Foreign Language Education in America and France
By Chebon Ryan
For my research, I compared two high schools, Classen School of Advanced Studies in
Oklahoma City, and Lycée Boucher de Perthes in Abbeville, France. During my two-week stay
in France, I attended classes at Boucher de Perthes, the local high school in Abbeville. The main
focuses of my research project were differences and similarities between French schools and
American schools, different teaching styles and their effectiveness, and also students’ response
and attitude to foreign language. Through my observations of several different language classes,
I was able to gather plenty of useful information for my project.
The reason I chose to research and write about foreign languages is because of my own
experience as a French student. I began taking French back in sixth grade, and now five years
later, both my knowledge of French and my eagerness to learn more have grown. As a foreign
language student, I began to wonder how students were able to learn a completely new language
that they have never spoken before. I also thought about how children from other countries
learned different foreign languages. All of these questions culminated in the research project that
I decided to write about.
The French Lycée vs. the American High School
The French school system is very different from the system that exists in the United
States. The first major difference is in the way grades are arranged. In America, high school
consists of grades nine through twelve. In France, the lycée contains students from only grades
ten through twelve. Grades ten, eleven, and twelve are known in French as seconde, première,
and terminale, respectively. A key characteristic of the French lycée that does not exist in
American high schools is the division of students according to their Série. A student’s Série,
similar to a major or track, determines what sort of classes a student must take and what subjects
will be more important for a student’s academic career. Some tracks prepare students for jobs
and provide vocational training rather than academic study. The three most popular choices for a
student are litteraire, scientifique, and économique et social. Litteraire focuses on literature,
scientifique on science and math, and économique et social on social studies.
In France, students of the lycée are required to take an end-of-instruction exam known as
the baccalauréat in order to gain admission into college, if they wish to attend. Students are
required to test in ten subject areas, including French, History, Philosophy, Math, Foreign
Language, etc. Depending on your série, different scores are weighted differently. For example, a
student of série scientifique would have their scores more heavily weighted in Biology and
Physics than their scores in History. Likewise, someone in litteraire would be heavily scored on
Perhaps the most important difference between French lycées and American high schools
is their foreign language requirements. In Oklahoma, a high school student is required to take a
minimum of two years of any foreign language. In France, it is a very different case. French
students are required to take English throughout middle school and high school. French students
begin English classes in the sixth grade, sometimes even earlier. On top of mandatory English
classes for all students, beginning in the eighth grade students usually must take a second
required foreign language. Some students go as far as taking three foreign languages. Compared
to students in Oklahoma who usually take a maximum of one foreign language, French students
easily surpass Americans because of their requirement of two foreign languages.
At the Lycée Boucher de Perthes, to account for the much more rigorous language
program that exists in France, there are twenty-three foreign language teachers. Compared to
Classen, which only has a total of eight foreign language teachers, Boucher de Perthes is much
better equipped in terms of faculty to cater to the needs of the entire student body. This is
necessary because all students at the lycée are required to take foreign languages, while in a
regular high school in America it is not mandatory for all students to take a foreign language all
at the same time. Classen and Boucher de Perthes do share similarities however in the foreign
languages offered to students. They both include Spanish, German, and Latin. Boucher de
Perthes does offer Italian, however, which Classen does not have. Like at Classen, Spanish is the
most popular language at Boucher de Perthes with the most classes (excluding English).
Classroom environment and Teacher role
The classroom itself is very important and must provide for a good learning environment
for students. A big difference between American high schools and French lycées is their
arrangement of classrooms. In America, for the most part teachers each have their own room
where they teach. In France, teachers and students alike move from classroom to classroom; no
teacher has a permanent room for themselves. Indeed, French teachers will usually wind up
going to the same set of rooms, but the fact that teachers do not have a permanent place is a huge
difference and surprise to Americans. In the French classrooms that I visited, posters of different
English-speaking countries, such as the United States, England, and Ireland, were hung up all
around the walls.
The differences between teaching styles of French teachers and American teachers are
very apparent. At Classen, foreign languages, for example French and German, are very
grammar-based. Conjugations for verbs are one of the first things that are ingrained into a
student’s memory, usually during one’s first year of study. Oklahoma schools place a heavy
emphasis on learning and memorizing parts of speech and verb endings. French teachings are
very contrary to American teachings. The French method is based on immersion and reading
analysis. Students are not imbibed with constant memorization of grammar points; instead, the
students build their grammar knowledge from examining various texts, be it from reading
newspaper articles to watching American films. Teachers do not teach verb conjugation in blocks
to be memorized. Rather, they expect students to gradually learn key grammar points through
reading and looking at different written articles. One of the English teachers at Boucher de
Perthes even said that French teachers are discouraged by the French government from focusing
on grammar too much; they prefer that students learn to comprehend better.
Another major difference is the actual amount of foreign language that is spoken during
class time. At Classen, in French for example, French is only spoken for about thirty to forty
percent of the time. At Boucher de Perthes, English is spoken in an English class for about
seventy to eighty percent of the time. One reason that English classes at the lycée spend more
time speaking in English is because of the fact that students have been taking English classes
consistently since the sixth grade. Teachers believe in immersing the students in English
speaking in order to increase their exposure to the language, thereby allowing them to better
improve comprehension and listening skills. French students have very good comprehension
skills when it comes to understanding the teacher or listening to audio of English. However,
when it comes to speaking, French students and American students share the same shyness of
speaking in a foreign language.
French students and American students are taught with very different objectives in mind.
