Studying in French

Foreign children in French schools

For most children, particularly those under ten, studying in French isn’t such a handicap as it may appear at first. The majority of children adapt quickly and most become reasonably fluent within three to six months (if only it were so easy for adults!).

However, all children don’t adapt equally well to a change of language and culture, particularly children over ten (at around ten children begin to learn languages more slowly), many of whom encounter difficulties during their first year. On the other hand, foreign children often acquire a sort of celebrity status, particularly in rural schools, which helps their integration.

It should be borne in mind that the state school system generally makes little or no concession to non-French speakers, for example by providing intensive French lessons. Indeed, non-French speaking children may be put in the class below their age group or made to repeat a year until their language skills have reached an adequate level.

This can make the first few months quite an ordeal for non French-speaking children. However, some state schools do provide free intensive French lessons ( classes d’initiation/CLIN or Français Langue Etrangère/FLE) for foreign children and some have international sections for foreign pupils. It may be worthwhile inquiring about the availability of extra French classes before choosing where to live. Note that, while attending a CLIN, children may fall behind in other subjects.

Evalutations tests for foreign children in France

Foreign children are tested (like French children) and put into a class suitable to their level of French, even if this means being taught with younger children or slow-learners. However, a child of six or seven must be permitted to enter the first year of primary school ( cours préparatoire/CP), even if he speaks no French. An older child can be refused entry to the CP or another class and can be obliged to attend a CLIN against his parents’ wishes. Once your child has acquired a sufficient knowledge of spoken and written French, he’s integrated into a regular class in a local school.

English-speaking schools in France

The only schools in France using English as the teaching language are a few foreign and international private schools. A number of multilingual French schools teach students in both English and French. If your children attend any other school, they must study all subjects in French (except a few schools where a local language, e.g. Breton, is also used). If your local state school doesn’t provide extra French classes, your only choice will be to pay for private lessons or send your child to another (possibly private) school, where extra tuition is provided.

Some parents send a child to an English-speaking school for a year and then move them to a bilingual or French school; others find it better to throw their children in at the deep end. Your choice should depend on the character, ability and wishes of your child. Whatever you decide, it will help if your child has some intensive French lessons before arriving. It may also be possible to organise an educational or cultural exchange with a French school or family before moving, which is a considerable help in integrating a child into the language and culture.

Many state schools teach regional languages, including Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican and Occitan. Where applicable, these are usually optional and are taught for around three hours a week, generally outside normal school hours. The exception is Breton, which is used exclusively in the early classes in certain schools in Brittany.

English-speaking parents should also bear in mind that young children attending a French school can quickly lose their command of their native language, which may need reinforcing at home (e.g. through reading and writing, games, films and computer-based activities), and, if possible, regular trips to your home country or membership of a foreign-language club or association. Bilingualism is a complex subject; a detailed analysis of the issues involved and ways of dealing with them is contained in A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker (Multilingual Matters).

This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.


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