Should I learn with a French teacher from France?

When learning a language, it is a natural to want to get closest to the country which we feel is most associated with that target language.

If the target language was German, it is probable that Germany would take first place over Austria and if it was Spanish we would likely choose Spain over Argentina or Peru.

In the case of French, repeated imagery of the blue, white and red and the Eiffel Tower will have most learners designate France as the most trustworthy source of learning. Every year, students invest time and resources to stay in France at month-long language camps just as others book stays in the UK to hope to learn the ‘real’ English accent.

Although it would be unreasonable to dismiss a love of a certain French culture as motivational factor in the act of learning French, it is my opinion that such strategies are simplistic and do not take into account the full picture. Not only do they oversimplify, but they blatantly ignore an elephant so big that the room leaves barely room to stand.

Namely, that France is one of the most monolingual countries in the world.

(Above: Imaginary map of European countries in which German and French are spoken to varying degrees of legitimacy)

Does it matter that France only speaks French?

I write these lines as a linguist and multilingual, and do indeed believe that it matters quite a lot. I also write as one who knows France as an insider in matters of traditions, social life and school.

In terms of the quality of the learning you will receive from a ‘strictly French” teacher, it would be unreasonable to affirm any absolute truths. This being said, there are questions worth asking that surround the upbringing and frame of mind of such teachers or language schools.

The first is whether there is any logical contradiction in asking for plurality from a teacher who was raised in singularity?

In other words, is there something to scrutinize when asking a teacher from a country that only has ONE language how to become a speaker of several?

Of the four French-speaking countries of Europe, you may know that only France has one language. It implies that the average French citizen is not brought up in a multicultural frame of mind contrary to the Belgians, the Swiss and the Luxembourgers who all share their living space with speakers of German, Dutch and English.

Three countries prepare their citizens to accept multilingualism as normal.

One does not. And it all started with the following document, a royal decree from 1539 that guarantees French as the only language.

(Above: Copy of the document signed by the king of France in “L’ordonnance de Villers-CotterĂȘts” in 1539 that made French the official (and only) language of the country. This law is still in the French constitution today.)

How French-speaking Europeans grow up

Young speakers of French from Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland are introduced to foreign languages in school but also in the public sphere. Shops, street signs and government services operate in a minimum of two languages.

Schoolchildren from Luxembourg grow up with the understanding that they will learn German, French and Luxembourgish as official languages. They will also learn English as an extra foreign language.

In Belgium, we see a very similar situation where citizens are aware that for a majority of office jobs French and Dutch are compulsory, with English considered a prerequisite to having one’s resume even considered. We could make the blanket statement that any entry-level job in Brussels requires Dutch and French, while employment in just one language is seen as an oddity.

The key notion here is “normality”. The entire life experience of citizens of the three aforementioned francophone countries of Europe is embedded in a plurality of languages and cultures.

As the odd one out, there is France; a country where monolingualism is not only expected but enforced. As per the Royal Ordonance of 1539, on the territory of France, no other language shall be used but French. There isn’t so much as a half-step to give a special status to Italian or Spanish in certain Departments in the way the US accommodates speakers of Spanish. It’s French all the way.

Though English is taught to French schoolchildren, it remains a foreign language skill that finds close to no useful application in France. More often than not, English is rather seen by employers as a proof of education rather than a crucial asset. Needless to say, English finds no representation in the public sphere with the exception perhaps of airports and tourism centers.

Life experiences compared

In terms of their personal experience learning foreign languages, the average French citizen could not hope to compete with citizens of the three other francophone countries. This is factual in the number of years they study languages, the number of languages they learn and the practical use they have for them in everyday life.

In France, the English language is not seen or heard in films, on television, or even on the radio where official State regulations impose a quota of French-speaking songs. English is seen as a menace to the purity of the French language and any act of borrowing from English just as soon disdainfully called “anglicisme”.

A student who misunderstands the art of teaching foreign languages might rationalize that as long as the French teacher speaks it as a native little more is required so long as they are FLE-qualified. Such an argument would work if it were also true that all great athletes automatically qualify as great sports coaches under the pretext that they can do the sport themselves.

The matter of the French accent

A myth that dies a hard death is the French accent which students hope will rub off on them and that justifies the travel to France. Quite unfortunately, there are few chances of this ever happening and for several reasons:

Firstly, there is not one French uniform accent for the whole country of France. There are many minute variations according to the age or locality of the speaker.

Because of increased mobility, it has become an uncertain bet to target Paris as a guarantee to encounter Parisian-born teachers. Other eroding factors in the matter of noticeable accents include media and simply personal choice. Two people born in Marseilles might develop two different accents for these reasons.

