Working with French speakers can be a challenge, as their school systems are often highly regimented. Consequently, they have certain expectations about how education should be delivered.
I learned this when I taught ESL in Casablanca and Rabat, Morocco from January 2008 to July 2010. My 18-month sojourn with the Arabic French speakers gave me insight into how they process learning a new language.
At the same time, I was studying French so I was able to see language learning from that perspective as well.
How can you make the language transition easier? The place to start is by understanding how English came to have so many French words.
A brief history lesson to share with your French-speaking students
Assure your French-speaking students that they already know a lot of English words. Without the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English may have remained a limited language spoken on a few island with regional dialects.
However, after William the Conqueror won this historically defining battle, he picked up his court from French-speaking Normandy and plunked it down in London. And for the next 300 years or so, the English court only spoke French.
8 Tips for Easing Your Students’ Transition from French to English
1. Stress the similarities between French and English
Estimates are that anywhere 25 to 45 percent of the words in English are, in fact, French in origin.
Equally important is that both languages follow a subject-verb-object pattern. While the French may initially have difficulty with the fact that English nouns are neither feminine nor masculine, they will quickly get over it as it makes learning easier—after all, that’s one less “rule” to memorize.
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2. Identify the words that French speakers will learn easily
During the time of William the Conqueror, laws were changed and parliament underwent a transformation. Consequently, many government and legal French words became English. The same is true in the areas of banking, education, commerce and religion.
As a starting point, check Appendix 1 at the end of the post for words related to these areas and more.
3. Help students develop targeted vocabulary books
Have your French-speaking students keep vocabulary books. Just randomly listing words is of little use, however, if they aren’t used in context eventually. Have them write the definition of each word, along with a sample phrase or sentence that puts the word into action.
Make sure there are at least three to four pages that are set aside in these books specifically for words that sound similar to French. You’ll be amazed how fast your students memorize and start using all the words in this category!
One thing to watch out for is that French speakers will often latch onto English words that are similar to their French words and use them repeatedly instead of branching out. To remedy this, check Appendix 2. It’s a list of English words that are most likely to be overused by your students, and it also lists alternatives I developed while teaching in Morocco. Review these words and phrases with your students and they’ll often laugh when they recognize the pattern—they probably didn’t realize that they all have the same favorite English vocabulary before!
For additional practice, encourage the students to keep an English diary and to write in it every day using the words they’ve just learned. They can submit this like any other homework assignment or long-term project, or they can submit this for bonus points.
Another activity is to pair the students and have them explain their vocabulary words—and use them in a sentence—while speaking with one another in English.
4. Encourage French-speaking students to really, really listen
As they say, French is like music while English resembles a machine gun. Translated, this means that in the former the accent is in the middle of the word and in the latter it’s on the first syllable. The former speaking style leads to a more sing-songy style of speaking, while the second is more rapid-fire.
Use lots and lots of listening exercises to help train their ears. Music goes a long way in softening the sound and rhythm of English, and making the pronunciations more approachable (and we’ll discuss this more a bit later). Once French-speaking students can hear the cadence of English, they’ll experience a eureka moment and start to hear the similarities.
5. Teach that it’s educational to make mistakes
As mentioned earlier, French speakers of various cultures are often reluctant to speak if they don’t think the words will come out perfectly. Consequently, it’s important to stress that this doesn’t matter, and that it’s actually how people learn languages best.
Mistakes are helpful because every single one teaches a language lesson. Encourage students to just speak and quietly correct their pronunciation of “I had a great weekend” if they misplace the accents in the words.
Once French speakers gain confidence about speaking entire sentences, they’ll be less hesitant about not pronouncing every word perfectly as native English speakers will still understand them.
Instead of sticking to a textbook approach, teach the French speakers English sentences they can use to encourage relaxed conversation.
6. Use songs to help with pronunciation
Music is a great way to help French students learn to say English words properly.
Even people who don’t understand a word of English like to listen to the music. Harness this power for an enjoyable listening exercise and watch how quickly your students will pick up words and phrases.
The key is to find out what genre appeals to your students. If you try to get them to listen to country and western songs when they’re hip-hop and pop fans, it won’t work as effectively—though nobody’s saying that some country tunes can’t work to teach cultural lessons, regional American pronunciations and unique vocabulary lessons.
A discussion about the type of music they’ll want to listen to is also an opportunity to get to know your students as individuals. Then you can work with them to source music that they’ll enjoy.
7. Acknowledge the differences between French and English
Although France and England are geographically close, their languages are wider than the channel that divides the two countries. So along with similarities, there are also differences—otherwise it would be the same language.
There’s one basic difference between French and English when it comes to the linguistics of the languages. France is known for being a bit elitist in wanting to keep their language “pure.” While this is a generalization based on historical attitudes on French purism in France, the Academie Francaise has long waged a losing battle against English words—such as le weekend or la hamburger—creeping into general conversation.
The latter, however, is a sponge that absorbs words from all languages and calls them English.
8. Warn students to beware of false friends
French word English meaning
location hire, rental
When it comes to learning English, French speakers have a much easier time than, say, Japanese or Slovak speakers because there are numerous shared commonalities between the two languages.
As mentioned a few times above, you can initially stress the similarities to give your French-speaking students more confidence to spread their linguistic wings and to embrace English as an extension of their own language.
Encourage them to talk, talk, talk and to write, write, write even though they may not get it exactly right every time. Teach them the English skill of being able to make fun of oneself and you’ll move them closer to sounding like a native speaker.
Appendix 1: English words adopted from French
Appendix 2: Words that French speakers overuse with alternative vocabulary words.
Note that not all of the suggested alternative vocabulary words are exact synonyms of the overused word. They vary based on context, so that will be up to you to recognize and teach.
Accept — Agree to, go along with, make the best of.
Activities — Operations, similar interests, business deals, ventures, events, exercises, projects.
Cannot accept — Reject, refuse, veto, do not like, do not agree with.
Collaborate — Work with, have dealing with, have a project with, cooperate.
Colleague — Coworker, associate, counterpart, workmate, peer, colleague, business partner.
Discuss — Talk about, contest, offer an opinion, speak, ponder, consider; (Informal) Shoot the breeze, chit chat, have some face time.
Efforts — Actions, energy, attempts.
Forbidden — Prohibited, not allowed, taboo, banned, unacceptable, not tolerated.
Interesting — Exciting, questionable, fascinating, riveting, intriguing, noteworthy, absorbing, stimulating, curious, scary, functional, informative, stupid, good to know, promising.
Kind — Gentle, well-meaning, sweet, harmless, insipid.
Oblige — Force, compel, make mandatory.
Opinion — Idea, suggestion, possibility.
Propose — Suggest, advise, pose, put forward, ask, offer, submit for consideration.
Received — Picked up, bought, had delivered; (with people) met, greeted, ran into, welcomed.
Result — Consequence, outcome, end in tears, win-win situation.
Safety — Safe, secure, security.
Special — Unique, original, one of a kind. Encourage students to describe what’s special rather than just saying “special.”
Support — Agree with, think is a good idea, go along with.
Profit — Benefit from, value.
Responsible — In English, unlike in French, you don’t have a “responsible,” but rather you have someone who’s responsible or in charge of something.
Unique — Outstanding, queer, astonishing, incredible, breathtaking, absurd, spectacular.
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you liked this valuable teaching insight, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. You’ll find movie trailers, music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
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