Everybody can appreciate the importance of being able to speak a second language.
Whether you enjoy spending your holidays in France, or you want to make your career international, learning a language as widely-spoken as French can only be a good thing!
For British children who don’t grow up in a bilingual household, the first time they get an opportunity to learn a second language is usually at school. This is the reason why embracing such a fantastic opportunity while it is offered to them as part of the national curriculum is so important.
When it comes to the French language in particular, there are infinite ways in which being able to speak and write it to any level it can be rewarding.
“Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can; there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did” – Sarah Caldwell
This quotation about learning languages is particularly pertinent to taking advantage of the opportunity to learn how to speak French at school. With the expertise of the French teachers, an environment which is optimised for learning and plenty of classmates to help you practice your French speaking skills, you may come to regret wasting such an opportunity in the future.
But why is this learning experience such a big part of learning to speak a language? Are the same benefits not available at private learning centres? And why learn French?
Learning a second language at school has the potential to change a child’s life – so is it worth all of the grammar exercises, oral revision and vocab lists?
Superprof’s guide to learning French at school will tell you all you need to know about the beauty of the French language and why it is such a rewarding language to learn.
A Brief History of the French Language
Most people are able to identify the French language in both writing and speaking, and some can even pick out meaning from cognates (words with are similar in two languages, such as French and English), but where did French come from? And how has it changed over the centuries?
French is part of the family of romance languages.
Romance languages are also known as Latinate languages because they are derived from the version of Latin spoken by those who adopted Latin as their language in territories during the Roman conquest in 1BC. This variety of Latin is known as Vulgar Latin.
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Vulgar Latin was the product of the standard variety of Latin which was spoken in the area now known as Italy. As more and more territories were brought under Roman rule, the version of Latin which was spoken as the mother tongue of the Roman soldiers spread throughout the Empire.
Since Latin was spoken as a second language by the subjects of the Roman Empire, the version of the language spoken in various territories became heavily influenced by the languages and dialects which preceded it.
As various versions of Vulgar Latin developed individually, they quickly became distinct from one another and the standard Latin of Italy. The gap between Vulgar Latin and standard Latin eventually became so wide that the new varieties of the language were virtually unrecognisable as Latin, and so new languages were born.
In France, the result of the development of Vulgar Latin throughout the Hexagon was a number of new languages – each one belonging to a geographical region.
The ancestor to modern French was one of these.
Following the promotion of the language spoken in the Ile-de-France area as the language of France in the mid-16th century, the language of Molière gained prowess in the world of literature and the arts, and French was declared the official language of public administration in 1539 by Francis I.
Since this proclamation, standardising the French language has been an ongoing effort by the French government and language experts.
Standardising French has involved establishing an official grammar and spelling system for the language to be used for administrative purposes as well as for the media.
French is the official language of many other countries outside of Europe including Canada, Cameroon, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Haiti, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and the Ivory Coast.
The vastness of the territory on which French is spoken is due to France’s colonial past, but interestingly, the languages spoken alongside French in these countries are now influencing the language spoken in France.
These effects are most prevalent in the slang used by French speakers.
Here are a few examples of these slang words derived from Arabic (spoken in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia):
|Slang word||French Equivalent||Meaning|
It’s easy to see that the adopted Arabic words bear no resemblance to the French words they replace, which is what is so interesting about the language spoken in France today!
France’s past efforts to colonise Africa, and an Arabic-speaking part of Africa in particular, have not only has linguistic consequences on the languages spoken on colonised territory, but on its own language too.
The fascinating history of the French language is revealed in its modern lexicon.
The many conquests of France and its geographical position within Europe also make French a great language to learn if you’re interested in being able to communicate with people of various nationalities.
Learning French is a fantastic option for those who want to make the most of learning a new language and reap the rewards of their hard work.
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Why Learn French at School?
At the start of secondary school, learning languages is a compulsory part of the national curriculum. This means that everybody will have the opportunity to learn a modern foreign language during their time at secondary school – but how is the school environment useful for learning to speak French? Why can’t you just wait until you’re older to start taking your language learning seriously?
Languages are on the school curriculum for many good reasons – but what about learning the French language in particular?
Here are the top five reasons to choose to learn French at school:
1. Improve Your English
It’s no secret that the French and English languages have quite a lot in common – this makes picking up new vocabulary far easier.
