When Tony Blair addressed the French National Assembly in their own language (and live in front of the world’s television cameras), the story hit the headlines – a British Prime Minister who can speak French without making a fool of himself is a rarity. A recent comparison of the proficiency of European teenagers in foreign languages put Britain at the bottom. Can starting to learn early help? Ted Wragg investigates.
There is no legal requirement in the United Kingdom for schools to teach a foreign language in the primary school, yet most European countries start teaching children another language before the age of 11.
Although modern languages ‘officially’ begin in the secondary school, there has been considerable interest among parents for French to be introduced into the primary school curriculum, so many schools have started running voluntary lunchtime ‘Learn French’ clubs. In addition there are parents who teach their children French at home, perhaps because the family is going on holiday to France, or simply because they wish to broaden their children’s horizons in this international age. Both parents and teachers are usually looking for ideas that are feasible for children in the infant and junior school age range: simple French dialogues, games, songs, activities that involve using the language actively. Not all are themselves experts. When I was piloting the BBC ‘Teach Your Child French’ radio series, one of the most enthusiastic volunteers was a father who had himself failed O-level French several times.
Language acquisition – a driving force
What can be achieved depends on the age and aptitude of the children, and the interests and skills of those who teach them. Children aged from 7 to 11 should be able to handle activities in simple French quite easily, and even 5 to 7 year olds should find few difficulties, provided the material is right and the experience is positive, not dreary. Acquiring language is a driving force in children. They are immensely curious about words and phrases, and very tuned in to learning them. Children around the world have usually become quite competent in their native language by the age of 4. At this stage they have a grasp of 90% of the grammar of it and a vocabulary of several hundred words.
Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, argued that we are uniquely ‘wired’ to learn a language. Young children, with their sharp hearing, ability to imitate, natural enthusiasm and lack of inhibition, take easily to learning new words and sounds. Adolescents, by contrast, are often afraid of making a fool of themselves in front of their friends.
People who learned French in secondary school, as most of us did, often see it as a highly complex activity. Yet most English 3 year olds would cheerfully say, ‘I went to playgroup’, even though ‘went’ is a very irregular past tense. If you speak words and phrases enough times, you soon understand what they mean.
Most of the books on the market are colourful and attractive, designed for enjoyment so as to appeal to young first-time French learners. Features often found include:
· conversations about everyday events like eating, shopping, counting;
· games such as ‘Simon says’ (‘Jacques a dit’);
· activities like naming colours (‘bleu’, ‘rouge’), or body parts (‘le nez’, ‘la bouche’);
· stories, songs and rhymes;
· flashcards, stickers, labels.
The best of these books for the primary age recognise that young children have a shorter attention span than older ones, and that ‘little and often’ is a better recipe than long turgid sessions. Children under 11 are often at what is sometimes called the ‘concrete’ stage of development. This means that they learn better by handling an object than by merely hearing about it in the abstract. Good books capitalise on opportunities for using French actively, by naming colours, for example, (‘rouge’, ‘blanc’, ‘noir’), or pointing out numbers on doors, signs, adverts (‘neuf’, ‘cinq’, ‘trois’).
A group of eight year olds were once acting out a very simple scene in French. One child came in and instead of greeting the rest with ‘Bonjour’, uttered by mistake the only other similar phrase he knew, ‘Au revoir’. The rest collapsed in mirth at the thought of him arriving and immediately saying ‘Goodbye’. Even from the beginning children can appreciate a joke in a foreign language.
Lively books also draw attention to French in everyday life. Many supermarkets now sell croissants and baguettes. Shelves are full of French food and drink. French clothes designers, footballers, cartoon characters like Asterix, and car adverts (have many children not seen Papa and Nicole in the Renault ads?) are shown regularly on television.
A visit to France is a great incentive, and a day trip can be quite cheap at certain times of the year. The best books show some of the ‘realia’, the real things of French life – menus, shops, bus tickets, cartoons, maps. Most of us remember going abroad for the first time, perhaps on a school exchange, but today’s children may live or work in France for a few weeks, a year or even longer, so they might as well become familiar with life there.
Parents who teach children at home often worry in case they scupper their children’s education by acting incorrectly, or cutting across what the school is trying to achieve. Most schools nowadays prefer to work in partnership with parents and welcome their interest. When children begin French in school, they usually start with oral work about everyday situations, and the activities in most of the books encourage that approach.
The two enemies of early years French are (a) boredom and (b) errors. One mother bored her children by insisting that they did everything in French for too long. It became an irksome chore, and before long her children hated French. Young children are so adept at imitating the ‘music’ of a language that it can be fiendishly difficult to unpick errors later. Cassettes with native speakers are a boon in this respect.
When young children practise a language it needs to be in a context, otherwise they will mechanically repeat without necessarily understanding what they are saying. That is why actively using objects, counting, pointing to things, moving, are all valuable ways of giving meaning to the French.
