7 Famous Icons for Teaching French Culture the Engaging Way
What weighs the equivalent of 10 elephants?
I’ll give you a hint: It’s in Paris, France.
Believe it or not, it’s the paint on the Eiffel Tower!
Your students will find that fact just as interesting as you did, because the most-visited paid monument in the world is practically a universal symbol.
Why bring up French icons like the Eiffel Tower in the first place?
By using iconic symbols, you can smoothly incorporate French culture into your teaching—while making your students hungry for more.
And to save you time, I’ve put together the best resources for teaching culture through seven famous French icons.
Before we get to the icons, though, let’s first take a look at why it’s worthwhile to spend time on culture—even when there’s so much grammar and vocab to teach.
Why Teach French Culture with Famous Icons?
A successful recipe for teaching a language is to teach both its grammar and its culture. If you don’t teach both, you are leaving out an important ingredient. Iconic symbols that are important to a culture are intertwined with the language.
- They help students relate to the countries whose language they are learning. Students will feel motivated to learn French and their horizons will be widened as they link the culture to the grammar. They’ll soon learn that language is used to express culture; one cannot separate the two. Just try to explain greetings in French without faire la bise—impossible!
- They’re a fun way to teach diverse vocabulary. Icons can open the way to a whole range and variety of vocabulary—from the mundane (such as shopping) to the more exotic (art and fashion). Language is the most visible form of communication in a culture, of course, and teaching culture always improves vocabulary. To enhance your language teaching with culture, it’s useful to pick an icon and work around it in order to enhance the students’ grammar and four basic skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking.
- Icons are internationally recognized and thus easy to describe. Everyone has heard of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Most people have eaten a baguette and read about French fashion in magazines. Thus it will be relatively easy to ask students to describe these icons. The new aspect is the French vocabulary associated with each.
There are many iconic symbols associated with France, but here are seven to get you started.
7 Famous Icons for Teaching French Culture the Engaging Way
1. The Baguette
Everyone has heard of the baguette—it is one of the clichés of how we picture a Frenchman: a man wearing a beret, striped t-shirt and carrying a baguette under one arm. But the baguette is so much more. It can open the door to useful vocabulary and cultural aspects.
To introduce the topic, print out an image from the internet of a Frenchman holding a baguette and get the students to describe him. You can also ask the students to imagine what a typical Frenchman or woman looks like. This will get them to use the vocabulary of description, colors, etc. Another useful exercise is to get students to role-play being in a bakery and buying bread.
The French Learner site lists all the different varieties of bread that can be found in a boulangerie such as le pain de seigle (rye bread), le pain complet (granary bread), le pain au levain (sourdough bread), etc. Thus your students can learn about the baguette and the vocabulary associated with it.
Another post on the same site describes what French people eat for le petit déjeuner, another source of related vocab.
A fun way to help your students learn the vocabulary associated with the baguette is to get them to make a sandwich using the baguette. So give them a recipe and get them to follow instructions. They will thus review not only the vocabulary, but also the imperative.
You could also widen the range of vocabulary and culture by using Marie Ponterio’s excellent site on French Civilization.
Laura Lawless has a reading exercise on the baguette, which can also be used as a translation exercise if the students are instructed not to look at the translation. The vocabulary may be expanded to that of shops and businesses.
Tv5.org has a short video with transcription on the story of the baguette. Watch the video with your students, and then do the accompanying four exercises.
2. Chanel No.5
The perfume, Chanel no. 5, is a famous iconic symbol which has become synonymous with sexiness—especially since Marilyn Monroe stated it was the only thing she wore when going to bed. However, one of the ways to motivate your students (apart from giving them a bottle of Chanel no.5) is to show them the film “Coco Before Chanel” which is in French with English subtitles. This can be used as a listening and comprehension exercise, or even as a writing exercise (ask the students to summarize the story briefly).
If you don’t have time for a full-length film, this 3-minute video “The Story of Coco Chanel” is a perfect way to introduce your students to the legendary Coco Chanel.
A way to expand your students’ vocabulary is to have a lesson about makeup (probably not popular with boys) by going to French Learner’s audio lesson on French makeup vocabulary.
There is an innovative method called Le français à travers le parfum which helps students learn French by exploring the theme of perfume. Students must answer questions, do research, play games and thus learn French in a fun way.
If your students are advanced, ask them to describe their favorite perfume and do research on the perfume industry in Grasse. It’s also useful to have students role play that they’re buying a perfume.
