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YEAR ABROAD TALES: When the student becomes the teacher

Emily Cormack

Friday, 18 March 2022

For our first article for the 'Year Abroad Tales' feature, Emily uses her experience as a teaching assistant during her year abroad to explore the importance of learning English in France

As a linguist, I have always felt like I am fighting language learning’s corner in a constant battle to prove speaking other languages is a valuable asset.

However, I have well and truly flipped the script. For the past four months, I have been working in a sleepy commuter town just outside of Paris as an English language assistant in a primary school. From the offset, the school's view on language learning and the importance that it takes in the day-to-day lives of the children was astonishing to me. Of course, this means starting to learn English at a young age.

In the school where I work, children aged two can already name all the colours of the rainbow in both English and French. Hiring anglophone au pairs for children before they can speak, sending them to bilingual schools, paying for private English lessons outside of school hours are all lengths parents will go to to ensure that their precious Jeanne or Pierre has the linguistic foundations to achieve.

Some children, unsurprisingly, take more naturally to learning English than others. Even if it seems that being a linguist isn't their ‘thing’ or they are struggling somewhat academically, there is still an expectation to study English multiple times per week. At a recent parent’s evening, I felt this immense pressure from parents who expected their 10 year-olds to be practically bilingual despite neither parent speaking English fluently. In fact, in lessons students said their favourite English words are “sheet” and “beach.”

The parental pressure perhaps comes from the fact that the use of English as the international language has skyrocketed in the past decade or so. Knowing a foreign language is a useful skill to be equipped with in order to reach professional success in many sectors. Monolinguals, perhaps, underestimate the difficulty and the factors connected with language learning. Multilingualism has been proven to make one more flexible and tolerant through gaining an understanding of the interrelation between language, culture, and human nature.

My experience of being in Paris has shown me how children here are growing up in a state of forced immersion. (I must add that the children I taught specifically come from mostly privileged backgrounds, who therefore have access to specialized language schools). What I mean by forced immersion is that in a metropolitan city like Paris, English has been adopted into everyday life, whether that be in hip English-speaking cafés, shops names and signs, popular games or TV shows. Of course, the prevalence of English drops as you move outside of the capital. However, with roughly 60% of Parisians already speaking English proficiently and with evidence indicating that young people speak better English than their parents, it seems likely that the number of English speakers will continue to increase exponentially and become more widespread.

The headteacher of the school is particularly passionate about language learning, and at every opportunity will speak to her students in slightly broken English. She's often met with a dumbfounded response, however; this does not stop her. From the beginning of the year, she made it clear how important our work as English language assistants would be for the students’ futures. From what I’ve understood, overhearing snippets of conversations in the staffroom, many of the teachers don’t share this view. For them, having a ‘bilingual’ education does not adhere to the values of ‘traditional French education’. There’s a concern that by taking so much time in the school day to focus on English, it detracts from mastering the basics of learning to read, write, and count.

From my year abroad experience, this prioritization of language learning, and the students knowing even some English, unlocks so much potential for them. Whether it be accessing culture and knowledge on an international level, including music and art, or science and sport, and not to mention the importance later in their lives for business or travel.


About the Author

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Images provided by Emily Cormack.

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Barbara Dawson

average rating is 3 out of 5

Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.

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Aunty Liz

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Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Such an interesting article!

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