If you’re ever stuck for a French word, taking a guess based on the English might not be a bad idea.
Did you know that learning a second language can improve your understanding of English?
As Geoffrey Willans said:
“You will never understand one language until you can understand at least two”
Getting your head around French grammar in particular can really help when it comes to understanding English grammar rules thanks to the fact that the two languages (while one is a romance language and the other is Germanic) are closely related.
So, when your English teacher starts talking about nouns, verbs and direct objects, you’ll know what’s going on.
Similarly, if you ever read or hear an unfamiliar word, being able to identify any of its French roots can help decode its meaning in English. For example, the English word ‘inevitable’ resembles the French verb ‘éviter’, which means ‘to avoid’. Pairing this with the negator ‘in’ then gives you the meaning of ‘inevitable’.
Our teacher led us through similar exercises in my French classes London!
2. Learn Useful Expressions and Vocab for Holidays
Breaking down the stereotype that Brits are lazy monolinguals by being able to communicate with our French neighbours can work wonders for your general confidence and make holidaying in France that bit easier.
Whether you utter a simple ‘merci’ on the ferry crossing to Calais, or you befriend a French student on your family camping holiday, putting your French into practice is useful and satisfying at any level.
For instance, being able to work out that a shop closes for lunch from the phrase ‘fermé entre 12h et 14h’ can save you the hassle of skiing back into resort to visit it during l’heure du déjeuner.
3. Take Part in a French Exchange Programme
A major part of language learning in school is the language exchanges that take place.
Language exchanges are week-long visits arranged by schools where pupils host French students of the same age to help them improve their English skills as well as doing the same in France to improve their French skills.
Taking part in a French exchange is not only a great way to learn more about the French education system, but also to connect with students of the same age. Although going to live with a stranger in a foreign country may seem to be a daunting prospect for teens, being thrown into the deep end is the best way to improve your language skills.
4. Make Francophone friends
Aside from the lifelong friends, you will make on French exchanges, learning French gives you the skills to be able to communicate with the 220 million French speakers that live in all corners of the world.
Befriending native French speakers is also a fantastic way to keep your language on-the-go through the Summer holidays or even beyond school, so you’ll never be without a French teacher!
5. Take Advantage of Your Youthful Brain
You’re probably familiar with the idea that language learning becomes more difficult with age.
Children and young people are like information sponges: they have an innate willingness to learn – and this is most noticeable in their ability to develop a level of fluency in a second language more quickly than adults.
Their advantage in language acquisition is not just to do with age, but also the environment.
While adults are preoccupied with work and other responsibilities which come before their language study, school pupils spend most days in an environment which is optimised for learning, making it easier to concentrate on taking in new information.
Choosing to study French at GCSE level is a great idea if you’re interested in an international career or you simply want to enjoy Francophone culture on a deeper level.
GCSE exams are all about being able to show that you can use the knowledge you have acquired at school to think critically in response to questions about various topics covered in class.
Most of these topics relate to some aspect of the lives of GCSE students. Depending on the year you sit your GCSEs, the specification may include topics such as identity, hobbies, family, global issues, Francophone culture, travel, future study and careers - so you will be able to use your new vocabulary to explain specific details of your life as a teenager.
In subjects such as maths, science and history, being examined only involves a question paper and an exam hall. Due to the nature of learning a language, French exams are divided into four disciplines: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
For this reason, having a GCSE language qualification on your CV can signify your adaptability and versatility as a person.
So, what can you expect in your GCSE French exams?
Using AQA GCSE French as an example, here is a brief breakdown of what GCSE French assessments involve:
- Listening: Students are given a question paper with questions relating to the dialogue on a CD played in the examination venue. The first questions are typically multiple-choice and based on short extracts which get longer throughout the paper. Further on, students much write their own answers rather than choose from a list. Some answers are to be given in English and other in French according to the language of the question.
- Speaking: GCSE French speaking exams are led and recorded by your French teacher. Students are given a photocard featuring a picture relating to a topic covered in class with three questions relating to the image to which the student must prepare answers. After these questions have been asked, the teacher will ask two further questions which are to be answered spontaneously. The photocard exercise is followed by a general conversation lasting 5-7 minutes, where the teacher and student are to discuss the theme of the photocard and one other topic on the syllabus. The whole test lasts 12 minutes (in addition to 12 minutes of preparation time).
