This Post Card relates to my time spent in France which also was the first country that I travelled to beyond the UK as a child. French is probably also the foreign language that I still speak the best. I can still remember how eye-opening my first school trip to France was, and even though I now live in the south of England, which is so close to France, visiting the country still feels like a really exciting opportunity and cultural experience. My first visit to France took place in 1989 when I was in the sixth form Year 12). During the visit we stayed in a village in the Calvados region of Normandy. From there we visited historic sites associated with the Normandy landing during World War II and we also went to Bayeux and to Paris for the day.
My first significant period of time spent in France was after my year abroad in Germany when I spent a month in the city of Tours with classmates from the University of Lancaster, studying at L’Institut de Touraine. Before the French Revolution, it was considered that Les Tourangeaux, the people of Tours, were the speakers of the ‘purest’ form of French in France. The situation is occurred because the court of France was living in province of Touraine between 1430 and 1530. As a result, the form of French language used in the court became the official language of the entire kingdom. This was believed to be the case until the 19th century when the standard pronunciation of French shifted to that of the Parisian bourgeoisie. The French language had about 250 Million speakers across the globe including in France, Belgium, Switzerland and countries in the Caribbean. There are double the number of second language speakers as first language speakers with particular growth in former African colonies.
Then later, after returning from a year in China in 1995, I worked for a year as a Lecteur at L’Université de Rennes in Brittany. Instead of teaching in a school, a lecteur teaches university level students. It could be about teaching Academic English, Business English, legal English, technical English, Media related English – it depends on the needs and focus of the host university department. Before going to China in 1995, I photocopied the addresses of a number of french Universities with the intention of sending my CV on my return to Europe. At the end of my placement in China, I sent off about 10 hand-written letters and CVs to universities in France. I didn't have access to a computer or the internet at that time, so I wasn't confident that my applications would be well-received. To my great surprise, while I was travelling in Hong Kong, I received a message from home about a job offer at the University of Rennes II. Later, I discovered that the hand-written job application is a deep-rooted tradition in France and so my lack of access to word processing technology wasn't the barrier that I had thought it might be.
The People I met and worked with
Rennes II University is a public university a located in Brittany, France. My activity at the University included teaching students who were following the Diplôme d'études universitaires générales (French for General Academic Studies Degree), also known as DEUG. I was based in SCELVA (Service commun d'études des langues vivantes appliquées), the language department. I also worked in the language centre providing guidance to students on the development of their language skills outside of formal teaching. SCELVA specializes in the teaching of English for Specific Purposes. The goal was to teach languages to non-linguist students who major in other academic subjects but are required to learn at least one foreign language as part of their university studies. The various disciplines included economics, health, law, philosophy and science. While I worked at SCELVA, I was part of a lively team of teachers and other anglophone Lecteurs from the UK, Ireland and the US. I also lived in accommodation with international students from around the world which helped me to make a diverse friendship group and practice my French on a daily basis.
What I learned
This was my first experience of teaching English for Academic and specific purposes based on the study needs of my students. Previously, my focus had been on teaching English for more general communication purposes, and so gaining this opportunity helped me to appreciate the different needs and challenges of students working in a range of particular academic disciplines. Working at the University also gave me an excellent insight into the challenges of the French higher education system both from the perspective of students and staff. French public universities still operate a system of open enrollment. In the first year of study, student dropout and failure rates can be very high and lead to relatively low rates of completion. As a result, making public universities too accessible in this way can arguably be considered to lead to negative consequences for students’ motivation, learning outcomes and effective use of government funding. Alongside the challenges for students, the process of training to become a qualified or 'agrégé' university teacher in France is very competitive and challenging. The agrégation is a high level of French teaching qualification, gained annually only by an elite number of candidates determined by the Ministry of Education, depending on the quota needed, through norm-referenced assessment. 90% of candidates are destined to not qualify each year. The challenge of becoming agrégé was a hot topic in the teachers' room and it appeared to be doubly difficult for non-native French speakers, even in cases when anglophone teachers were training to become teachers of English.
During my studies for my degree in French and German I had the opportunity to live and work in Germany, so having the chance to spend a significant amount of time in France was also really important to me. When I look back at my time in France, I feel lucky to have been able to secure such a good job and also to have met so many great international friends during the process. The experience of working at the University also continued to support my ambition to pursue a career in international higher education.
Impact on life afterwards
My study of French and my time developing skills as a teacher and a linguist in France have had a profound impact on my future career. Working in France helped me to understand that my longer term future would be best focused on teaching languages for specific purposes. Having the chance to live in France gave me an excellent opportunity to explore the culture and enhance my spoken language skills which I never really got to do in any depth during my University studies. Although I was working rather than studying, as I lived in an intercultural environment, the experience also helped me to understand the challenges of living overseas in a community of international students and this has helped to inform my work and support of international students in UK Higher Education since, then.