares, shock and even terror when students realise that they have to actually speak in English in class. Why? Why were they so afraid? To understand the reason for this, we need to take a closer look at the way languages are taught in France. Teaching ESL focuses on the four major receptive and reproductive skills: Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. Some teachers approach all of these skills as one with whole-language teaching, and others teach them separately. In France, the approach is heavily focused on theory i.e. writing and grammar with little to no practical application/speaking. In some cases the system even penalises students more for trying and being incorrect (minus 1 point) than for not trying at all (minus o zero points). As a result of this system, one of the biggest issues with French students is a lack of confidence. They are generally self-conscious when it comes to speaking English because they have not done it very often in the past and when they do speak, they are often ridiculed by their fellow learners over their accents. It is a vicious cycle because the fear of being incorrect keeps them from practicing, and without practice, they lack confidence and become increasingly shy. By the time they walk into my classroom they have already decided they are ‘nul’ (hopeless) at English because they are not perfect and the standard ‘chais pas’ (I don’t know) or blank stare becomes the answer to everything. I always take the time to begin my classes with ice breaker activities and games which help create a safe space for students to speak while doing fun activities. By the time we get around to practicing pronunciation in a serious way they are less self conscious about it. I repeatedly remind my students that they will not be penalised for making an error while speaking as long as they continue to try. Students generally learn English with the goal of passing their baccalaureat “BAC” (end-of-high-school exams). These exams are designed around specific themes often linked to topics that do not always appeal to them. When the students are unable to see the link between these discussions and real life, they quickly lose interest. Furthermore, because they are often not presented with opportunities to be creative or think independently and critically, they have a hard time expressing their thoughts naturally (without being penalised or ridiculed for their mistakes), and thus develop a negative attitude towards learning English. Students, regardless of their backgrounds, generally struggle to use what they learn in class in their day-to-day lives. It is our job as teachers to help students develop the transferable skills and strategies they need in order to understand complex texts and situations outside the comfort of the classroom. That is why I try to plan my activities around real life situations, so they can learn to be proactive while learning useful vocabulary that will help them in real life. Additionally, I try to teach them how to use context to infer meaning so that they become less dependent on me and more self-sufficient. Teaching English in France can be a very rewarding experience. However, there are specific problems french learners face and ESL must be willing to adapt their teaching techniques to create an environment which allows them to thrive. This has not always been an easy task because historically, the French have always been very proud of their language and there is a tendency to want to preserve it at any cost. Because of this, in the past, many people did not even want to learn English. However, there has never been a better time than now to be an ESL teacher in France. Nowadays, more and more french people are beginning to understand the importance of English as a global language and are dedicating more and more time to studying it as a second language.