From The TimesJune 16, 2007American learns how the French teach EnglishAdam Sage in Paris
An American has rocked the educational establishment of France by daring to challenge the way that English-language teachers are trained for the classroom.
Laurel Zuckerman has split the academic world with a book that relates her experience at the heart of the archaic French teacher-training system. Her account reveals the extraordinarily arcane and ar-guably irrelevant questions asked of would-be English teachers. And it highlights the ambivalence of the country’s approach to English, which is seen, at best, as a necessary evil.
Sorbonne Confidential, published in February and now a bestseller, has proved highly controversial, with critics denouncing what they have interpreted as an attack on les lycées,one of France’s proudest institutions. But supporters have written to thank Mrs Zuckerman for challenging the lofty academic ideals of the lycées, which they say deprive pupils of the practical tools that they need to succeed in the global market.
The two sides have engaged in a ferocious debate about the merits of the French educational system. One discussion forum on an internet site that was aimed at the country’s intellectual elite had to be shut down amid a tide of insults.
Mrs Zuckerman’s book was inspired by her own failed attempt to obtain a qualification to teach English in France. The 47-year-old from Scotts-dale, Arizona, had expected that her anglophone origin would be an advantage. But after a year on a teaching course at the Sorbonne in Paris she realised that she had been mistaken. “I have come to the conclusion that native English speakers are actually at a disadvantage,” she said.
A finely honed Cartesian mind and a firm grasp of the French language are among the qualities that are required of les professeurs d’anglais, she discovered. The ability to teach or even speak English is not, however. “They are excluding people who don’t have the right mindset,” she said. “It’s a way of protecting themselves.”
Mrs Zuckerman, a computer expert, decided to go into teaching after being made redundant by an internet company in 2002. The result was a journey through a system that, she has claimed, was designed to retain only the most erudite of candidates and eliminate the rest. During her one-year course at the Sorbonne, for example, she was required to write a dissertation in French on “The meaning of time and the time of meaning”.
Mrs Zuckerman was indignant at the nature of the assignment. “I can understand that you need to speak enough French to communicate with parents, pupils and other staff in schools,” she said. “But what possible use can it be to be able to write a dissertation?”
Her professors at the Sorbonne were brilliant, although not necessarily in speaking English. One of them, for instance, had the worst pronunciation of English that she had ever heard.
Another was bemused by the term “ruffled shirts”. And an education inspector criticised one of Mrs Zuckerman’s British friends for talking about “ducks”. “She said plural of duck is duck — and if an inspector in France says it’s two duck, then it’s two duck.”
Mrs Zuckerman’s literature class was also a surprise, with students asked, for example, to recite the works of Robert Burns, the 18th-century Scots poet, including To A Louse, which begins “Ha! whare ye gaun’ ye crowlin ferlie? ” Mrs Zuckerman asked: “Whatever the brilliance of Robert Burns, what has that got to do with what children need to learn?”
At the end of the year, Mrs Zuckerman and two British students on the course failed the exams because their marks in the papers in French were significantly lower than the average. But in her book, she points out that French lycées are failing at English teaching. In a European study of standards in several countries — Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain — they came last.
Mrs Zuckerman said: “There is an incredible intellectual taboo in France, which makes it impossible to draw a link between the way they recruit their teachers and the results of the students.”
Questions for aspiring teachers of English in France:
1 Recite and discuss the following verse from To a Louse by Robert Burns: Ha! whare ye gaun’ ye crowlin ferlie? Your impudence protects you sairly, I canna say but ye strunt rarely Owre gauze and lace, Tho faith! I fear ye dine but sparely On sic a place
2 Explain the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales between 1966 and 1999
3 Specify and justify the placement of intonation nuclei in the following sentence: “She thought, well, that’s the lot, but what shall I do with all this weight stuff now?”
4 Explain the stress pattern of the following words: miraculously, sensuality, pornography
5 Account for the quality of the vowels in the stressed syllables in literature and primitives
6 In seven hours, write a dissertation on “The meaning of time and the time of meaning”