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French is probably the most widely studied language in the U3A.  As most members will have encountered it at school and as France is our nearest tourist destination it can be a combination of study for its own sake and a practical advantage for holidays.  However U3A group language study, perhaps particularly French, presents some problems, which need to be addressed by groups from the beginning in order to establish a positive learning environment.

In the first place we have to accept with good grace that we will be ‘a mixed ability group.’ Group members will bring with them, not only school learning experience, or perhaps lack of it, but a range of learning experiences from holidays.  We have to be far more aware of our fellow members than in a group devoted to, say, history.  Those who are very articulate in their own language may have to learn to listen and pick up vocabulary  from others who simply have more experience and a better ear.  We have to learn to accept correction and help with good grace, to be tolerant of others and actively promote good group dynamics.  The suggestions below apply to language learning generally but especially to French, where the prior experiences of learning are likely in influence group situations             

Leading a Group
In any U3A language learning situation there is likely to be a ‘teacher’ figure and some replication of the classroom situation and this is especially true of foreign language learning.  It is often the case that the leader/coordinator who accepts the post on the basis of prior knowledge of French or teaching experience can end up doing all the preparation, correction and even marking.   The rest of the group then become ‘the class’, feeling that all they have to do it turn up (with or without homework) The leader feels all the pressure to organise learning week by week, whilst others only have to relax!    However, a group which takes joint responsibility for learning is likely to make much better progress as all members are then engaged in preparation, maybe seeking material on the internet or when on holiday.  We are all capable of contributing and offering ideas and we become better learners by doing so.   Even if the group is working from a textbook, members should take it in turn to prepare and seek out supplementary material.

Taking Notes
Nobody studying at university would turn up to a lecture or seminar without a notebook (I hope)   Although learning in the U3A is ‘for pleasure’ it is still learning and should be taken seriously.  Ideally, the file or notebook you bring should be divided into sections, so that you can go over your new words or phrases in private afterwards, or check points in a grammar book.

Using the Language   
It cannot be stressed enough that you should use your time together to speak French!   For some this will be easier than for others and they should lead by example, making sure that everyone is taking part at a comfortable level and that weaker colleagues are helped if necessary.   Those who find speaking difficult should just concentrate on listening without feeling anxious and then make their own limited contribution, repeating if necessary something which has already been said.   It is all too tempting to fall back into English and those who do this should immediately be helped by the others to rephrase in the Foreign Language.    The social time at the beginning or end is especially important as you can exchange the everyday expressions you need to practise most.

Using a Dictionary
A large dictionary should be available at each session to check meanings,  genders etc   The private use of small pocket dictionaries at the same time is not  a good idea, as they can lead to confusion and waste of time.

Language skills
There is much talk of the four language skills, speaking, listening, reading and writing and some debate about which are the most important.  Most of us who learned French at school will remember spending time on   writing grammar sentences and short translations and only doing oral work for the exam.  The result is that we lack confidence in our oral and listening skills.  We realise however that we need these skills for communication.  So most French groups will have to spend most of the time either listening or speaking to provide a sound foundation for confidence.  Let us examine more carefully these four skills and analyse their role in our learning. 

If you think about learning your first language you will realise that this was done almost entirely by listening to adults and then imitating them.   As adults this rule still applies although there are other supports like reading which are also helpful.   So your aim within a group should be to listen carefully and to try and minimise the interference of English.  This is your one opportunity in the week to listen to French, even if it is not ‘native speaker’ level.   It is useful to point out that we do not need to understand every word spoken in order to grasp the point being made.  So our other group members are our most important resource!   CDs from course books and other spoken or sung material can provide a refreshing  change and should be incorporated on a regular basis. 

Speaking skills
 In a group of learners together for a short time, listening and speaking should  predominate as they are usually the skills which lead to better communication and more efficient learning.   Everyone should have the aim of producing the maximum amount of language.  The words and phrases you have taken from your brain and used are the ones you will remember, as you did when learning your first language.  The advantage you have as an experienced adult is that you can make links between your first and second language and find patterns. It is very useful to reinforce these patterns by writing – but this can equally well be done at home.  During the weekly session activity should be geared towards people producing spoken language .  However this does not mean that texts should be banned.  The technique is to choose something which will stimulate oral work. 

