Guest post 13 – Bethany Cagnol on teaching English in France…

I’m delighted that the very busy Bethany Cagnol has agreed to write a guest post for me. Beth lives in Paris where she combines a gruelling teaching programme with her responsibilities as President of TESOL France. I first met Beth at Paris TESOL November 2009, and was instantly struck with her combination of good humour and the energetic way she went about her work – reminded me of another American woman that I know very well. 🙂

If I were to write a post on Conversation Killers in France, the number one way to clear out a cocktail party is tell people you teach English. I often joke around with my students telling them, “I’m an English teacher. I don’t have any friends.” They chuckle, getting it.  After a decade of speaking French, my American accent still leaks through the guttural ‘Rs’ and the pinched /y/ rampant in this romance language.  Curious strangers ask me what brought me to France.  Upon finding out I teach English, their warm smiles fall like the walls of Jericho and with a curt “Ah! Je vois,” off they walk. Naturally, after the number of instances of this happening shot above a dozen, I had to ask my students, “Pourquoi!?”

One of Beth's classes - lucky people!

Post Traumatic Stress

Many adult French citizens harbor deep, harrowing memories of their English language learning experience in the public school system.  Granted, today things are slowly improving, but a great majority of the adult population is petrified to speak English.  They have been brainwashed into thinking the French are “nul en langues,” so why surrender themselves to the torture of revealing that fact with tourists, or worse, in front of their co-workers during a professional training course?  

English Feels Funny

English is not a beautiful language. We have to open our mouths, show our teeth, bite our tongue and spit if we want to say thespian correctly.  All of the above are not common characteristics of French. 


The common misconception of the hexagonians is they refuse to speak English because French is far superior. There is some truth to this.  The French are proud of their native language.  So proud in fact that they want to demonstrate that respect for immaculate grammar and lexis in the second language.  Not doing so would surely insult English native speakers. Therefore, why place one’s self in an environment of imperfectionism?  I was hit head on with this reality when one student came back from a business trip in New York.  I asked if he felt his English had improved.  “Why no!” he snapped. “One month in New York wasted!  No one corrected me while I was there!”   Ah, oui.  The French correct foreigners when they try to speak français. It’s because they wish to help the non-natives improve.  On the other hand, correcting a foreigner’s English in the United States is widely frowned upon.  

Bilingual in 20 hours

One day, I was administering a placement test to a prospective student. When asked for the English skills he’d like to obtain in 20 hours, he responded, “I want to speak like the Queen.” Michael Swan once compared this miscalculation of the work:progress ratio to people who want to climb Mount Everest in a week. Many French think they can just buy the gear, slip on their hiking boots and go for it. Not so. The awakening to find out it requires years of practice and steadfast determination to learn a language can be rude indeed.

Living for a month in an English-speaking country will make you bilingual

“I have to travel to the country to learn the language.” I hear this sentence so often that, I swear, I will go on sick leave. OK, maybe I’m being a hypocrite. Coming to France did enable me to jumpstart my French. Before, I was painfully slow at learning anything that required intense memorization.

In the States, I studied how to shop at the Fnac and order a croque monsieur, but nothing prepared me for the physical and mental exhaustion of drowning in a foreign country. The first year was the hardest.  I constantly had migraines. I slept a minimum of 10 hours a night. I never dared answer the phone for fear my wobbly tenses would get the better of me. I needed a nap after a 30-minute conversation in French, not to mention the mail-order-bride feeling at dinner parties, the crying fits and being utterly out-of-the-loop news-wise in two countries.

And the most frustrating thing was this isn’t like me at all! I’m curious, outgoing, an open book! But all of those qualities were suddenly hindered by one simple factor: language. So, I tell my students, if you want to go to chez eux, go. It will do wonders for your language learning. But remember, it takes a very very very strong person to do this. Perfectionists need not apply. You must have absolutely no complexes about anything, especially about being wrong all the time. You must be prepared to make a mistake (linguistically and culturally) at every second of every day. That, my friend, is not easy for the French.

