How an appreciation for culture aids language learning

One former modern languages assistant for the British Council talks about his passion for teaching and how he's bringing French to life in his classroom

François Piecuch

Sponsored article image

Languages have played a significant role in my life and my experience with languages – at home and abroad – have shaped me into the person that I am today. As a French national living abroad, I’m passionate about sharing my language and culture. I'm currently a trainee modern foreign languages (MFL) teacher in the North East of England; a region that I have lived in for four-and-a-half years.

My former teachers have inspired me to travel the world, learn new languages and meet new people, so before going to university, I went to Australia to study English in an international school for a year. I was immediately struck by how different the approach to teaching languages was in comparison with how I'd previously been taught. Instead of the sole focus being on grammar, my teachers from Down Under taught English through use of cultural references, which was an effective tool for encouraging interest and curiosity for the language. Learning in this way opened up a new world of literature, art and popular culture to explore, providing meaning behind the grammar.

My Aussie experience fuelled my enthusiasm to share my passion for languages and encourage others to be more curious about the world, and to learn about its many different cultures and appreciate diversity. This way of teaching continued to inspire me many years later when I started as a modern language assistant (MLA) in County Durham.

When I first started, I noted that pupils were eager to ask questions about stereotypes and cultural differences. And, with this in mind, I aimed to expand on the brief insight into French culture that's included in the pupils’ course book in order to bring it to life. I decided to bring France to the pupils by organising French food dégustations, introducing current issues to debate with key stage 5 students, and discussing cultural differences between France and England.

I also aimed to use my "Frenchness" in conversation classes, not by dressing like mime artist Marcel Marceau and bringing baguettes to school everyday, but simply by using French body language (famous shoulder roll), sentence fillers (alors, quoi), expressing my love for the cuisine and explaining the oddities of what French people tend to do or like.

In order to bring languages to life, I started to look for, and share with my colleagues, funny videos, authentic texts, music and others documents that could bring French culture and some of its stereotypes into the classroom to get a "What?", a "Woah" or a laugh from the students. I always try to find materials that are related to what MFL teachers want to teach during their lessons as I believe that finding authentic and relevant material can serve as a hook to the students’ interest and hopefully make them smile. If some pupils aren't fully engaged, but realise their classmates are laughing or smirking, they might start to wonder what the fuss is all about and get involved.

Here are my five top tips for engaging, fun and effective language learning for pupils:

  1. Play your cultural card. Native or not, you need to use the differences between the UK and the countries where the language is spoken. Using current and authentic materials can spark pupils’ interest.
  2. Use your experience abroad, during your university days or from your holidays to bring cultural knowledge to the classroom. If you were an MLA abroad, maybe you learned typical classroom games from that country that you can bring to the English classroom. Or if you studied abroad, maybe the places you lived and visited have interesting traditions and festivals that you can share with the students.
  3. Create your own materials. Students will enjoy something you have made and that is tailored to their interests. It is a good way to foster their engagement.
  4. Encourage pupils to create their own materials. Ask pupils to do some research for homework and prepare presentations about different aspects of the country’s culture. I recently asked my pupils to create and deliver a small presentation about a French holiday or festival and I was thrilled to see what they came back to the lesson with: posters, dioramas, cakes and other creative items.
  5. Encourage pupils to put on their "second language hat" and to use the language in your lessons. This can be achieved by establishing the target language as the only means of communication in your classroom. Visuals in the classroom, but also props (a stuffed animal with a key phrase of the day attached on its back, eg, "je voudrais") and gestures, are important and they will help pupils to interact in the target language.

I have been fortunate in that the Language Teacher Training Scholarship has provided me with a community of scholars who help each other and share materials and ideas. I have also received support with webinars and invitations to conferences and workshops I might not otherwise have known about or been involved in.

Most importantly, the scholarship fund has allowed me to pursue my objective of being a teacher, by ensuring financial stability during a stressful year, allowing me focus on my training, my teaching practice and my lesson planning. And I’ve seen the difference in the classes I teach. After all, there’s no better feeling than when you see your students grow in confidence and become a little "French"

François Piecuch is a French teacher in Dame Allan’s Schools in Newcastle upon Tyne and a national modern languages student on the Language Teacher Training Scholarship scheme

Many languages assistants go on to be the language teachers of the future. If you would like someone like this in your classroom, find out more on hosting a language assistant. To read more about the Language Teacher Training Scholarships click here

François Piecuch

Latest stories