As you probably know if you read my blog, I started English when I was really young, as an experiment: I was around four the first time I actually “used ” the language (I was about to say “studied” but I was four: it was mostly games, songs, culture awareness…). You might also know that I taught myself later, using TV shows such as Buffy the vampire slayer and Ally McBeal and reading books such as Harry Potter. I think it is safe to say, without bragging, that I succeeded since I am now an English trainer.
Like a lot of children in France in my first year of middle school (what we call sixième), English became mandatory and that, till the end of high school (Baccalauréat). I was really happy about it, so excited that I couldn’t stop talking about it to my mom: I wanted to be fluent already! Saying that I was disappointed was beyond words:
-Our material was outdated: the expressions inside were useless and prude. We were in 2000s back then, and yet my book was talking about an “expecting lady”, not a pregnant woman and that same lady was saying old fashioned expressions such as “it’s raining cats and dogs”. My middle school teacher went in England once in her life, and it was during the eighties: she had no idea what she was talking about. The worst part is: I had her for three years.
-I never, ever, worked on pronunciation. Actually, I don’t even remember if I said a whole sentence during my first two years in middle school. We had to learn by heart everything and we were filling gaps, when we weren’t reading some useless texts about umbrellas and five o’clock tea. The first presentation I had to prepare and to perform was during my last year of high school. When it comes to irregular verbs, I had to learn it every year, for five years. I hated it, and I always flunked my test, because I couldn’t see the point. When I told my teacher that I didn’t care about filling gaps in a column full of irregular verbs, because at least I knew when to use them, she told me it was not important and gave me zero.
-We never, ever, used authentic materials. I went to England for the first time at 13, and when I asked if we could talk about my experience here, using some prompts that I took there, my teacher coldly told me that we had to stick to the program (which was, of course, completely irrelevant, I think we were talking about how to describe roughly a house). The only cultural element we talked about was Henry VIII and his six wives: we did so during four years.
-We called the present continuous : “Be + ING”. I had no idea why, I didn’t know why I was supposed to use it in the first place, it was just “a form of present”. I realized by myself what was present continuous, and realized what was present perfect as well. Present perfect, by the way, that we never, ever, studied in class at all. During all my years in middle school or high school, grammar was never explained directly: the only version of the future I learned was using “will” for example.
-My teachers despised my American accent. During my first year in high school, my teacher told me that my English was not good at all, and that I should correct that as soon as possible. I never corrected it, because it’s the way I learned. The only reason my accent is now changing is because I am spending a lot of time in England, not because I tried to correct it.
You can imagine now why so much young French students are just disgusted about the way they have been taught, and I cannot blame them. I remember clearly my middle school teacher saying that I would never succeed cause no one was learning anything by watching TV. I thought about sending her a postcard when I got my CELTA last July, but I didn’t want to waste a stamp.
The whole point of this article is not to blame the French educational system: they are aware of the flaws. The reason I am writing about it today is that I don’t want it to stop French people to learn English, and because I genuinely want that situation to change. I honestly think France is not the same country with that kind of troubles: I taught last summer a Spanish lady, who was a low B2, and she was an English teacher.
We need to sufficiently train teachers, and that statement is for any kind of teaching.