Have Fun, But Not Too Much

Don’t tell anyone, but I was fired from a teaching job once. It was one of my first jobs too, so it really stung. I cried for days. I didn’t get it! The classes were going so well! The students were chatty and had gone through a miraculous transformation from feeling nul to being inspired by their new English skills. What happened? Turns out one student, who had only attended two sessions, demanded the company change teachers because it appeared we were all having too much “fun.” There were too many games, too many role-plays and not enough “teaching.” It’s true.  I hadn’t incorporated the left brain.

The French are wonderful learners. They are critical thinkers. They search for the logic in the illogical. They are the only culture I know who can make something that’s already complicated even more convoluted. It’s these customs they bring to the classroom, and what surfaces is their dissection of the language.

This quest for logic can be summed up in two words: “Oui, mais.” These two words stock a lot of punch for a new teacher. It can be interpreted as “I don’t believe you,” or “You’re crazy” or “I know more than you.”

But what I’ve come to see is that something has clicked for the student.  For the first time in their lives they are able to converse with the “expert,” to share their knowledge with the teacher. This is very poignant because it will not only bubble up a glimmer of what lies in the student’s past but launch a discussion on the lesson – discussions which the French cradle as a devoted art form.

In conclusion, when teaching the French, one must treat classes like a Joël Robuchon recipe: a mélange of freshness and innovation with a deep respect for ageless tradition.

Bethany Cagnol blogs at

24 thoughts on “Guest post 13 – Bethany Cagnol on teaching English in France…

  1. Great article Beth, funny and respectful for the ageless tradition of teaching english at the same time! Reactions when I say I teach English here in Greece differ a lot but I can’t reveal that in public, maybe when we meet in Harrogate!

    1. After ten years in France, I can definitely say teaching English has its ups and downs. I was a horrible teacher with I first started out! I’m now looking into mini teaching sabbatical opportunities around Europe, so maybe you and I could team teach in Greece some time. You’re more than welcome to join me in Paris for a few lessons. Let’s chat in Harrogate.

  2. This is a fascinating insight…

    I have spent most of my career (I call it that, anyway) in Japan, and the first time I worked with Europeans I was strangely intimidated. The Swiss and French in particular made me feel like a piece of stale cheese. “Who is this idiot?”, I could almost hear them thinking. In Japan, students make you feel like a superstar, whatever you do….
    Of course, I now realise that neither reaction is to be taken at face value. I hate to make too much of national culture (every learner has his or her personal idiosyncrasies) but it is a lot easier to strike the appropriate tone when everyone in the class is from the same place. But then you do lose out on some great chances for real and authentic discovery….

    1. *snort-laugh* – stale cheese. That’s a good one.
      Superstar, huh? Even when you whip out Present Perfect lesson plans?! Kidding. Teachers do get the superstar treatment in France, but it takes time to earn it.

      Your post is one of the reasons I love Ken’s blog so much. It’s turning into quite a collection of “what to expect when you teach in _____”.

    1. Tonal obligations in English are a piece of cake compared Korean, I’m told. During a three-week intensive Chinese class, I tried to say “Where is the metro” and ended up asking for the photocopy machine. So, I feel your pain. Migraine pain, that is.

      I’ve always wanted to conduct research on the health of the language learner. For instance, the headaches, sore throat, nasal irritation, extreme fatigue, ear aches, and even nausea when learning a language can have negative results on one’s learning. I think we need to warn our students that these symptoms can occur — like a disclaimer on prescription medication.

      On that note, I’ve just started work on the health of the language teacher. It’s still in its early stages, but I’m very much looking forward to working on this.

  3. God, perfectionists, no! Wonder what francophones would make of my slipped French language now?

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Bethany. I’d certainly agree that you can’t be averse to making mistakes when learning a language. I can do this in Spanish (not really worry about what I say and whether it’s 100% accurate) but it seems beyond me in French at the moment – I probably need to spend some time ‘living’ French to get it back.


    1. No doubt living in France has helped. But I’m ashamed to say it took me almost four years to feel truly comfortable (linguistically and culturally). Why not come back and give it a shot?

  4. Lovely insights, Bethany.

    I really enjoyed reading this very well written piece.

    It’s both highly informative and very respectful to the French learners, something which I really like.

