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Why We're Failing at French

And how to actually teach a language.

Shannon Bourbonnais 5 Sep

Shannon Bourbonnais has been teaching French for 10 years in Vancouver, Winnipeg, France and the UK, and is currently on maternity leave from teaching primary school French in Vancouver. She has a Master's of Education in language acquisition.

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"Je t'aime." That was about the extent of my husband's French skills when he taught core French in his teaching practicum. He's not alone. But even though I am a francophone and have a degree in French, when I taught high school French for four years, fresh out of university, I watched with frustration as students passed the provincial French exams with high marks, then walked out the door, still unable to communicate their basic needs in French. Despite being a trained French teacher, I lacked the tools and enough hours of class time to impart authentic language skills to my students.

There are serious limitations to the way French is mainly now taught in schools. Students start French classes too late, spend too few hours in the classroom, and are often taught by teachers who often lack French fluency themselves and can't even use French as the language of instruction within the classroom. The Ministry of Education only requires schools to offer a second language from Grades 5 to 8, and while in an ideal world they spend half an hour a day on French, in many schools, it's often only an hour a week. And well-meaning, hard working, but under-prepared teachers, like my husband, have ineffective methods of teaching a language.

But while doing a Master's of Education, focusing on language, I came to the conclusion that none of those things is the real problem. The real problem is that we're teaching students complex grammar and vocabulary, but not teaching them how to communicate. And we don't teach language in the way that students actually learn it organically.

No 'authentic communication'

Students learn lists of nouns, such as "sports" or "clothes," and then they learn rules like when to use the past perfect versus imperfect. But that's not the way we speak. People communicate in sentences, and verbs are central to language. People communicate with statements like "I want," "I can" or "I have to." But because "want," "can" and "must" are irregular verbs in French, they are usually not taught in the first few years of standard French programs. Instead, in my high school French classes, I shamefully admit that I used English to explain advanced grammar to a group of students who could hardly speak enough French to ask me to repeat the question.

The provincial exams, which loom for Grade 12 students and their teachers, don't provide any incentive to become fluent either. Although there are some plans to change this in the future, the current exam is entirely written and based on grammar, vocabulary and reading. There is no spoken or listening component. So, students can graduate with As and Bs, without ever having engaged in a real French conversation, which is ironic given that the curriculum constantly mentions the notion of "authentic communication."

There are certainly many things that could be done to improve French skills upon graduation. We could take a lesson from the Europeans who begin second language lessons earlier and build exchange trips to other countries into their curriculum, for example. However, while these types of experiences are essential for kids to learn a second language, exchanges are expensive and time consuming in North America. And while we certainly need more teachers who are fluent in French, there are few opportunities for teachers to develop these skills.

Foraging for French

Six years ago I walked into a classroom at a Vancouver elementary school and heard the Grade 2 students speaking French at a level my Grade 12 students weren't even close to achieving. Everything was in French -- kids were fighting in French, tattling on each other in French, even in the corner, out of earshot, they were all speaking French. I was convinced that it must be an immersion class, but these students were only getting 30 minutes of French instruction a day. I was so amazed that I went right back to my school in West Vancouver and told the principal, "We have to try this."

The classroom belonged to Wendy Maxwell, a French teacher who conducted 10 years of action research in her own classes while doing a Master's degree in Education, then gathered the best ways of teaching a language under one umbrella -- which she calls the Accelerated Integrative Method (AIM). There's nothing new about what Maxwell does: she teaches a second language the way we usually teach a first language. I studied her method in my own graduate work and, rather than teach grammar out of context, I now teach language and grammar through story, in the same way parents teach their children by reading to them.

Of course, it's more than just hearing a story that helps children learn a language; it's all the interaction that occurs between the parent and the child around the story. In my class, I might read the story of Les Trois Petits Cochons (The Three Little Pigs) out loud, but then the students often retell the story in their own words, act it out, or continue the story from their own imagination. And they use gestures with almost every word.

Maxwell's program, which is taught in 3,000 schools across Canada, includes a pared-down vocabulary of about 900 words that are necessary for basic fluency. Students work through the list in a systematic fashion, but not by memorization. The gestures that go along with every word, somewhat like sign language, allow students to use both the left and right brain. Also, students gesture and say each word as the teacher says it out loud, to maximize language use time. This makes learning more active (and fun), as do songs, and dance routines.

Fifty percent fluent?

In my classes I ask two questions: "Are the kids enjoying the language?" and "Do they have a functional level of fluency?" When Jean Chretien was prime minister, he announced a goal of having 50 per cent of Canadians graduate with working fluency in French by 2012. But only about one to two per cent of students will become fluent using traditional French teaching methods -- Maxwell is actually one of them -- but she realized that it doesn't work for most students. While some of my students excel more than others and not all have achieved a high level of fluency by Grade 6, all have the basic fluency to tell me their needs in class, and in all cases, their base level of French speaking and comprehension is much higher than the students I was teaching through traditional French classes. I no longer have to use even a word of English in my classes, and I've had parents tell me that when their family visited France or Quebec their child did all the ordering.

Of course, just because teachers use this method, it doesn't necessarily mean they will get the same results. No matter what method a teacher uses, he or she needs to be engaging and interesting and able to connect with students. A French teacher who doesn't have perfect grammar, but has enthusiasm and classroom presence, might be better than a francophone who assumes that kids know more than they do.

The teaching methodologies that I now employ in my classes transcend linguistic boundaries. Educators in Europe and Asia are interested in Maxwell's approach and the curriculum is being modified for use in Spanish classes, English as a second language programs and First Nations language programs. New curriculum is also being developed for adults and high school students who wouldn't find The Three Little Pigs as relevant to their lives.

Language acquisition takes commitment and consistency on the part of students and teachers. But French class should be engaging and creative, not the daily dose of misery and memorization.

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