Now that we Europeans want to do more abroad than ask for a baguette, tune in to French TV, suggests Valerie Falconer, and pick up the language of life
Before the 1960s, teaching modern languages (ie, at that time, French) was relatively easy. You had only to teach the grammar, the vocabulary, and perhaps a little pronunciation, and that was that. It wasn't as if any of the pupils were ever likely to actually use the language abroad, as another world war seemed unlikely. In the 1960s, we were mesmerised by the advent of language labs (often merely an antiquated reel-to-reel tape-recorder and an even more ancient slide projector), which shifted the emphasis away from books; now, pupils could repeat set phrases with a reasonably good French accent, but were thus forced to do whatever it was the person on the tape wanted to do rather than what they wanted to do.
Thankfully, a balance has been achieved so that pupils might have some chance not only of understanding the structure of the language and thus of being able to generate their own sentences, but also of learning how to make it sound right.
But it is often easy to concentrate on the language structure and the sounds, and to forget something that is really very important, especially if your students are going to be using the language abroad. Until recently, all anyone ever wanted to do abroad was to ask directions to the bus station, ask for croissants (hopefully in a baker's), and complain about the hotel room.
These days people are far more sophisticated and open to the idea of engaging fellow Europeans in conversation in their own language. In the old days, we were warned about the use of "tu" and "vous", often to the extent of inducing extreme Francophobia (how many of us were warned that, should we misuse "tu" in addressing a gendarme, he would undoubtedly throw us into jail before we had even had the chance to finish the sentence ?).
But there are some social pitfalls in communicating better when we are abroad. I do try to make my students aware of the significance in Europe of the number of kisses performed when meeting friends. It isn't so daunting - it varies by region, and often the French get caught out themselves. To try to explain this complex social coding would take up more time than a whole lesson, but whether teaching adults, as I now do, or children, I think trying to involve as many conversational elements as possible is important.
Of course, we need lessons in grammar and vocabulary and punctuation as much as ever, but if one of my pupils wants to hold a conversation with a European person, he or she will need to know what's going on in France at the moment, and perhaps a little history too, as well as about as much as we can digest about French food and drink, sport, pop music, television, films, and even poetry. Diplomatic relationships between countries should perhaps be avoided.
It would be hard to ignore such things if we want to have everyday conversations. The French, pupils need to discover, rely on weather as a topic rather less often than we do in Britain.
Some years ago, I had a satellite dish installed to receive the French terrestrial channels (originally for me, not for my students), which did not cost too much. As well as French programmes for myself, there is also a stream of good French films for my husband, cartoons for the children and sport if you want it (there's even occasionally some stuff in English, subtitled in French, for those who aren't too comfortable with the French language).
So now I can video extracts from French television and my classes can discuss them. In particular, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in French is popular with my students. Not only do they get to learn about French history and what's popular at the moment, but they can try the lower-prize money questions that are so easy for the British in their version, but terribly difficult in French because they mainly consist of colloquialisms and phrases in everyday use. Just the sort of thing you need to learn to take part in a conversation in another language.
Valerie Falconer is modern languages tutor, Penarth Adult Education Centre, South Glamorgan