    One often reads blog posts in which a teacher, whether NEST or NNEST takes the opportunity to slag the learners or the country (or both) which has offered them employment and the chance to earn a living.

    You have managed to avoid this with great finesse without avoiding the truth.

    Thank you for sharing


    1. Gosh, *blush*. Thanks Marisa!

      Sure there were times when I wanted to throw in the towel. But that’s what staff rooms are for. To share experiences, but also to vent! I don’t think anyone should vent in print, or electronically unless it’s “bookended” with disclaimers, self-assessment and is an experience we teachers can learn from.

  5. Thank you for this Bethany,

    In the Summer I’m taking an 8-week break from teaching Vietnamese children and adults in Vietnam to be a senior tutor to those teaching French teenagers in the UK (anything for a challenge!) Thank you for the teacher/culture shock preparation… 😉

    1. Wow! French teenagers! Do stay in touch (you can write me at TESOL France and from there I’ll give you my personal email address. Maybe I could help coach you a little on how to expect with the unexpected.

      We at TESOL France have written an extensive FAQ page on teaching English in France. It’s worth the read if anyone is considering teaching within the boarders of the Great Hexagon and/or teaching the French.

      Good luck with your teenagers!!!

    2. Wow! French teenagers! Do stay in touch (you can write me at TESOL France. Maybe I could help coach you a little on how to expect with the unexpected.)

      We at TESOL France have written an extensive FAQ page on teaching English in France. It’s worth the read if anyone is considering teaching within the boarders of the Great Hexagon and/or teaching the French.

      Good luck with your teenagers!!!

  6. An inspiring read for a Sunday morning, though I should probably be reading a newspaper as I too often feel completely out of touch with both British and Spanish news.

    1. Happy to be there for you on Sunday! I was given a year’s subscription to the International Herald Tribune. That and American news podcasts have been a life saver for knowing what’s going on outside my little ELT cocoon.

  7. This is so perceptive Bethany and you have made me reflect on my own experiences of learning and teaching.

    When you don’t have great communication skills in the second language, it really feels like you have no personality and it’s so frustrating. Doesn’t it feel empowering and exciting though, when you can start to show the real you?

    I really do worry about Learner Anxiety (excuse the pun) and I must say, I have very little when I speak Spanish but quite a lot when I speak French. I don’t feel very worried about making mistakes in Spanish and am very willing to take lots of risks. If I fail, I don’t mind; I just learn from the experience. Nevertheless, I’m not able to do this so much in French because I want what I say to be perfect.

    I have lived and studied in both countries and I often wonder why I feel like this. Essentially, I think it’s because I had a better social life in Spain than I did in France! I was stuck in a university lecture theatre for a lot of the time in both countries but I had many more friends in Spain and therefore more opportunities to practise and throw myself into a wonderful cultural experience. I was constantly able to ask if I could say this or that and I was always learning new vocabulary and checking my pronunciation in a very natural and safe way. If I had had the same opportunities in France, I might feel different.

    Why was I able to find more friends in Spain than in France? I don’t think it was to do with the people as I have personally met many wonderfully warm people in both countries. It was to do with the amount of native English speakers surrounding me. I was one of two native English speakers in my class in Spain and one of thirty or so in France. I did want to make more friends in France but it was quite difficult to break free from the close-knit community that we had formed.

    I take these experiences and feelings into my ELT classroom today and try so hard to remove this need to be perfect all the time as it makes you feel afraid and unable to take risks. I also try to create as many opportunities as possible for my students to use their language in an authentic way. I encourage my students to mix with the native English students at college and do lots of cultural visits so students have the chance to speak to me like a normal person, not just a teacher. Poor things, I also make them talk to me in the college corridor.

    My students achieve so much more when they have learnt to be brave through lots of authentic practice. I’m not saying that accuracy isn’t important; I just think it comes more naturally after.

    Thanks again Bethany – It’s a wonderful post
    Best Wishes Amanda 

    1. Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

      Making French friends is not easy. It takes time. I use a wonderful book in my classes: “American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture” (Datesman, Crandall and Kearny, 2005). The chapter on friend making has many of my French students going, “Oh! Ok. Now I understand.” The authors report that Americans are seen as friendly from the start, but take their time in developing long-term friendships. The French (especially the Parisians) also take their time, but lack the initial cheeriness that Americans crave. Reasons for this vary from metropolitan habits, linguistic limitations and, I think, France’s turbulent history.

