The results of French students in foreign languages, and in English in particular, are not good. While students study a foreign language – the vast majority of them English – since CP class, at the end of CM2, only one in two students (54%) master orally the syntax of questions and simple sentences, according to the data published in 2019 by the National Council for School Evaluation (CNESCO).
In third grade, 75% of students have difficulty making themselves understood and producing generally correct spoken language in English (73% in Spanish, 62% in German). Compared to other European countries, according to the last major Surveylang study in 2012 , France ranks in the last positions.
The causes of this situation are multiple: the training of primary school teachers seems insufficient since the CNESCO report indicates that 80% of them declared (in 2016) that they had not followed any training course in foreign languages during the five years previous ones.
But the causes are also societal: our centralized state, which emphasizes mastery of French, leaves little room for other languages and the development of multilingualism which allows us to better develop mastery of foreign languages. The defense of the French-speaking world and the systematic dubbing of the majority of cartoons, films, and documents offered to the French population do not facilitate the learning of English to which other countries in Europe are more exposed.
Linguistic factors must also be considered: the characteristics of the English language itself, in particular concerning its phonology which differs greatly from the French language, can explain the difficulties of the French in mastering foreign languages and English in particular .
In primary school, a new language teaching system since 2020
Faced with this observation, we can ask ourselves: shouldn’t we start learning English earlier and offer more hours of foreign language teaching in primary schools?
Comparisons show that French elementary school programs which require starting to learn English at age 6 in CP and impose a minimum of 1 to 1.5 hours per week between CP and CM2, are within the European average. Additionally, the idea that “you have to learn a foreign language as early as possible” to succeed turns out to be a myth, documented by research . Rather than “younger” or simply “older”, it is better to ask the question of “how” to learn foreign languages.
The Ministry of National Education has focused heavily on this issue since 2018, commissioning a report then setting up the CNESCO conference which resulted in 10 recommendations from scientists and the publication of a guide for teaching modern foreign languages from school to high school .
A new measure was put in place in 2020 with the creation of at least one “CLIL school” , offering integrated teaching of a foreign language subject per department: for these primary schools, this involves providing language courses. mathematics, physical education and sports, arts or even sciences in a foreign language, as has been done in the European section of high school since the 1990s.
France is thus catching up compared to other European countries and in particular its neighbor Spain, several regions of which have massively developed the CLIL (Content Language Integrated Learning) approach from primary school since the 2000s. Local elected officials have sometimes responded very positively to this request, understanding that the creation of a bilingual “CLIL school” in their municipality would be an attraction for parents.
The “CLIL schools” system has been constantly increasing in France since its creation in 2020. We do not currently find data on a national scale, but rather regional data. For example, the Centre-Val de Loire region had between 2 and 9 “CLIL schools” per department in June 2023.
More engaged students
Can we then hope that this learning of other disciplines in a foreign language will have positive repercussions on the language level of French students? For the moment, research cannot conclude in this sense, as Stéphanie Roussel explains in her book The cognitive approach in language teaching . To answer this, researchers will have to refine their analysis tools, define precisely what we want to measure when we talk about “language level”, and develop studies in primary schools.
In our laboratory, the Education Contexts and Actors Research Team (ÉRCAÉ – EA7493), we are three teachers and researchers moving in this direction by launching exploratory research for the period January 2023-June 2024. By observing and exchanging with teachers in our region who have embarked on the system, we have so far been able to observe the beneficial effects of CLIL, well beyond linguistic skills. Exposed more regularly to English, children become more engaged and show less apprehension when faced with this foreign language.
In subjects where they participated little for fear of making a mistake, for example mathematics, CM1 and CM2 students become more involved when the lesson takes place in a foreign language. Many school teachers also testified that their students were more attentive when they taught the lesson in English. More focused and committed, we can therefore assume that their results can improve.
How can we explain that foreign languages can enable progress in “non-linguistic” disciplines and knowledge such as mathematics, sciences, etc.? ? This goes against a widespread idea, which leads many parents and teachers to say that students must first have skills in a subject to be able to tackle it in a foreign language, because this would add an additional layer of difficulty for the student.
Promote cognitive flexibility
We can put forward some hypotheses to explain that, on the contrary, using a foreign language to teach non-linguistic content can help students be more successful in it. The teachers we followed all testified to the fact that teaching in English led them to think more about ways to make students understand concepts.
Starting from the principle that the foreign language represented an obstacle, they deployed other methods, more visual, more explicit, more progressive; they themselves recognized that, wrongly, when they teach in French, they think that the students understand, which is not always the case, because the problem is not so much the language used as the way we get students to understand.
As for the children, we were able to see that they too, immediately realizing that they do not understand, make more of an effort to pay attention than when the lesson takes place in French, which can give them the illusion that it is ‘is easy.
Other psycholinguistic factors undoubtedly explain why a foreign language can facilitate learning. As we observe in bilingual children, having to switch from one language to another promotes cognitive flexibility , that is to say the ability to move from one task to another, to adapt one’s strategies, therefore to learn. We also know that to access concepts, we must use words. The more languages we speak, the more we speak, and the more likely children are to access the concepts that enable knowledge.
For a child, saying in front of the whole class that you don’t understand when the lesson has been presented in English seems normal, the teacher will undoubtedly try to help the student by other means; so what about saying in front of your classmates that you didn’t understand what the master or mistress has just explained in French, that’s another story…
Author Bio: Pascale Catoire is a PRAG teacher at the University of Orléans at the University of Orléans