A new world of words
Worried about your children getting to grips with French in their new classroom in France? There are plenty of easy ways to help them develop their language skills at home, not to mention a life-long love of le français, says educational psychologist Jane
Do you remember your first, real encounter learning a foreign language, whether it was a phrase or two to use on holiday, or the first step in a life-long quest to achieve fluency? My first ever French lesson in secondary school opened up a door to a magical world with an atmosphere distinct from anything I’d ever experienced before.
We were impressionable 11-year-old girls, learning in the heart of Liverpool, poised for a slice of glamour and sophistication in the form of Miss Bertin, who arrived from France that term clad in couture. As she read out loud from our 1970s French course book, Jean-Paul, Marie France and Claudette came to life in an exotic alternative universe.
Miss Bertin knew how to generate meaningful connections between us and her home culture. For our first piece of homework, she instructed us to bring in a label from a bottle of wine to glue into our cahier, to analyse and label with care and respect, providing us with essential life skills I still apply on a regular basis.
Now I have two children of my own who are taking their first steps into my French world. A year ago, I bought a holiday cottage on the outskirts of a village in Brittany. As a mum and educational psychologist, I have watched as my children have started to learn the language during our holidays there. In this article, I’d like to share my thoughts on how to support the development of early second language skills, and of course, a love of both France and its people.
The first point I would like to make is the importance of recognising how intimidating trying to communicate in a second language can feel, for adults as well as children. Even those who are now fluent in a second language are likely to have experienced those moments of terror when someone actually talked back to them, particularly in the early days of learning when trying out a new phrase or asking a simple question. A neighbour of mine recalls spending an hour preparing a question to ask at a local pharmacie regarding medication for an insect bite. “It was all going so well,” she recalls, “but then she answered me!” She fled the scene. I’ve been there too. During my first French holiday, my dad prodded me into a boulangerie near Calais, telling me to ask for a baguette, seeing as how I could now speak French! That one, simple phrase – “Une baguette, s’il vous plaît” – generated a degree of anxiety on a par with addressing a multi-professional conference on the subject of stress and time management, 18 years plus tard. It’s good to reflect on these experiences and the feelings that accompanied them. Although it’s clearly positive to encourage your children to apply their awakening skills, I think it’s wise to be aware of when encouragement can tip over into pressure,
which could have the adverse effect of stifling your children’s confidence and willingness to have a go. Pay attention to your child’s current level of skill and encourage development from this point in small steps, to help them to progress and gain confidence. Communicating with your child’s school will also provide useful information about their current skills, and also topics they have worked on, or are due to explore.
During my career, I have worked with children learning English as a second language in UK schools. Many children spend their first six months or so in virtual silence, yet go on to develop proficient language and communication skills. They appear to ‘absorb’ the language through opportunities to hear and learn key words and phrases repeated regularly in familiar situations. I remember one five-year-old boy from Saudi Arabia with eyes the size of dinner plates when he first started school. Tears flowed and he clearly missed the comfort of being able to communicate using his own language. However, six months later, he joyfully traded creative ‘insults’ with me in the playground, such as, ‘you are a fish finger in the dark’, clearly flourishing by this stage.
Think back to your own first experiences of hearing a new language and seeing unfamiliar words all around you. I felt excited and overwhelmed at the same time, and this is all part of the appeal: new challenges that kick-start our awareness
and stimulate our interest, helping us to learn. Encouraging your children to develop their awareness of the differences and similarities between two languages is a useful first step to help them to feel connected to a different culture.
There are lots of ways to assist them in developing awareness of both spoken and written language. During a meal out, draw their attention to words they can understand immediately and translate directly, such as jus, orange and menu. This will help them to develop confidence as stage-one translators!
Next, include more complex words that do not translate directly, but have clear context clues to enable them to process possibilities on a slightly more challenging level. For example, a café called ‘le chat,’ displaying a sign with a clear image to accompany its name.
Familiar activities such as going shopping can provide opportunities to hear predictable language. A daily visit to the boulangerie to order bread will include useful vocabulary and phrases such as ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘I would like.’ Hearing predictable responses will help your children to become familiar with what to expect, and repetition will help them to anticipate language, and retain their learning.
Word bingo is a fun approach to identifying spoken and written language. Cards can be designed to match the current skills or interests of your children, or to reflect vocabulary they may encounter during a focused experience, such as a trip to the seaside. By selecting key words and phrases they are likely to hear when they are out and about, they will quickly tune into the spoken language around them and this will also allow them to hear pronunciation models. For more experienced children, bingo can be based on words they are likely to hear while watching French TV or listening to French radio.
“Who can resist those little notebooks with tiny squares?”
My children are particularly motivated to carry out simple translations without being prompted to do so when food is involved (particularly desserts), during meals out, and also when visiting le supermarché. I love le supermarché – there are so many enticing items to explore, and when a fruit and vegetable ticket machine is involved, the children are motivated to ‘help’ too. Vocabulary is supported by images, encouraging them to identify items correctly and develop their skills.
Initially, my children physically recoiled from me when I asked them what they thought a particular word meant, but with three trips under their belts, they are now noticing language around them independently, and they are starting to investigate possibilities themselves.
Writing a pre-prepared shopping list in French is a great way to discover vocabulary. For those with more advanced skills, follow a recipe in French from a magazine or book to really immerse yourselves in the language, and then reward yourselves with a gold (Michelin) star for your resulting French feast.
Children love to solve problems when they are supported to do so. Recently, my daughter wanted to send a postcard to her friend back in the UK. The yellow postbox had two slots, with vocabulary relating to the different areas of Brittany on one side, and the rest of the country and overseas on the other. I recognised a great opportunity to let her work it out for herself, with a few leading questions to direct her thinking. We looked at and read out the names of the regions and I asked her which side she thought she should go for, to enable her to process this information independently. Luckily, her friend received the postcard!
RECORDING AND RETAINING
Keeping a scrapbook and vocabulary book is an excellent way of helping children to revisit their experiences and also to retain their language skills. Another trip to le supermarché will reap rewards when you allow your children to loiter in the stationery section – who can resist those little notebooks with tiny squares to write vocabulary onto?
Leaflets and photographs from places they have visited not only provide a memento of a trip, but also provide a source of useful vocabulary. Sticking in a lollipop wrapper will help them to recall the first time they tasted the delights of a sucette cerise, and help them to remember the associated vocabulary.
When helping your children to write their own simple vocabulary lists and sentences to describe their experiences, don’t be afraid of letting them see you use a dictionary. Opportunities to see you applying your own skills and resources to solve simple problems will enable them to recognise that it’s all part of the complex, but fun, process of learning another language. Bonne leçon! Janet Myers is an educational psychologist and photographer. She owns a holiday home in Morbihan
Posting a letter is another source of vocabulary
Everyday activities and outings are an opportunity to practise new vocabulary
Janet’s daughter records a trip to the beach using a photo and a description in French