3. The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower can be seen from anywhere in Paris. It stands tall as the symbol of Paris and hence France. Laura Lawless has a 3-minute video on the Eiffel Tower, which can be used for listening practice. It has the French transcription with the English translation just a click away.
Here is a really neat video called “The Eiffel Tower: Brought to You by Google,” in which Google Street View goes to the Eiffel Tower to take shots for Google Maps.
The site TICs en FLE has several videos on the Eiffel Tower with a quiz after them. It’s for the more advanced students though (B1 or B2), as it only has a French transcription and no English translation. It does provide a 27-page PDF file for you to download with a lot of information about the Eiffel Tower in French. This may be used as a basis for discussions or as a comprehension exercise.
4. The Beret
The beret is an iconic symbol of French fashion, and can be used to review or add to your students’ knowledge of French clothing vocabulary. Quizlet has a list of clothing with their pronunciations which may be useful for review. Likewise, Daily Motion has a slideshow with images and pronunciations.
A fun way to teach clothing vocab is to have students describe images of people wearing a beret. This way students can learn or review sentences such as “Il porte/Elle porte…,” “Il lui va bien/mal,” “Le beret est noir,” etc.
For more advanced students (B2), use Tv5.org’s site to show this video about the history of the beret. Their site Apprendre le français has the video with its transcription and four exercises that will allow students to practice their comprehension skills.
5. The Croissant
The croissant is another famous symbol of France, although it was not originally invented by the French. Teaching about the croissant gives you the opportunity to ask your students to compare breakfast in their country with breakfast in France.
This can lead to a conversation about cafés in France and the different types of coffee and how to order it in France. Here is a video showing how to order coffee and criossants, which you can use to show a real-life ordering process.
Tv5.org has several short videos with exercises to practice comprehension about food and meals. These are aimed at an A2 level and have a transcription in French which may be used as an exercise in translation. Another video on the story of the croissant talks about its origins, its recipes and the eating habits of the French.
Podcast Français Facile has a short dialogue with podcast (which may also be used for the baguette) that takes place in a bakery. This has a transcription plus exercises which can be printed out to test comprehension. Français Facile also has a photo with a podcast which can be used for comprehension and vocabulary review. It’s also a good idea to have a role play scenario where the students go to a bakery and buy a croissant.
A great way to motivate students is to introduce them to Jacques Prévert’s poem “Déjeuner du matin”. Give your students the poem, let them watch a short video, and then have them act it out.
6. The Fleur-de-lys
The fleur de Lys (also spelled fleur de lis) is a symbol of the French monarchy, the Ancien Régime. It can be used to teach the vocabulary of flowers in French. Students can describe colors, shapes, likes and dislikes. Your students can also do a role play where they visit a florist and describe what they want to buy, and also write a note for the person it’s meant for.
Bonjour de France has a lesson on idiomatic expressions with the word fleur. These idiomatic expressions are for the more advanced students. Tv5.org has a video on the theme of offrir et recevoir, which can be used for description purposes as well as for comprehension. It is accompanied by a downloadable worksheet and a transcription.
7. The Louvre and Its Pyramid
The Louvre is one of the biggest museums in the world and contains famous masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and the Victory of Samothrace. Its relatively new entrance, the Glass Pyramid, caused a lot of controversy at one stage.
So, how do you teach about the Louvre? Well, you can start by showing your students a short video clip on the Louvre and ask the students to summarize what they see.
The video clip “The Louvre for Dummies” is about the publication of a “for Dummies” book on the Louvre—which would be an interesting way to introduce the topic.
It’s also a great idea to visit the Louvre site and ask your students to describe one of the paintings or sculptures. This will improve their vocabulary and help with their writing skills. You can also give them a WebQuest and ask them to research the museum to organize a trip (find out what means of transportation to use, how much the tickets cost, which exhibitions are on, etc.)
The Louvre’s official site also has a section entitled “Le Louvre raconté aux enfants,” which has several videos on the Louvre and can be used for both beginners of French and children.
An excellent exercise for advanced students is to listen to this short podcast on RFI, which tests listening skills. This is followed by several exercises which test students’ understanding.
Using French icons to teach culture is a great recipe for language success—one that helps students improve their French skills while enjoying the experience.
So why not start cooking? Introduce these famous French icons—or others from French-speaking countries outside of France—into your lessons today!