Music to youthful ears

14th November 1997, 12:00am


Music to youthful ears
The noisiest place in France is a primary school and the noisiest primary school is probably the one where I teach English to 10 and 11-year-olds. The decibels must reach record-breaking levels as the children stream in from the playground after lunch, and dozens of little faces push up towards me for a bise - a kiss.

"Hello Philippa. Hello ma$#238tresse," they shriek with a gusto they probably get from their three-course school meal. "Hello, how are you?" they ask with a great, breathy effort of aitches - and for the next 45 minutes their astonishing vocal force will be harnessed into the breathiness of English.

English has been part of the curriculum in France's primary schools since 1992. L'enseignement d'initiation aux langues #233trang#232res (EILE) was piloted in the Auvergne, in central France, in 1989. Now, all CM2 classes (cours moyen, equivalent to the final primary year) have an hour-and-a-half of English per week.

Additionally, from this term all CE1, CE2 and CM1 classes (cours elementaire and moyen, for eight, nine and some 10-year-olds) will also be "initiated" into English. There will be daily 15-minute sessions to introduce children to English civilization. BBC videos and cassettes will be used for listening comprehension and first attempts at speaking English.

I have three groups of 12 children with whom I spend two 45-minute sessions a week in a village school near Clermont-Ferrand in the Massif Central. It goes without saying that these small classes are a great luxury. Last year classes numbered 24, but the local commune (parish) is wealthy and the council offered money for an extra English teacher to cut class sizes. I am paid l50 francs (#163;16) an hour, plus travelling expenses.

EILE teachers can be either "outsiders" and native speakers, like myself, or specially trained primary teachers, who spend half their working day teaching English in their own and neighbouring schools.

Being a native speaker fits in well with French government guidelines on EILE. "Il est int#233ressant d'exploiter la souplesse de l'oreille du jeune enfant" ("It is important to use the flexibility of a youthful ear"), explains a ministry of education bulletin on the development of langues vivantes - living languages - this year. This "suppleness" cannot be overestimated: I would guess that 90 per cent of the children whom I have taught can almost perfectly reproduce what they hear me say.

Research has found that children under the age of 10 have a marked ability to finely distinguish phonemes. The first aim of EILE is to exploit this ability by using authentic situations, such as oral practice,and a direct link with everyday life. A long-term objective is to create a system whereby all French children will be able to learn a foreign language in a manner which will eventually change the way languages are taught at secondary level.

I see my basic usefulness as being able to teach the children near-perfect pronunciation and intonation in the nine months we are together. The children are also fascinated by my "Englishness" - "Etes-vous une vraie Anglaise?" ("Are you a real English-woman?") they want to know. I certainly am - phrases such as "See you later alligatorIn a while crocodile" are not mentioned in the official curriculum. Nor is "Hello-ello-ello".

Being a "real Englishwoman" also means that the children can ask me about life in Britain. These discussions are in French - some of the children are gifted mimics and when they imitate my own accent I point out that I wasn't lucky enough to learn French at the age of 10.

There is no doubt that the children love their English sessions. "Ils adorent l'anglais. Pour eux c'est un plaisir" ("They adore English. For them it's a real pleasure"), explained the school's headmaster when I started two years ago.

When you consider the rigours of the French primary system (children are expected to be able to read by the age of five), you can see why English provides a welcome break and I try to make our lessons as enjoyable as possible.

We play bingo (with prizes), all sorts of games, perform short sketches, learn lots of songs and do plenty of "cut and paste" and colouring-in - all the while endlessly repeating and perfecting their pronunciation. When it comes to learning English, French 10-year-olds seem to have the same capacity as a two-year-old for endless repetition without getting bored.

Everything is oral. English spelling throws them into confusion and they want to pronounce words the French way. The one exception is the alphabetical list we make at the beginning of the year of English and French words that have the same spelling and meaning. We make the list together: alpha-bet, bouquet, continent, decoration, elephant, France, and so on.

They are astonished at how much English they already know, but in any case they come ready equipped with their own weird Eurolanguage mumbo-jumbo that adorns their sweatshirts and pencil cases. "C'est de l'anglais?" they ask anxiously, pointing at a logo stating: "World Wide Party for Heads Top Kids".

French children are also exposed to English in a way that their counterparts in the UK will never experience a foreign language in their own country. During the course of the year, my pupils memorise a great deal of English. By Christmas they will be able to introduce and talk about themselves, say where they live, and be able to tell the time, the date, describe the weather and know the main countries of the world and the languages spoken there. By Easter they will have learned to say, for example, what they do and don't enjoy doing, and to find out information about their classmates and their families.

Last year I asked my English nephew and niece, aged 11 and nine respectively, if they studied French at school. "Yes, but we don't speak it," they replied with distaste. In the summer they visited me in Clermont-Ferrand and came into school one afternoon to help me take a class. The experience was a runaway success.

It took just 45 minutes for them to drop their shyness and realise they could speak, and even convincing ly sound, French. If only such a transforming experience could be made available in English primary schools.

Philippa Danks is a journalist and English language teacher. She lives and works in Cambridge, England, and in Aubire in the Massif Central, France

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