Mind your language

A week-long training course run by Le Francais en Ecosse in the Dordogne offers primary teachers much more than a chance to polish their language skills - it provides them with total immersion into the French way of life

THERE ARE so many CPD opportunities for teachers that it is difficult to know what to choose from. What will be of most value to your classroom or school, and, of course, what will develop you personally as well as professionally?

As a French-speaking primary teacher in West Dunbartonshire, I opted this year to participate in a week's training course in Salignac, near Sarlat, deep in the Dordogne. The aim of the course, run by Le Francais en Ecosse, was to improve and update primary teachers' French language skills, to develop cultural awareness of contemporary France and to provide participants with materials and ideas for teaching primary French.

About 20 teachers from Scotland, Northern Ireland and England - all funded by the British Council - undertook morning and afternoon language sessions, cultural excursions and social activities in the medium of French.

Richard Tallaron, director of the Le Francais en Ecosse, which is based in Edinburgh, was the course tutor. He recommends the course "for teachers who are apprehensive about speaking French, even though they may teach it at primary level". He says: "After a week of total immersion they come out smiling and much more confident about speaking the language and being understood."

Over five full days, the lessons consisted of a rich variety of spelling games, guessing games, fun maths activities, outdoor games, research and reference skills, and, of course, a focus on grammar and pronunciation delivered at two levels, for the more and less advanced speakers. There was also the opportunity to exchange ideas for use in the classroom.

But it was not simply the immersion in language that made the course so valuable - it was also the appreciation of French culture. Deep in the Dordogne, far from other earthly distractions, it was impossible not to be impressed by the medieval town of Sarlat with its fairy-tale rooftops and beautifully lit town square. Their reverence towards the goose and duck was evident in statues, plaques and in the foie gras on sale in shops and restaurants everywhere.

Rocamadour, another excursion, was a little medieval town with seven churches built into a limestone rock, the most sacred being the chapel of Notre Dame. This town was named after its "love of rock" ("roc amour") and it is easy to see why. A beautiful, white chalk-rich rock which was easy to carve, it has been used through the centuries for building and sculpting.

The little town below the rock, with its winding streets full of shops and cafes, was originally developed as a town for pilgrims to visit in the Middle Ages. The monks were renowned for their herbal remedies concocted from the abundant species of plants and shrubs that still grow in the surrounding hilltops.

Rock was also important to prehistoric man of the cro-magnon period. Living 40,000 years BC, they were perhaps not so primitive - as our visit to the Cave at Lascaux proved. This excursion was a lesson to us all on just how sophisticated, intelligent and talented our forebears of southern Europe were.

Our early-modern ancestors were true masters of the arts. More than 1,000 paintings covered the walls of the dry, partially-lit cave (a replica, as the real cave is only open for archaeological and research purposes) and we were immersed in an ancient art form that provides both mystery and clarity.

The clarity of the drawings was remarkable: the graceful, refined images of horses appearing through mist; the strong, forceful bulls; and the distinguished deer, with beautifully detailed antlers. These paintings indicate a calm and civilised man, with an eye for beauty and a talent beyond belief.

If the cultural excursions were inspiring, the food was even better. Our breakfasts were light and continental, and our lunches long and leisurely - including selected cheeses and gateaux of the local region. Our dinners were equally appetising and as we tried out each new dish we heard about the cook's specially prepared recipes (all in French, of course).

And what is CPD all about, if not to relax and make friends? Each day after lessons we lounged about and shared aperitifs by the swimming pool.

We swapped stories of life teaching "chez nous". The Irish participants had all heard about the much-esteemed Scottish education system, particularly A Curriculum for Excellence, and were in awe of its emphasis on creativity and education for work skills. The English were beginning to be trained in formative assessment strategies and had heard about Assessment is for Learning. They were all impressed by the teaching and learning styles encouraged by the team from Le Francais en Ecosse, as well as the Scottish emphasis on teaching primary pupils to speak French and other foreign languages at an early age.

So, in one short week, we learned an amazing amount. We gained confidence in speaking French, were exposed to a wide range of activities that would help our pupils to listen, talk, read and write French, and were inspired by the French way of life and their love of cuisine. We learned to laugh at ourselves as we made mistakes, and to be open to new ideas and the wealth of teaching resources that are available on the internet.

As I left the Dordogne to head south towards Montpellier, I was rewarded with the most spectacular view of 21st-century man's engineering feat - the 4km-high Millau bridge with its stupendously high pillars and its suspension cables spanning like rays from angels' wings, less than 100 miles from the cave paintings of Lascaux.

This 35-hour CPD course has not only confirmed my ability to speak French fluently and with greater confidence in the classroom, but also reinforced a sense of wonder at the creative genius of man as an artist, scientist, cook, engineer and linguist.

This was not simply a French immersion course, but a course for life.

Le Francais en Ecosse, lwww.lfee.net

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