Children and French as a Foreign Language

A conversation with Isabelle Parisot

How long will it take my children to learn French? How can I help them? What are the options? Should learning French be a priority, even if France is only a temporary residence for my family? Theses are questions that quickly come to the forefront for those moving to France with children. The answers will vary somewhat with the age of the child and his or her particular needs. French Expat School Guide has asked Isabelle Parisot ,who specializes in teaching French as a Foreign Language , to answer a few of the questions you are probably asking yourself as you look for a solution.

French-School-Expat-Guide: Should a family who will be living in France for only a year or two make learning French a priority for their children? Can the experience of learning this difficult and demanding language be anything other than frustrating in such a short time period?

Isabelle Parisot: I can only answer that with another question: Why deprive your children of an enriching experience? Given a child's particular needs, learning French may not be a priority, but children are curious creatures and communicating is essential to them. Don't set the bar too high, but expose them to the language and give them every opportunity to acquire it. They are in situ, the conditions for learning are optimal. My advice is to take advantage of it.

F-S-E-G: What are the options for expat families moving to France who want their children to learn the language?

I P: There are basically two options: Parents can enroll their children in a school - public or private - where French is the language of instruction in the classroom or in a school where their mother tongue - English for example - is the dominate language and French is taught only as a foreign language.

If the second solution is chosen, special tutoring in French as a Foreign Language (FFL or FLE in French) can be very useful. For children twelve and over, extra lessons in FFL become almost necessary, regardless of the type of school they are attending. The quicker they have confidence in their French language skills, the more rapidly they will adapt to system, have friends and be able to take advantage of their experience here.

F-S-E-G: What effect does a child's age have on the ability to learn a second language?

IP: Very young children learn quickly. Nursery schools in France take children starting at age 3 and even if they are not in a school where French is the principal language, youngsters hear the language playing with other children and in the streets, parks and shops or on television. This linguistic immersion is generally sufficient for 0 to 5 age group. Most parents don't ask for private lessons before a child is 5 or 6 years old.

F-S-E-G: And after 5?

Primary school-age children are still very receptive to a second language. Specialists consider that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30 percent of his or her waking time to acquire it. So, if your children attend a French school 26 hours a week, the average schedule in French primary schools, they are off to a good start. If they are not in a French school, it is important to put them in situations where they are in contact with the language . The older the child, the more advanced the skills required in the language will be and the more FFL lessons can be useful. Often parents whose children have special learning needs, even if they are still quite young, also seek special help with the language.

F-S-E-G: How long does it take for a child living in the country to learn French?

Once again this is going to depend on which type of school the student attends - a school where French is the language spoken or a school where French is simply a subject taught one or two hours a day as a second language. The child's desire to learn the language will also determine the length of time it takes. I have noticed that when the whole family is making an effort to learn French, the children are more motivated and learn faster.

Generally speaking, a 6 year old enrolled in a school where French is the working language can communicate easily in French after one year and will be fluent in two years - by fluent I mean children who can read and write at a level comparable to that of others their age.

Two to three years for fluency is a more reasonable time frame for a six year old in a school where English (or a language other than French) is the working language. Children in this situation should be encouraged to communicate in French as often as possible. Enroll them in extra-curricular activities in French, invite French children over to play. Multiply museum visits, movies and other cultural outing that can take place in French. FFL classes can also be useful.

A teenager enrolled in a French school will need two or possibly three years to become fluent. Succeeding in school at this age is also a question of understanding and applying the demands of the French system. Young people of this age who are good students in their mother tongue language will usually communicate easily and do well in school after the first two years, when they have consolidated their reading and writing skills.

F-S-E-G: What are some of the questions parents should ask a potential FFL teacher?

Isabell Parisot: It's important to know about a teacher's methods and experience. Is the instructor a trained FFL teacher or a tutor who helps children with their French? How long have they been teaching? In what circumstances? It is good to know if the person works in a school or only gives private lessons or both.

FSEG: Is one preferable to the other?

I.P.: Someone trained as an FFL teacher who has taught in schools and who also gives private lessons will be used to working with children, fixing objectives and operating in a progressive manner. Someone who doesn't teach in the classroom but who has taught FFL as a private teacher for at least 5 years should also have the experience that allows them to adapt to a child's particular needs and rhythm of learning. A tutor who helps children after school with their French homework might be less effective as a FFL teacher for beginners. Someone who is principally experienced as a tutor would be better for students who already have a certain level in French.

There are also a few practical questions to ask. It is good to know if the teacher uses her own material or if she expects the parents to furnish the material. Among other things this will change the fee the teacher asks. Some instructors will want to use only the books the child uses in school. Others use their own material which, other than a formal method, might include games, comic books, computer software, DVDs and cultural outings.

How is the lesson time divided up ? The younger the child the more often it is necessary to change activities often. For a 6 year old you can expect there to be at least four or five different activities during a one hour period. It is good to know if the teacher is used to working with youngsters of your child's age and language level. It can be awkward, and in France can considered impolite, to ask for references, but if the teachers offers to put you into contact with a family whose children she has taught, it can be helpful.

The child must find pleasure in communicating in his new language. Some memorization is necessary but systematic learning of conjugations and vocabulary can be counter productive.

FSEG: Does age make a difference?

Not really. The important thing to consider is your children's language level. Are they beginners or do they already have a certain level in French? For beginners, it is best to go to a FFL teacher because the approach is entirely different.

FSEG : Can you explain an FFL teacher's approach?

IP: A teacher who specializes in teaching French as a Foreign Language knows that a child's oral language can not be used to correct his mistakes. A French teacher, in the classroom or in a tutoring situation, will call on the children's oral skills to help them in their mother tongue. For example, a error made in the past tense of a verb can be corrected by asking students to tell about something they did yesterday; their natural reflexes with the spoken language will show them where the error is. A rule or a maxim can then be introduced to guide them in the future. But rules can only be applied to existing structures. A FFL teacher knows that her students can't use the logic of a rule of grammar to correct a mistake. For foreigners, schemas and pertinent games linked to words, sentences or situations are much more effective. These tools will help them learn the vocabulary, understand verb conjugation patterns and develop the correct sentence structure that will permit FFL learners to communicate with others in both written and oral French.

FSEG: What can parents do other than formal schooling and special instruction in FFL to help their children?

IP: Something that works well is "child swapping" with a French family. Your children have the opportunity to speak French when they visit the French family, and the French children come into contact with your family's mother tongue language when they visit you. These can be weekend exchanges once a month or an afternoon and evening exchanges during the week. If you can reach an understanding with a family that agrees to the idea, the trade-off is mutually beneficial. Other than the exposure to another language, the French children experience the difficulty of being an "outsider"and become much more patient and understanding with those who don't speak their language. Your children are in contact with French and at the same time are introduced to certain aspects of the French culture and family life. If the swap concerns teenagers, outings to the theater, a restaurant or a concert are activities they generally enjoy.

As I mentioned earlier, as parents it is important that you make the effort to explore the new language and the culture with your children. Even an evening with the family watching a DVD can be profitable. Formal instruction in the language is one thing, but the experiences you share with your children as both of you struggle to learn the language and understand the culture are also relevant learning experiences.

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