Most of the time French students are focused on analyzing articles and interpreting information.
This is because of their baccalauréat test, which requires them to be able to discuss a picture or to
draw information from an article and summarize. American students’ aims are more focused on a
comprehension of the language itself and how its grammar functions. Although American
students are also expected to be able to analyze articles or write essays, they are not as focused
solely on what French students are expected to do.
Teachers in Abbeville and teachers in Oklahoma City use very differing styles of
teaching also. At Classen, where the focus of learning foreign language is grammar, many songs
and mnemonics are taught so that students are able to memorize things more easily. For example,
French teachers use the word “bags” to remind students what sort of adjectives are found before
a noun. When I asked the English teacher if such a thing was used to remember things about
English grammar, she said that little to nothing like that existed; they do not use any sort of
memory devices in order to help students remember grammar rules.
Another aspect of French foreign language education to consider is the material that is
taught. Unlike at Classen, French students learn great amounts about culture and history. They
learn not only about the United States, but also about Great Britain and even Australia. Their
curriculum and textbooks focus a great deal on society and history of these English-speaking
countries. This is because French students are taught English with the baccalauréat in mind; they
must be able to go beyond just the language itself to its actual usage and understanding.
At the Lycée Boucher de Perthes, there is a class offered to students called Section
Européenne Anglais, or English European Section. Not all students take this class; it is an extra
class that a student can take and another test that must be taken in the twelfth grade. This class is
taught completely in English and covers a wide range of topics included in the history of
English-speaking countries, such as civil rights in America, urbanization in England, Indian
independence, and many others. Unlike a regular English class, there is no grammar instruction
involved whatsoever; students are expected to be able to follow along in the lecture and
understand the material. The purpose of this class is to teach students about different aspects of
history, geography, and culture and to prepare them for the oral européen, an oral exam based
off of the European Section class. This test asks readers to discuss a topic that has been covered
by the teacher in class.
During a class that I observed, the teacher was discussing the history of slavery and its
role in the development in the United States, all in English. Although it was an English class, the
subject of this particular lesson was very focused on the history of slavery. The discussion was
structured around a set of vocabulary words from the textbook and allowed the students to better
express their ideas about the topic of slavery using these key words.
In France, a large portion of a student’s grade comes from participation during the class
period. I noticed that students were given marks according to how much they contributed to the
lecture of the day. Some students were more willing to speak aloud in English than others, just
like American students. In one instance, a student was asked on the spot to discuss an article that
the class had been looking at in a previous class period. The student was graded on how long he
spoke, his knowledge of the topic, and his overall grammar. Grades in France are given as points
out of twenty. Receiving a twelve out of twenty is considered a decent grade. Anywhere between
sixteen and twenty is seen as very difficult to achieve and extremely good work. This is different
from the American letter grade system. Tests are another large part of a student’s grade in France.
Tests are not as frequent in France as they are in the United States, but when they are given, it is
very important to students to do well on them.
Homework is usually given in France. However, homework is looked at very differently
by French students. In America, homework is a required part of the class and is counted for a
grade. In France, the purpose of homework is to allow students to practice a certain concept. It is
up to the students to do the homework, as it is for their own benefit that they grasp the concept.
Homework is not given a grade, yet students do it because they want to learn the concept and do
well in the class.
Students’ attitudes to foreign language
In my survey, I asked American and French students for their opinion about learning a
foreign language. In both cases, most of the students said that they enjoyed learning a foreign
language, even though they were required to take it. Students at Classen usually have an average
of three to four hours of foreign language a week. At Boucher de Perthes, the minimum is two
hours of English, and some students take up to six and a half hours of English each week. I asked
students if they felt that they had enough foreign language instruction in terms of hours per week.
At Classen, students’ answers were divided. Some thought that the time was enough, even too
much in some responses. The others believed that more time was needed in order to truly gain
progress. Looking at French responses, it was clear that the students believed that they did not
have enough time at all to learn what they wanted to. Even students who took up to six hours a
week thought that they were in need of even more English class in order to further improve their
English skills.
French students believed that English would be an important asset later on in life. Many
of them noted that English is a universal language in the current world we live in. They said that
English is important to learn because everyone speaks English; it is a common language for
people to speak in Europe. They believe that it will be important later on as they look for jobs
because English is the most common language for businesses and companies to use. On the other
hand, American students felt that a foreign language would be more useful in travel and
recreation; they felt that it wasn’t that important to learn a foreign language because so many
people in other countries already learned English.
At Lycée Boucher de Perthes, several exchange programs exist. During the time of my
stay, the school was also hosting a group of Spanish students who were also doing an exchange.
The school’s German department also has an exchange set up with a high school in Dortmund,
Germany. One day after my return to America, a group of students travelled to Great Britain for
a week-long stay. All of these established exchanges at this school show how international and
globally aware it is. Also, a large number of students from several schools in the Picardie region
of France applied for a spot on the Franco-American Fellowship Program, showing their great
enthusiasm for an opportunity to travel to America and learn about American culture and history.
In addition, French students are more interested in learning about American culture than
Americans are about learning French. French teenagers are exposed to American films, music,
and literature a lot more than American students experience French culture, therefore French
students have another opportunity to practice understanding English.
I personally believe that it is important for everyone to attempt to learn a foreign
language because of the rapid globalization that is occurring. These days, with news, internet,
and other media linking the world together like never before, it is more important than ever to be
able to communicate with different people from all around the world. Through this research
project, I have learned so much about different systems of education and how well they work to
better prepare students for a growing global culture.