The use of texts
If you are preparing for a session you are most likely to turn to a text, either from a book or magazine or maybe from the internet.   How do you turn this activity into an active learning session with plenty of conversation?   The method to be adopted is to use the text as a basis for further speech, either simple or more complex, once it has been studied and understood.  So the choice of text is important. Is it going to stimulate conversation, people recounting similar events, or is it going to stimulate discussion on a topic of interest?  The choice should be made on the basis of potential outcomes.  It is good to get into the habit of asking others what they feel or think, as well as expressing ones own opinion – this is not just the role of the ‘teacher’ it is promoting good group dynamics.

The subject of grammar can be emotive!  You may remember seemingly pointless exercises at school, or having learned the language at a later date without any references to structure.    Children learning their mother tongue don’t learn grammar, of course, although they do make grammar mistakes because they are over-applying a rule.  Examples such as, I eated, he runned  are common ‘mistakes’.   So the best way to approach grammar is to learn rules and exceptions in the way that suits you best.  One simple way would be the use of post-it notes in places you see regularly, so that you can take in the information during your daily tasks.   Once you are confident in a structure you can invent little phrases, which will help you to consolidate and appropriate the new language.  It is particularly important to be confident is the use of verbs as they are the building blocks of language. 

It is not essential to have ‘native speaker’ competence in pronunciation, only to be intelligible!   If you think about people you know who are non-native speakers of English, you will probably conclude that most of them manage to communicate and their accents can be charming.  However it is part of the pleasure of language learning to sound good in the language and worth a bit of effort.   Listening to a CD and reading the text at the same time is the best way to improve, as long as you break up the text with pauses, speaking the words out loud and checking back with your source.  This can be done at home, on your own or as a group activity.  In a group situation, you have to be flexible in the sense that constant correction can be demoralising, but occasional correction can be most useful.  You will notice that good listeners are those who end up speaking accurately!  

Improving Skills in a Mixed Group
Listening to a tape/CD both with and without text is helpful; with a text you might concentrate on pronunciation, breaking it up into very small parts and repeating after the speaker until you feel you have the right pronunciation and intonation.  It is fun to do this as a group and the exercise can be followed with extension activities based on the vocabulary used –personalising the material and making it easier to retain.  For private work Michel Thomas is  recommended by some.

Without the text you might listen just for gist first, and then for odd details; finally it can be heard with the text, but there is a sense of achievement in understanding without the text and concentration is improved. A text is prepared beforehand (if possible) and read for interest.  An ideal text would be one in which opinions were expressed, or where there were new idioms.  This material is then reused while people transfer the situation to one closer to home and repeat phrases in a context which is more familiar (for example  vox pop articles) .  

It is a challenge to improve conversation levels to a point where people can express themselves on other subjects than the purely personal.  There has to be a prop in the form of text or prior reading,, but discussion skills  can also be improved  by breaking up into small groups with leaders who will report back.  A tactful leader will encourage others to express themselves by providing vocabulary as needed and then will report back to the whole group, thus reinforcing what has been learned.  (This is good way to help the hard of hearing who get a bit lost in round table discussions).

Foreign language learning needs a lot of repetition for the new vocabulary to stick, so the trick is to organise the repetition in different ways.  Some examples of this are changing the subject and/or tense of any verbs,  picking out adjectives and thinking of opposites or similar meanings,   Picking out words which are ‘friends’  and ‘false friends’ is useful;  people who have not studied a foreign language often lack the confidence to identify the former. 

Finally ,don’t forget to include simple games and puzzles, either as a warm up or just to relax.  Variations on ‘bingo’, guessing games based on mime,   memorising objects on a tray,  memorising lists as in shopping or packing a suitcase,  inventing word searches,  describe and draw exercises, all sorts of simple games can be adapted to encourage   skills, laughter and group dynamics.

There are further advice sheets available which concern materials for study and lists of books.   Heather and I will be producing more advice and distributing it via email, so do not hesitate to let me have your contact details or phone for a chat.  We cannot distribute materials automatically so rely on you to contact us.  Bon courage et bonne continuation.