Accent on the family

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
Mum, dad and the kids can enjoy French classes together, finds Reva Klein, on an award-winning project in Birmingham

Lynn asks Nicola to explain the French menu to her. "Well, poisson is fish and fromage is cheese, and faux filet is a kind of steak," says Nicola, translating effortlessly. She's glad to help and to show her knowledge - another typical French lesson where pupils help each other.

Except that Lynn Fantom is no child. In fact, Lynn is 15-year-old Nicola's mother. Together with her husband and their younger daughter, 11-year-old Zoe, they are all learning French together at an after-school class run by a further education college in Birmingham. It's proof, if proof were needed, that a family that learns together learns very well indeed, particularly when they're learning French in lessons that are fun and informal.

The Department of Trade and Industry thinks so highly of the classes, run by Bourneville College, that in July the institution was recognised in the National Languages for Export Awards.

Since 1993, the college's Family French programme has been teaching children aged five to 15 and their parents. Originally, four families were involved, by the end of last term, there were a dozen. The thinking behind the programme, according to Bourneville College's assistant principal Cynthia Deeson, is two-fold: "For the children, to give them a head start and greater confidence for when they begin French at secondary school. For mums and dads, it offers a chance to refresh school French or gain an introduction to the language." The course has even led to some parents getting formal qualifications in French.

Teaching methods draw on a range of activities culled from good primary language teaching practice. Abdellatif Erraoui, as ebullient a teacher as you could wish for, presents an hour and a half of total interactivity. It may be the end of a long school day, but the enthusiastic Morrocan-born Frenchman has a knack for getting parents and children around a table and singing songs, acting out role plays, repeating phrases and chatting about French culture for an hour and a half every week - and he gets them to do homework, too.

The Fantoms started attending the class in preparation for a holiday to France. "I wanted to know a bit of French and I liked the idea of all of us going together. I wouldn't have done it on my own," says Lynn, a childminder by day and office temp in the evenings. The after-school slot suits her schedule.

The French lessons didn't prevent them getting lost in France, but they enabled Nicola to ask the way and eventually find the road they were looking for. It's also helped her French at school. "My accent's improved a lot and I've been put in the top set since coming to the class."

Lorraine Price and her nine-year-old son Martyn also enjoy their lessons: "We have a laugh at each other," says Lorraine. Although she describes her son as a "fidgeter," he stuck at it all last year and is still enthusiastic. "I want to learn French so that when I start secondary, I'll have experience of it," he says.

For Lorraine, the informality of the classes is a big advantage: "We learn to speak as the French do, in real life. In a classroom environment, you don't learn to run words together. But here, we're learning by listening and then mimicking conversation. It's given me the confidence to use the French I have."

The 25 children and 18 parents attend classes after-hours at a local secondary school - Four Dwellings High. The learners evaluate the session each week. Zoe Fantom summed up her befuddlement after one class when she wrote: "I feel dizzy with all the different French words floating around my head!" Abdellatif Erraoui acts upon the evaluations and accelerates or slows down as appropriate. But one thing he will not compromise is the environment of total immersion in the language. From the moment they walk into the classroom until the minute they leave, only French is spoken.

Proof of the success of Family French is evident in the children's grades at school. One boy who attended the class with his father had been scraping by at school in all subjects.Within six months, he had been transformed, gaining confidence in all his subjects, particularly French. Was it because he was spending more time with his dad or because of the French instruction? It's likely to be a combination of both. Another girl who had been attending the class for several years took her French GCSE aged 13 and achieved a B grade last year.

But it's not just the improved French grades that keep families coming, year in year out. It's clearly an enjoyable way for families to spend time together, learning and helping each other - particularly when the kids have the upper hand over their parents. As Lynn Fantom puts it, "Nicola's our tutor. She just loves us asking her: 'What does this mean?'"

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