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

Living France - - Lifestyle -

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!


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

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