- Reading: The reading paper is about demonstrating reading comprehension. Students are presented with extracts of texts followed by questions on each text. The questions at the beginning of the paper are either multiple choice or ask for numerical data given in a text. Towards the middle section, pupils are asked to provide written answers in English before being asked to compare written accounts at the end of the paper.
- Writing: Contrary to the reading paper, on the written paper, all questions much be answered in French. Each section of the writing paper is to be answered as a short essay – this is to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their vocabulary and grammar skills. For each section, students can choose to answer one of two questions. The paper also involves some translation into French to let students exercise their vocabulary skills and showcase their understanding of French tenses.
The format of examination for French might seem daunting but being examined in four areas of your language skills is representative of the importance of language in our everyday lives.
A-Level French is about building on your knowledge from GCSE French to take your fluency and love for the French language to the next level as you aim to reach a high level of proficiency in your spoken and written skills.
Choosing to study any subject at A-Level is a big decision which requires a lot of thought, however, languages are by far the most useful subjects to study at A-Level when it comes to using your skill in the real world.
By the end of your study of A-Level French, you should be able to confidently have a conversation with a native French speaker with only minor difficulties in using complex grammatical structures and vocabulary.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela
Being able to speak any foreign language to a good level will not only make you highly employable, but it will also give you access to Francophone culture.
Learning about French-speaking culture as a non-native speaker will only enrich your experience. Learning a second language is not just about being able to communicate with others, it’s about getting to know the characteristics of the language itself and appreciating the culture associated with it first-hand so that details cannot be lost in translation.
So, how do AS and A-Level French courses differ from typical GCSE specifications?
Like the themes used for GCSE students, subjects which interest sixth-form and college students which relate to Francophone culture have been selected as course topics in order to motivate them in their learning.
In the AQA A-Level exam specification, these include social change, the evolution of technology, volunteering, immigration, social justice, crime, cultural heritage, tourism, modern French music, cinema and politics.
One major aspect of the A-Level French exams which differentiates it from GCSE French is the inclusion of a research project.
The aim of the French research project is to get students to develop their research and analysis skills as they find a range of sources to use for their projects. The choice of topic may be down to the student or the teacher depending on the way the French course is taught in each school – some schools will select topics for students, whereas others will allow students to choose their own research topic.
Research topics can be on a specific French region, a particular historical event, or another subject relating to one of the themes taught on the course.
Projects are assessed as part of the French speaking exam, where students are asked to prepare a presentation of their project followed by a discussion of a topic with an external examiner.
Studying French at A-Level is a challenge – but it is incredibly rewarding!
Learning about Francophone culture in-depth will present you with plenty of useful vocabulary to use when discussing these topics with native French speakers as well as an awareness of the history behind the culture.
The Best French Revision Guides for Studying French
Lessons turning into revision sessions and better weather can only mean one thing – summer exams!
When it comes to sitting French exams, revising on your own may feel risky.
Where’s the teacher to correct your mistakes? What if you write something down incorrectly then end up learning it by heart?
For studying at home when you haven’t got a French teacher to help you, French revision textbooks are a brilliant resource which will allow you to get a good amount of practice that is relevant to your exams.
So, which French revision guides are the most popular amongst young people learning French at GCSE, AS and A-Level?
- CGP GCSE AQA French (9-1): CGP textbooks are regarded as the holy grail of GCSE revision guides. They include anything and everything you need to know to achieve exam success. The particular revision guide contains every topic which is covered in the GCSE syllabus, giving students key phrases and grammatical structures relating to each topic.
- AQA AS & Year 1 and A-Level & Year 2 French Student Book: These textbooks accompany the course itself, and as a publication by the exam board, it is indispensable in your work towards good grades.
Of course, studying a language is about practising your reading skills and expanding your vocabulary, but don’t forget to get plenty of speaking practice, too!
Why not arrange to meet your classmates outside of class to practice your speaking skills? Or join a French language club?
Whatever your interest in the French language and Francophone culture, getting hold of revision resources which suit your individual learning style is essential to your success not only in GCSE and A-Level exams but also in your life as a non-native speaker of French.