MOST of the adults in Jean-Pierre Courouble’s French class began learning the language at school.
However, they have little positive to say about their early experiences of attempting to master another tongue.
“It seemed to be all about learning grammar and verbs,” says 39-year-old Richard Garrety, of Birchencliffe, who after just a few weeks as an adult learner feels to be making more progress than he did after three years at school.
“I did French until the third year but I think it was badly taught and I didn’t pay much attention,” he added. “It seemed pretty boring.”
Richard, a controls engineer, was one of 22 adults who responded to an Examiner article and signed up for French classes with Jean-Pierre in autumn last year. His mum and dad, Barbara and Stephen Garrety, are fellow students. All three want to learn the language because they make regular visits to friends who live in France.
Nursery nurse Barbara Shoghi from Cowlersley joined the French class for family reasons.
She is married to an Iranian who speaks a number of languages, including French. Her husband’s extended family lives in Strasbourg, France.
“I am learning French so I can speak to them and they’re learning English,” she said. “When we go to visit at the moment I can’t join in the conversations.”
A former holiday representative, Barbara can speak Spanish and says knowledge of that language is helping her with French. She added: “I did French up to the age of 13 at school but it didn’t seem very relevant then and I wasn’t academic at school so I didn’t do very well at all the grammar and things like that.”
A psychology undergraduate, French-born Jean-Pierre wanted to recruit volunteers to take part in a linguistics experiment.
He planned to divide his learners into two groups, Both would be taught with the same methods but one group would be allowed to take notes and the other had to simply listen and absorb the language orally.
Jean-Pierre, who lives in Mirfield and has been an honorary Englishman for 40 years, has based his teaching on a system developed by world-famous linguist Michel Thomas.
Thomas believes that we should learn languages the way we pick up our mother tongue, by hearing words and short phrases and being immersed in the language as much as possible.
Jean-Pierre is in agreement: “I think it’s a big mistake to teach languages for one hour a week,” he said. “Ideally, you need to teach it for eight hours a day for two or three weeks together – and it should be fun, not a toil.
“I learned more in my first three weeks over here than I did in all my years in school.”
His own students were offered 10 two-hour sessions over a three-week period, which was as much as was practicable. He began by highlighting the similarities between English and French and building a basic vocabulary of frequently-used words and phrases.
“They feel to have made good progress and are delighted with what they have learned so far,” he said.
Although the adult students feel their own experiences of learning French at school were less than successful, there are signs that teaching methods today are more enlightened.
Richard says his 14-year-old stepson Tom, a student at Salendine Nook High School, has an aptitude for languages that is being encouraged.
“He is studying French and German and doing well,” he said. “He seems to be learning differently from the way we did. There is more interaction and speaking, not just sitting learning verbs.”
Another student, plumber Chris Bennett, agreed.
“My partner’s daughter, India, who is eight, is learning French once a week at primary school and seems to really enjoy it,” he said. “She moved from Wales where she was learning Welsh and finding it really difficult.
“This summer she’ll be spending six weeks with my partner’s parents who live in France, so that should be good for her French.”
By introducing a foreign language at primary level, the Government may be moving in the right direction, says Jean-Pierre.
“But once a week is not enough,” he said. “There is a critical period for learning language. Children find it easier before puberty so this is the age group to work with and make it fun.”
Jean-Pierre, a retired chartered accountant, first came to England as an exchange student and married, Pauline, the sister of his exchange partner.
They have been together for more than 40 years and their son Dominic was raised bilingual.
Jean-Pierre became interested in studying psychology after picking up a book on the psychology of language.
The results of his degree project will be submitted in his thesis and show, he says, that learning a language orally – without taking notes – allows students to become significantly better at translating from English into French while the note takers, not surprisingly, were better at writing in French.
Jean-Pierre’s students enjoyed their classes so much they asked him to continue teaching which he now does on a voluntary basis, donating the nominal charge of £3 per head to Hollybank School where classes are held.
A cheque for £270 was recently presented to the school and the fundraising continues.