A French club
One feature of French learning in the early years is the ‘French club’. Good and suitable books are essential for a club to flourish. In one school it was actually two enthusiastic fathers who started the club. It was so successful that the school eventually made it a timetabled activity. In some areas there are Saturday morning French clubs where parents can take their children along for an hour or two of intensive language work. Unfortunately these tend to be mainly in towns, less often in rural areas.
Songs and rhymes are also popular in clubs. A simple French tune such as Frère Jacques can be learned even by under-fives. The combination of music and words has long been recognised as a powerful language learning tool. Well run clubs can often benefit boys in particular. Boys tend to do less well than girls at language activities in school, but they often like language connected to activity.
A Round -up of Recent Titles
One of the most comprehensive publishers of French books for young children, with a wide range of attractive options.
French for Beginners, by Angela Wilkes, is an attractive 48-page booklet with colourful cartoon-type drawings. Topics include: saying ‘hello’, eating, travelling, hobbies, telling the time, finding your way round a map of a town, shopping and colours. It also comes in a blister pack with reusable stickers for labelling objects, which have both the words (in large letters) and phonetic pronunciation (small letters), e.g. ‘l’école’ (laikol). My worry here is over words like ‘le bureau’, with the phonetic ‘luh bew-ro’, which is a complete mangling of the pronunciation. Another blister pack includes a cassette with native French speakers using the language in the book, and an English narrator.
Vocabulary control is an important issue with beginners, and Heather Amery’s First 100 Words in French and First Thousand Words in French are attempts to help children learn a basic vocabulary – le train, les biscuits, le chat. Both have large scenic pictures and small pictures showing the individual words. Many young children find stickers to be motivating, and push-out sticker versions of both books are also available.
Readers need to be carefully graded, so children are not overwhelmed with French they cannot understand. Louisa Somerville’s First Book of France describes French life in English, with just an occasional French word in numerous pictures illustrating themes such as holidays, famous people, things to do and places to visit. Susannah Leigh’s stories Fantastic Island’ (L’Ile Fantastique) and Mystery Castle (Chateau-Mystère) have both been adapted as bilingual readers, with the French text in blue and the English version in black underneath each sentence. Vocabulary is included on each page and at the end, and the engaging style of detailed coloured illustration will appeal to children.
Puzzle workbooks offering 32 pages on Shopping and Eating and Meeting People and Travelling are based on the familiar model of word squares, jumbled letters and picture quizzes to be found on newsagent’s shelves and will probably appeal more to older primary pupils. A 128 page Beginner’s French Dictionary with thematic, copiously illustrated pages (Pastimes, Driving, Sport, School and Education) completes an impressive collection of junior French books from Usborne. It has vocabulary on each page and an alphabetic list at the back.
French for Beginners, Angela Wilkes, 0 7460 0054 5, £4.99, Sticker pack, 0 7460 2121 6, £7.99, Tape pack, 0 7460 0582 2, £9.99
First 100 Words in French, Heather Amery, 0 7460 1174 1, £4.50 pbk, 0 7460 2117 8, £4.50 sticker book.
First Thousand Words in French, Heather Amery,0 7460 2305 7 £7.99 hbk 0 7460 2304 9, £5.99, Sticker book, 0 7460 3007 X, £4.99
First Book of France, Louisa Somerville, 0 7460 0322 6, £4.99 pbk
Fantastic Island (L’Ile Fantastique), Susannah Leigh,0 7460 2374 X £6.99 hbk, 0 7460 2373 1, £3.99 pbk
Mystery Castle (Chateau-Mystère), Susannah Leigh,0 7460 1981 5 £5.99 hbk, 0 7460 1980 7, £3.99
Shopping and Eating 0 7460 1346 9 £2.99
Meeting People and Travelling 0 7460 1345 0 £2.99
Beginner’s French Dictionary, 0 7460 0016 2, £7.99 pbk
B Small Publishing
Bilingual readers in hardback are an attractive feature of B Small French books, with English at the top of the page and the French version at the bottom. Text per page is less dense than the Usborne books, at eight words or so, making these likely to appeal to younger as well as older primary children.
Goodnight Everyone (Bonne Nuit à Tous) is typical of them. Martha goes to bed with all her toys, elephant, panda, gorilla, rag doll etc., and falls asleep at the end. The type of illustrations and text density are what one would normally expect in children’s books in English for pre-school and early infant school children. There are notes for parents and teachers, a picture dictionary at the end and pronunciation hints. What worries me, however, is some of the phonetic pronunciations. Children are such good mimics that if they imitate clueless adults faithfully intoning “eh bee-yah” (Eh bien) or ‘d’moh-dah ma-moh’ (demanda maman), they will simply massacre the language.
Other bilingual texts in the same format include Happy Birthday (Bon Anniversaire), I Want my Banana! (Je veux ma Banane!), and I’m too Big (Je suis trop gros). I prefer the ones with animals in them, as the illustrations of these are very appealing. There are also some even simpler bilingual books for the very young, with single words on each double page, English on the left, French on the right, on topics like Family (La Famille) and Colours (Les Couleurs).
