5 Ways to Explore French Culture in Your Language Lessons
How many French clichés can you name in a minute?
Baguettes, berets, red wine, mimes, stinky cheese, stinky armpits… and that’s just off the top of my head.
Wouldn’t you love your French language students to have a broader, more accurate understanding of the diverse, exciting and captivating place that France really is?
Not only would it help them better understand the culture of French speakers that they one day hope to communicate with, but it would also make their understanding of the world as a whole that much deeper.
But here’s the tricky part: how can you incorporate French culture lessons into your language classroom without losing time for the vocabulary and grammar concepts in your curriculum?
It’s easy: culture and language can go hand-in-hand in your lesson plans.
In this post, we’ll show you how you can explore the culture of France’s many regions while also teaching key language concepts.
But first, let’s take a look at why this can be so important for your students.
Why Teach Culture in Your Language Classroom?
The French language is closely related to its dynamic culture. Combining the two in your teaching can enhance your students’ appreciation and knowledge of France and motivate them to continue learning. Focusing on French culture also adds some context to the vocabulary and grammar that they’re learning, showing that these language skills are relevant to real life, not just charts in a textbook.
It’s also a great way not only to teach language, but also to expand your students’ perspective on the world around them—especially if you ask them to compare their own culture to the French one.
On a practical level, teaching French culture expands the scope of your lesson planning. You can bring so much more engaging material into your classroom through culture lessons.
Don’t Just Focus on One Area (*cough* Paris *cough*)
If you mention France, most people immediately think of Paris, La Ville Lumière (the City of Light). And while Paris’ history, art, cuisine, architecture and so much more are undoubtedly exciting and valuable to teach, it’s important to acknowledge all 13 regions of France if you’re going to give your students a complete perspective on the country.
(There used to be 22 formal regions in France, but as of Jan. 1, 2016, there are officially 13.)
With all of these distinct French regions, you’ll have ample opportunities to incorporate facets of culture into your teaching.
Each region has its own unique characteristics. This is evident in the language itself: French is, unsurprisingly, the most widely spoken language throughout the country, but there are small pockets of regional dialects or languages, such as:
- Basque (spoken on the French/Spanish border)
- Breton (spoken in Brittany)
- Alsatian (spoken in the Alsace region)
- Picard (spoken in the north of France)
- Occitan (spoken in southern France)
- Corsica also has its own language, although French has now replaced it in most aspects of life.
The accents also differ from region to region so a person from the north of France may have a different accent than a person from the south.
The classroom activities and ideas discussed in this post are adaptable to culture lessons on specific French regions and will provide your students with opportunities to research different areas of France.
You can choose to focus on any region that interests you, and you can also certainly repeat exercises and activities for different regions!
5 Tantalizing Facets of French Culture to Incorporate into Your Lessons
Exploring cuisine is a fantastic way to incorporate authentic French materials into your lesson plan and immerse your students in everyone’s favorite part of French culture: the food.
To start, you’ll want to find some genuine French recipes from the region you’re focusing on:
- Le journal des femmes (The Women’s Magazine) offers a variety of recipes.
- Elle à table (Elle at the table) offers traditional recipes.
- If you’re working with beginner to low-intermediate students, the site Cuisine-facile (Easy Cooking) is a great resource for simple recipes.
These sites will enable you to review the imperative—ajoutez (add), remuez (stir), battez (beat) and garnissez (decorate), among others—as well as cooking vocabulary and quantities such as 300 g de farine (300 grams of flour), 200 g de beurre (200 grams of butter), etc.
To get students interacting with the material, you can have them write out a recipe using the imperative or the infinitive. You can even show the students a video with someone presenting a recipe, which will help test their listening and comprehension skills.
In addition, you may ask them to each present their own favorite recipe in order to help with their spoken communication.
I find that asking students to do a skit or role play about visiting a restaurant is very motivating, as they can put theory into practice. I usually divide the class into groups of three or four and ask each group to prepare a menu (they have to research prices on the internet), give a French name to their restaurant and order a meal.
You could also instruct the students to do research on French wines and which ones should be paired with which protein or food group—this is especially engaging for adult students who appreciate the wine expertise!
2. Les Vêtements (Dress)
Exploring traditional costumes is a great way to enter French culture and discover how colorful it is. From there, it’s just a short jump to describing and discussing how the French dress for everyday life.
Print or project a photo (or photos) of a region’s traditional costume and ask your students to describe it. This will get them to review both clothing vocabulary and how to give physical descriptions. This is a very versatile activity that can be done on paper or orally, individually or in groups, and you can control the amount of time it takes simply by the number of photos you choose to cover.
