Brexit, the demonisation of Emmanuel Macron and COVID: the cocktail making it increasingly easy to imagine a world where France is no longer the UK’s second most popular holiday destination (after Spain in case you were curious). Add to the shaker the alarming fact that fewer than half of UK pupils now take a modern language at GCSE and you could be forgiven for wondering when the hangover will kick in.
The National Curriculum’s introduction to modern languages (albeit written in 2013) tells us that learning a foreign language is “a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures. A high-quality languages education should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world… equipping them to study and work in other countries.” It is difficult to imagine how this tantalising world view can be upheld in a system where the uptake of the language of our nearest neighbour has declined by 63% since 2002.
These statistics exclude the independent sector where 82% of children still take a modern languages GCSE. The disappearance of language learning from a state educated child’s life at 14 is contributing to a two speed system where foreign languages are fast becoming the preserve of the wealthy.
Don’t be Emily
The arrival of the recent Netflix series, Emily in Paris was met with much outrage from francophiles claiming that the portrayal of the city of lights bore no relation to the truth. Each cliché-filled half hour is indeed a poor portrayal of the eponymous heroine. Her sidekick on the other hand seems fairly accurately depicted. Young, Instagram obsessed and English mother tongue monolingual. Through a series of rejections and mishaps, we understand that life in Paris might have been somewhat easier had Emily been able to communicate in the language of her hosts.
To enumerate all of the wonderful benefits that speaking a foreign language can provide would be to repeat the National Curriculum introduction cited above. To that list though, I would add the simple, life affirming pleasure of managing to exist in a foreign language, of meeting people you would never otherwise have met and being able to learn their story and tell yours. To paraphrase Dr Seuss, surely this is all about the places you’ll go? Or, in the words of the linguist and endangered language specialist Nicholas Evans, “We study other languages because we cannot live enough lives. It’s a multiplier of our existence.”
How to help a teenager speak French
In addition to sticking with French (or indeed any language) past the age of 14, there are a number of ways to improve a teenager’s chances of fluency.
Where languages remain confined to the classroom it will be hard for a child to imagine the real world benefits. For French ‘IRL’ there is really only one option. Whilst the past year has clearly curtailed visits to France, the pre-pandemic 2020 British Council Language Trends Report showed that school trips abroad in both the independent and private sectors remained buoyant. Ensure your child is on the list when they return and if additional travel to France outside school is a possibility, every trip will help.
Whilst the traditional pupil exchange is in slight decline, the government’s recent announcement of a £2.5 million fund to facilitate exchanges for some 3000 pupils per year is a step in the right direction. Schools should be the first port of call for organising an exchange (53% of pupils in independent schools and 29% in state schools undertook an exchange in 2018).
Whilst reading French literature is not a compulsory part of the curriculum until A-level, there is plenty that can be tackled earlier. Hoepli publish abridged classics for easier reading whilst Folio Bilingue and Pocket Langues Pour Tous each publish an extensive selection of classics with English and French versions on opposite sides of the page.
Whilst Emily will do little to improve a teenager’s French it may make them curious to see Paris. To keep their wanderlust intact and improve their accent and vocabulary, students should try Lupin, another recent Netflix success, or the beautiful 2001 classic Amélie. Both are recommended for the 13+ age group.
The dreaded French listening comprehension will lose much of its fear-inducing potential if French radio and podcasts can find their way into your teen’s headphones. The aptly named News in Slow French podcast is a combination of the two and a great place to start.
The exquisite Instagram account @frenchwords is a good starting point for teenagers with a taste for la belle France. Beautiful photographs are interspersed with fun and useful phrases and words. If your teenager suddenly tells you “Je ne suis pas têtu, je suis passioné” (I am not stubborn, I’m passionate), you will know where they have been…
If your teen is YouTube obsessed perhaps their attention could be gently shifted to the French equivalents of their usual fare. Popular (and palatable) French teen influencers include Lena Situations (don’t be put off by the pout, her ‘How to stop procrastinating’ video is perfectly edifying) and Seb La Frite. If you can get past the name, there is some serious and very well made content on his channel. And it’s not for you anyway 😉
About the author: Kate Davis is a trilingual ex-lawyer who lives between France and the UK. She studied French and Italian at Oxford and is currently Scholato’s editor.