You Don’t Need to be French to Speak French

It’s natural for a non-French-speaking family to wonder if our school would be a good fit for their child. Our experience is that children enrolled at a young age are able to start learning the language through immersion. Young children’s brains are notably flexible, primed for building neural connections and learning languages. During the immersion process, most students undergo a silent (receptive) period, during which they build the ability to hear and understand French, enough to be able to participate in activities and follow directions. They may not be able to spontaneously produce oral French language during this time, but their brains are actively working to create connections and develop a sense of meaning in the new language. 

Children learning a second language also benefit from the understandings they’ve constructed in their first language. For example, while being exposed to the word “honest” repeatedly and in multiple contexts in English, a child gradually formulates an underlying comprehension of this word and its meanings. Then, when they begin to hear the word “honnête” in French, they will automatically and unconsciously apply the underlying meaning they’ve already acquired to the new word. This transfer of meaning happens more seamlessly in younger children, whose neurons are actively developing new linguistic connections at a rapid rate.

Through immersion, repetition, instruction, and the transfer of meaning, children develop a sense of meaning and often start to speak French in class within their first year of classes. (They might not be able to produce fluent French at home on cue for a while longer, because language development is also contextual: they will probably associate their native language with home, and French with school.) In our school, we aim for a balanced bilingual approach, which means that while new French speakers are encouraged to try to produce oral French as soon as they can, we do not privilege one language over the other. We are cultivating linguistically rich self-expression in both French and English! 

Students learn French in our school in several different ways: 

  • There is explicit French instruction in the classroom (oral language lessons, practicing common sentence structures, learning vocabulary sets)
  • With French-speaking teachers, assistants, and classmates, most young students naturally pick up pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar – this is immersion, or being “bathed” in the language.
  • Teachers may suggest age-appropriate audio books, apps, and vocabulary building activities for use at home, especially for non-French-speaking families.
  • For non-French speakers who need a little extra support, French as a Second Language (FSL) lessons are offered starting in kindergarten. These sessions may be recommended by the classroom teacher, and they would include grammar practice and vocabulary lessons with a smaller group.  

Starting in first grade, French teachers assign homework for continuous skill development and to reinforce concepts studied in the classroom. It is important for parents to provide their children with a dedicated place and time to work on their homework independently. We also offer a supervised study hall after school; while this is not a tutoring session, it does allow students a quiet hour to tackle their homework with an adult to provide guidance and structure. 

When supporting students who are new to French, our teachers use modeling, repetition, manipulatives, visual aids, songs and chants, and other strategies to impart meaning and give instructions. They also frequently enlist the help of a student’s peers; for children, language is social, and they’re more likely to feel engaged and respond positively to classmates and friends. We find that as students become more comfortable with their class, they usually form strong bonds with their classmates and teachers. This motivates them to attend more closely to what is being taught and to interact in French. We always prefer for students to learn French through meaningful interaction. For this reason, translation (usually into English) can be used as a strategy to support non-French-speaking students, but it is never our first option!

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