      I loved reading your thoughts on encouraging your students to expose themselves to authentic language. We need to tell our students that bravery can be learned!

  8. What a lovely and true post, Bethany! I have done some adult teaching but mainly teach post-Bac students, and what a tangled web one can get in…sometimes they say they want to speak English in class, yet regard pair work or even group discussions as “not really doing anything” or “not following the program.” I have also heard the idea that “pair work discussions are of no use because you’re not always there to correct us!”

    However I must say that now that I have taught this population for 15 years, I think they are becoming more open-minded about learning English. French kids are travelling more, and Internet is showing them that communication is indeed possible without being corrected!

    1. I totally agree. French young adults today are much more open-minded about learning English. They beg for learning in VO (original version). Thank goodness for “How I Met Your Mother” and “Big Bang Theory”, right?

  9. “They are the only culture I know who can make something that’s already complicated even more convoluted.”
    Ah ah !! this is so true ! ! there is a saying “pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué” ?
    As for the reason why French people correct foreigners : this is because it’s the way we’ve been taught all our lives, and we expect to be corrected too, and feel frustrated when nobody does.
    Oui, les Français sont “nuls en langues”, mainly, I think, because of TV dubbing. No subtitles in France, the French won’t read them, so TVs buy dubbed films and the French are never exposed to English language. Clooney, Julia Roberts, Clint Eastwood, Peter Falk, Jennifer Aniston : everyone speaks perfect French!
    A vocab note now : an error isn’t an error, it’s a fault “une faute”, with a kind of almost “moral” connotation to it.
    We did dictations for a very long time at school and for each “faute”, we had points off : the heavier the “faute”, the more points off. I still have the “barème” in mind : a grammar “faute” was 4 points off (out of 20), a spelling faute was 2 points off, an “accent” faute was 4 points off too if a “grammatical ” accent, one point only for a simple accent.
    Merci for this great insight Beth, so perceptive, true… and funny too!

    1. Thanks for your comments! Merci beaucoup!

      Good heavens. I had heard about the traumatic dictation corrections, but now understand how some students walked home with marks like negative 5. And you are so right that the word “faute” has a moral connotation to it.

      I pray for the day French TV gives us the choice to watch it in VO or VF. But I believe there are laws preventing that from happening. I once spent the weekend in Antwerp, Belgium and was amazed at the language choice on TV.

      And by the way, thank you for discretely correcting MY “faute.” You’re right, it should be “nuls” and not “nul en langues.” I know I can always count on you. 🙂

  10. Simply a fantastic post – I really enjoyed it. And you have explained so much, too. I thought the French attitude was an anti-English language thing, but your explanation makes more sense. It also helps to account for the likes of Derrida, Blanchot and Lacan, amongst many others, who delight in tortuous prose.
    I want to teach in France now!

  11. Your comment ‘this isn’t like me at all ‘is so true! I lived for a year in Colombia and found that I almost seemed to have a different personality in Spanish.

    In English, I’m outgoing, funny (so they tell me) and extroverted. But in Spanish, even towards the end of the year, when my Spanish had become good enough to hold complex conversations on most topics, I was quiet and introverted. Part of it was the language, but the other part was cultural – the lack of a shared frame of reference, if you like.

    When you think about it, a lot of the social conversations we have centre around shared experience, shared memories and so on, but I just didn’t have that there. I hadn’t watched the same TV programmes over the years, played the same games, read the same books, been through the same political upheaval etc. So my conversation was limited to what I’d managed to absorb over the past year, and comparisons between my experience and theirs. It was incredibly frustrating, though I’m glad I experienced it, because it really made me appreciate conversations with English friends when I got back!

  12. It was amazing seeing you present! You are a wonder and your students look like they learn so much from you! I enjoyed this post but wasn’t able to visit till post IATEFL! Thank you for the wonderful suggestions of how to use TED Talks effectively with students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s