You could also compile a collage of people in traditional dress for a fun game. Divide the class in groups of four; each student must secretly choose one of the people on the collage. The game consists of trying to guess which person each student has chosen by asking questions, such as est-ce un homme ou une femme? (is it a man or a woman?), porte-t-elle une jupe longue ou courte? (is she wearing a long or short skirt?), porte-t-elle/il une ceinture? (is she/he wearing a belt?).
Another idea is to organize a fashion show where students can create and present traditional articles of clothing from a given region. It’s a sure way to liven up your classroom and will also engage the creative thinkers in your classroom.
This facet of culture can also be linked to French haute couture (high fashion), so you can link your discussion to the famous French designers your students may already be familiar with (Dior, Chanel, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, etc.).
For more advanced or independent students, you can ask them to prepare a presentation on the type of fashion they each prefer. Or you could get them to research fashion through the centuries.
3. Les Traditions (Traditions)
Local traditions provide crucial insights into regional cultures. By teaching French traditions, you’ll help your students gain a broader understanding of French society and the native speakers they’ll one day be interacting with.
Tradition is linked to both dress and cuisine (e.g. national dress and national dishes). You can ask your students to compare their own traditions with those of the French region you’re covering: what are typical national dishes or costumes in their own country? Can they describe them, and are they similar to the French ones?
Traditions are also highly relevant to national holidays and national festivals. Ask students to draw up a calendar for the year showing the different French holidays. You can then assign a holiday to each student to research, identify key relevant vocabulary and present for the class. They could do the same with French festivals.
But remember, you can also keep it casual and simply use the holidays/festivals as a vehicle for French conversation practice. Build discussions around the following questions for a given holiday:
- How do the French greet each other on this holiday?
- What do they eat?
- What do they wear?
- What are some similar holidays from students’ cultures?
- What surprises students about how this holiday is celebrated?
Holiday culture lessons are relatable and engaging for most students, while also versatile—just tailor the timeframe and questions to your students’ proficiency levels.
4. La Géographie (Geography)
Geography is an excellent tool for teaching essential vocabulary that students will need to describe the world around them—while also getting them more acquainted with France as a country. To get you started, here are some questions you can ask your students to research for the region you’re teaching:
- How many rivers are there? Which is the longest? Which is the shortest?
- What are the major landmarks?
- Which cities are the main cities?
- Which regions are neighbors?
I like to give the students a blank map of France’s regions and get them to fill it in by dictating the name of each region to them. This is useful for reviewing the French alphabet.
You can also review the points of the compass—le nord (north), le sud (south), l’est (east), l’ouest (west), le sud-ouest (south-west), etc.—as well as geographical landmarks such as les montagnes (mountains), les rivières (rivers), les falaises (cliffs), etc.
You can take this lesson further by letting students make up a character from a particular town, and then asking them about the character to review prepositions: où habites-tu? (where do you live?), en montagne (in the mountains), en ville (in the city), à la campagne (in the country), en Bretagne (in Brittany), au nord du pays (in the north of the country), etc.
It’s also great fun to get students to draw up questions in French based on geography, and then try to stump their classmates: e.g. nommez deux rivières françaises (name two French rivers); quelles montagnes séparent la France de l’Espagne? (which mountains separate France from Spain?), etc.
5. L’Histoire (History)
History is a wonderful facet of culture. Studying history can show students what France was like in bygone eras and how it has become what it is today. This is especially useful for communication practice in advanced classes as it can lead to discussions and debates.
Students can research different eras, choose one and then present it to the class. Or they can choose their favorite character or hero and write a short bio of, say, Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) or Napoleon. You can ask them to read some of Napoleon’s letters to Josephine and translate them.
Give your students extracts from historical writers such as Alexandre Dumas and ask them to summarize or translate them. Are they familiar with any other French writers? Can they name them and their works?
For further activities, Tv5.org has some more great resources you can draw from. For example, this clip explores brotherhood among soldiers during World War I with authentic testimony. Each subject has a short video clip and a transcription, which promotes comprehension. There are also worksheets for educators and students with countless exercises.
So, what are you waiting for? Explore the facets of culture present in each French region and widen your students’ horizons, enrich their knowledge and vocabulary and immerse them in their target language.
Hilda Thomas has taught the French language and literature at all levels for countless years at a South African University. She has a Ph.D. in French and is passionate about teaching French.