Friday, August 21, 2009

English Teaching and Learning in France

The following is a transcript of a World in Words podcast. It's the story of an American woman who wanted to become an English teacher in France. Her desire to do this led her into a strange world where the only way to teach English is to be fluent in French...

The World's Patrick Cox speaks with Laurel Zuckerman, an American who has written a book about her failed attempt to become an English teacher in France.

LISA MULLINS: There are, of course, other language learning options in French schools. At the top of the list is English, but the standards aren't especially high. A recent study says French students, as the least skilled in English, among eight European nations surveyed. The World's Patrick Cox joins me now. Patrick, why are the French so poor at learning English?

PATRICK COX: Well, Lisa, it may have something to do with the selection of teachers. If you want to become an English teacher in a French public school, you have to go to a university and take an exam. It's highly competitive, but according to an American called Laurel Zuckerman, the wrong people pass that exam.

MULLINS: The wrong people. And how would she know?

COX: Well, she took the exam and she failed it, like about 90% of the people who take the exam. I should say that she's lived in France for more than 20 years. She's bilingual and she wrote a book about her attempt to become an English teacher. It caused a minor sensation when it was published. It's called, Sarbonne Confidential. Here is Zuckerman and she's talking about the exam prep classes she took at the University of Paris.

LAUREL ZUCKERMAN: You would have a professor who would mispronounce a word just again and again and again. I mean, there was one who was constantly mispronouncing key words and nobody dared to correct her. And so all of the students then learned how to mispronounce the words, too. For example, "Lutheran" was "Lutherian" so you have a generation of students how say, "Lutherian."

COX: Yeah, then there was the guy who insisted that the plural of duck the animal duck is duck.

ZUCKERMAN: Yes, ducks are like fish. Yeah, that was an inspector actually after the exam who came into inspect one of the students who I thought was particularly brilliant, and she was quite disheartened because she'd been inspected and gotten a bad result. And when I asked her about it, she said, "Yes, and I made this terrible mistake. I said that the plural of "duck" is "ducks" and I was told that that wrong." And there was nothing she could say. The inspector said it was like that, so it was like that.

COX: Now, you present a case in your book that native English speakers, including people who spoke French fluently were, in fact, discriminated against through this entire process. How did that play itself out?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, it's not a direct discrimination. I have to be very clear. It's not that they would see an English speaker and coming and say, "No, not this one." It's a mechanism whereby because of the content of the exam, they're already looking for a certain kind of person. For example, the French Dissertation of de la Pasion is a very specific art form that really takes some cultural conditioning to learn, and so to include the French Dissertation in an English exam automatically skews the results towards people who master the French Dissertation. If they really wanted to choose people who knew how to speak English and knew how to teach it, it would not be the same exam.

COX: That to me I find quite shocking because it's a fairly standard assumption in language teaching circles that you're better off if you're being taught by a native speaker.

ZUCKERMAN: Not in France, it isn't. In France, they constructed this whole, let's say, this idea that if you're a native speaker because you've never taken the time to really take apart the language and understand what kind of obstacles a learner might encounter, you can't explain the grammar properly.

COX: And you actually ran up against some of this in your own home town when there was concern about the English teacher at one of your kid's school.

ZUCKERMAN: There was one English teacher who had the reputation of being so terrible that the school actually organized special classes for her students. They would not think of getting rid of this teacher. But the school did realize that it was having generations of children graduate with no knowledge of English. And so, they arranged for extra classes with a different teacher for the students. I mean, they were trying to solve the problem in the only way they knew how without challenging the system.

COX: Right and at the same time some parents were asking you if you would give their kids English lessons on the side.

ZUCKERMAN: I was constantly being begged by people of all kinds, by the parents of my kids' friends, by people on the Metro even who might see me speaking English with somebody. I was constantly begin begged by people to give their children English classes because they're absolutely desperate. They know that the public schools are failing to teach English and so what's happened is you have this huge movement on the part of the parents to private lessons after school. So I always thought it was kind of ironic that people would be begging me to teach their children English. But when I actually went through the process to become an English teacher, I didn't really have the French dissertation skills or the oral lecturing French skills to be allowed to teach English in the French classroom.

MULLINS: That's Laurel Zuckerman. Patrick, you mentioned that her book Sarbonne Confidential caused pretty much a stir when it came out. Did it result in more debate or in any changes at all?

COX: Well, at first it seemed quite promising because Zuckerman had many parents on her side. You know, she was received in the offices of politicians and bureaucrats. They were looking to reform the university exam system but all that stopped this spring when there were protests in many universities against these and many other changes. The protestors didn't really care much about teacher training. They had much broader concerns, but the effect of this action has been to delay any government reform until at least next year.

MULLINS: That's a great story. The World's Patrick Cox. His weekly podcast on language is called, "The World in Words." To listen, go to

Note that the link for her book goes to the blog site for the book. You can get it at for USD$25.00.

I think this is France's unique and interesting history coming back to bite them on the derriere. They have spent the past couple of centuries redefining themselves in their own terms. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however, the way they have gone about it is at odds with how other nations have "evolved". I read the book "The Measure of All Things" by Ken Alder which describes the development of the metric system by the French. In the background you see the naissant Revolutionary France and all its turmoil. In addition to the fascinating story in Adler's book, I recommend checking out Wikipedia for some general background to Revolutionary France.

I'll have to explore this further one day....

Au revoir!

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