Activity books concentrate again on puzzles and games. French Fun has black and white line drawings for children to circle, and dot-to-dot puzzles. Most fun are the press-out boy and girl figures in colour and sets of clothes, all neatly labelled (la jambe, le bras, le pantalon, la jupe) to dress them up. Pen Pals is a book for older primary pupils, but it exploits the appeal of hands-on envelopes with real contents, including actual letters, cards and photos. A French boy, Jérôme, and an English girl, Katy, exchange letters. Translations are offered in the text and there are hints on letter writing and a little phrase book. A neat idea that would be useable even with early secondary pupils.
Goodnight Everyone (Bonne Nuit à Tous), 1 874735 70 0, £5.99 hbk
Happy Birthday! (Bon Anniversaire), 1 874735 97 2, £5.99 hbk
I Want my Banana! (Je veux ma Banane!), 1 874735 03 4, £5.99 hbk
I’m too Big (Je suis trop gros), 1 874735 65 4, £5.99 hbk
Family (La Famille), 1 874735 76 X, £4.99 hbk, 1 874735 75 1, £2.99 pbk
Colours (Les Couleurs), 1 874735 15 8, £4.99 hbk, 1 874735 10 7, £2.99 pbk
French Fun , activity book, 1 874735 26 3, £2.99 pbk
Pen Pals, 1 874735 17 4, £9.99 hbk
The Dr Seuss Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary in French is a wonderful text. The fact that it is nothing more than the original ‘Beginner Book Dictionary’, with French subtitles in red, is neither here nor there. Children love the crackpot characters and off-beat drawings. The word ‘Head’, for example, is illustrated by a dotty aunt character standing on her head (‘She stands on her head’ – Elle se tient sur la tête).
The disadvantage is that the book is purely an English-French dictionary, cheap for the publisher, since it simply superimposes a set of red text translations beneath the original. It would be worth producing a genuine French version, using the same approach, but with more French words in the pictures, in place of ‘jam’, ‘jelly’, ‘knock, knock’ etc. This has been done for the ‘months of the year’ entry, which does appear in French. Nonetheless it is a very funny and appealing book, for children of all ages up to early teens.
The Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary in French, Dr Seuss, 0 00 195054 1, £12.99
Based on a television series featuring Serge the monkey, Sue Finnie’s Salut Serge is another blister pack offering a 40 page book and cassette. It is very much an activity book, with puzzles, games and comic-type cartoon strips (text in English, speech bubbles in French) showing the monkey’s adventures.
A cassette symbol in the margin cues children to switch on the cassette for the song, story or text to be spoken or sung by Serge. The book is colourful and the cassette fun. When Serge packs his rucksack with ten objects (un parapluie, un pyjama, des sandales), children have to listen to him and then recall the objects, whose pictures are in the book. Good value for a simple multimedia pack.
Salut Serge, Sue Finnie, 0 563 38751 3, £8.99 book/cassette
Anita Ganeri’s Sticky French makes unashamed use of sticker appeal. There are 98 reuseable press-out stickers in the centre of the book and 16 pages of pictures and squares on which to place the stickers. There is no particular rationale, so far as one can see, it is simply a set of pictures of jungle, sea and mountains, with colours and numbers at the front and vocabulary at the back. The characters in the pictures look a little gormless, but the book is cheap and cheerful, though its interest will not last too long.
Sticky French, Anita Ganeri, 0 590 13246 6, £3.99 pbk
Rhyme and song are the main features of Opal Dunn’s Un, Deux, Trois (21 page booklet and cassette). The book portrays the text and pictures of simple popular French children’s rhymes and the neat little illustrations are part labelled (un petit poisson, un grand poisson, un paysan etc.). A limited resource, and not sufficient on its own, but a useful adjunct to something else.
Un, Deux, Trois, Opal Dunn, 0 7112 1071 3, £8.99 book/cassette
The Fun Matching Game looks complicated at first, but it really is worth getting to grips with. It is very cleverly conceived, being a long narrow book, with notches along the edges and a lengthy piece of string attached to the top. Inside are several ‘self-scoring tests’, as they would be called in the trade. Turn to a page like ‘Clothes’ or ‘Pets’ and you find a set of six colour pictures. Wind the string round the notches to match up the picture with its French name (e.g. le poisson, le chat, la souris), turn the page over and, hey presto, the ‘correct’ pattern of the string is on the back, so you can check your own solution. Clever, or what? I loved it, so never mind the children. Robust and colourful. Another adjunct for those wanting fun activities.
The Fun Matching Game, Stringalong series, 0 600 59766 0, £4.99 board
Ted Wragg is Professor of Education at Exeter University and author, with Pascale Bizet, of Teach Your Child French (book and cassette, BBC Education, 0 563 46096 2, £7.99).