According to my 8th grade (quatrième in France) English teacher, speaking British English was the rule in her classroom. Color became colour, truck became lorry, French fries became chips and “but in America that’s how we say it” was the worst possible excuse you could give.
Here’s my story. I grew up in Minnesota in a bicultural family – my father is American and my mother is French. We spoke French at home as much as possible, and English everywhere else. We moved to France in June 2001, when I was 12 years old, and I entered quatrième as a regular student.
In France, students begin a first foreign language (usually English, German, or Spanish) in 6th grade. I would have been too far behind to begin German, so I took English like the majority of the students. Easy, you’re probably saying, but in my experience, this was not necessarily true.
Throughout middle school (collège) and high school (lycée), on the first day of every school year, I went to see my new English teacher before class to give them the heads up. I also tried to let my classmates know as well, telling my friends and trusting the word to spread that there was an American in the school. Mostly this was to avoid a seriously awkward moment the first time I opened my mouth. This only worked to certain extent though – I remember answering questions the first few days and the shocked silence that followed. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the students seemed to think that I was a brilliant student with a gift for languages, but I was just speaking my native language the same way they spoke French.
It was difficult to find a balance between wanting to correct my teachers when they made mistakes, answering every question because I knew the answer, and just tuning out because I was bored. Mostly I alternated between the latter two, as I quickly realized that it was in my best interest to keep quiet when the teacher made mistakes (although I do remember one memorable incident when my 11th grade teacher declared and insisted that despites was a word. I offered to bring my dictionary the next day to prove her wrong. She declined.). The teachers, after all, were the ones with the power to grade, and it was highly convenient to boost my grade average with high marks in English.
Answering questions was also an interesting experience. Oftentimes, my answer was followed by an uncomfortable silence broken by a simple “yes…” from the teacher, and no further response. Other times, my teachers told me to stop answering all the questions and let the others speak. I could have argued that this was pointless because the other students rarely participated in class and that I was just answering the questions because no one else would, but I never did. This was, however, very true. I learned later that many of my classmates were ashamed to speak in front of me, despite my reassurances that they were learning and that I would not judge them. After one, or several, of these episodes, I would usually stop participating altogether and think of other things while everyone else memorized irregular verbs and recited vocabulary. Some of my teachers allowed me to do my homework during their classes, a concession for which I was immensely grateful, because most of my English teachers demanded I pay attention (whilst not answering questions of course).
So what should an American student do in this situation? Here’s what I would advise:
- Try to find a balance. Answer questions on occasion, but not all the time. No one likes a show-off, and even if you tell everyone that it’s just as natural for you as riding a bike, a lot of people will think you’re parading your skills (which arguably aren’t skills, but still).
- Notify your teachers before term starts. It will help you avoid awkward situations.
- Don’t correct your teachers! You may hear outrageous mistakes and pronunciations, or strange expressions (i.e. “If you chit-chat, you take the door.” What, right?). In French, “taking the door” (prendre la porte) means to leave, but of course the expression just doesn’t work in English. Just like you can’t literally translate the expression “to have a cow.” Imagine someone saying “Il a eu une vache” to you in French! You may even get unfairly corrected, but never forget that the teachers have the power to grade and that it’s better to stay in their good books.
- If you feel you can, ask to use your time in class to do other homework, or work on a project that you’ll present to the class. In France there isn’t the equivalent of extra credit, but asking to use class time differently can be a good option. In college, you can also ask to be excused from the classes (which I did) and prepare a presentation to compensate.
There are always solutions, and there is possibility to find common ground. Turn your English classes into an opportunity to learn new things by doing a presentation on something that interests you or to tell your peers what it’s like to be a student in the United States. Work together with your teachers to make this a productive experience for you, them and the other students. It’s possible!
If you too have a story or an opinion to share on studying in France, school system, send us an article and we’ill be glad to publish it ! Or tell us how you feel about this subject in the comments. You can already read the experience of our contributors on the french school system, or the schooling options for Americans in France.