(Picture: Certain people have the distinguishable “Midi accent” in the South of France)

Second, imitating an accent is a different skill than taking a “French language” class and has more to do with accent reduction and phonetics. Practically, it means hours of targeted work with a specialized teacher who would correct and readjust the slightest phoneme pronounced in French. It far surpasses the fact of saying “A” with a non-English French accent and rather aims to match the exact way the teacher speaks.

Third, French is French regardless of location. With the exception of Canada, the variations between each country’s accents would not be discernible to a student. I have spoken to Belgians, French, Swiss and Luxembourgers who all offered me a perfectly understandable rendition of French. The slight differences in accents were at best negligible.

Lastly, the question of accents takes a more subtle understanding than the one usually accessible by the general public. When seen through the scope of Linguistics, an accent can affect several variables in different measures.

It is not an overall influence that “taints” the whole language when a person speaks. An accent can be one single letter that speakers say in a certain way. For example doing a slightly longer “A” in certain words. It could also be an intonation that is used in certain types of questions. Accents are not always as intense as a Scottish accent in opposition to an English accent.

The French Vocabulary and grammar of France

Students who are worried about not using the “proper” French words should not be. Again, there is no “vocabulary from France” VS the vocabulary of other French-speaking countries.

(Above: Between the Belgian Le Soir (1887) and the French Le Monde (1945) there is not a single difference in vocabulary.)

As a child growing up in Belgium we switched from French TV channels to Belgian without ever noticing the difference. It was a 100 percent clear understanding from us without even rationalizing “Hey we’re watching French TV”. To us, it was the French language.

This is not to say that there aren’t certain nouns that certain French people use in certain regions. But it remains marginal. We have the same thing in English when naming insects. Some say “woodlice” “carpenter” or “pill bug”.

On the importance of being multilingual as a teacher

Do you remember the story of Heidi? The little barefooted Swiss girl who was sent to a posh family in a city for her education? If you remember, you will know that the shock was tough on the poor Heidi. Her adoptive family had never quite seen such a “savage” as her and couldn’t ever place themselves in her shoes. They could only teach what THEY knew.

(Picture: Heidi’s adoptive family had no clue how she had lived until then.)

They could not say “OK Heidi, I know you did this and that in the Swiss mountains but this is the way we do things here and these are the reasons for it.

Do you not think that it would have spared Heidi a few tears? Would she not have learned the ways of the city easier if they had known where SHE came from?”

Well, this is exactly what a French teacher from France does. They have not the slightest clue how your English-speaking brain works, how you process language or how you feel about French. Because they are culturally and factually monolingual. Even if the can speak some English, they do not have that multicultural frame of mind.

Your French teacher from France will likely specialize in a transfer on information from them to you. It will be one-sided and it will be rather more slow than if you were shown the shortcuts from a French teacher who is also a native speaker of English.

And lastly, the argument of Tradition

For better or for worse, France is a very traditionalist country. I always say that you can leave, come back 20 years later and still know all the songs on the radio, the presenters on TV as if you had never left. It has a certain “Groundhog Day” quality to it that some find charming. (I do too when I’m on holiday)

Even in 20 years from now you will still have French TV games singing songs from past glories Claude Francois and Christophe. A bit as if the English were still singing the Beatles every week on TV. It doesn’t make France “silly” in any way, it’s just a cultural trait of that particular country.

(Picture: Switch off the TV, come back 30 years later and see that Jean Pierre Foucault is still presenting!)

Just today in fact my student Bree told me that Marine Le Pen was ahead in the polls in the Presidential Elections in France. I answered “Yes she does that at every election”. It is not necessary to actively follow French politics to understand the landscape.

Where this affects you as a learner is that it also touches upon the FLE teaching. A French teacher growing up and learning within a certain tradition will teach French in a certain traditionalist way. Whether their method is right or wrong is not the issue. But it will simply very hard for them to extract themselves from that tradition and approach you as a speaker of English. The result will likely be a one-sided transfer of information from them to you, heavily embedded in tradition.

Yes but you only say this because you know English!

My purpose in writing this article is not to go up against the whole of France because it would be ridiculous. There will always be millions of students each year who continue to study in France hoping that the points listed above do happen: accent, vocabulary, quality of learning… Fighting this would be like trying to catch the clouds!

As a teacher, I define myself as an “explainer of the French language to speakers of English”. It is a vehicle for communication that does not belong to one country. I make it my job to say: “OK, this is how we do things in English but this is how French works.” I can do this because I know the logic of both English and French as a native. French is not a country, it is a language. And that is what I teach.

All this being said, I do find France a beautiful country which I gladly visit at every chance. I will show it to my wife with pride the day we take trip and hope to show her all my favourite towns: Auxerre, Troyes, Toul, Dijon, Albi, Bourges and many others.

But only I will be teaching her French !

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