Take a break

French school children are on holiday for all of July and August. Many secondary pupils are also on holiday for most of the month of June. Arriving last year from London, where harassed parents struggle to find childcare for their more modest six weeks of school holidays, I found this difficult to fathom. From May onwards, I spent a lot of time outside the school gate with my jaw hanging slackly around my knees as the other mothers all oh la la-d about how exhausted their petits were, and observed that the end of the school year could not come quickly enough. How was it possible, I asked myself, that these people could find two months of holiday insufficient? And, more to the point, was I alone in feeling a creeping sense of dread for the looming nine weeks that were to be spent in the company of my small children (mummy, what can I do now)?

Last week I realised that I had crossed some sort of threshold into Frenchness, or simply smug maternalism, when, on just the 23rd of June, I heard myself remarking to another mum that my daughters were epuisées, and that I was awaiting the holidays avec impatience. Somewhat startled to discover that this was a genuinely held sentiment on my part, since then I have been baffling over what could possibly have caused me to change my attitude so much in the course of a single year.

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To some extent, the answer lies simply in the fact that we have all acclimatised a little better to the French rhythm of existence. Just as lunchtime here is not viewed as an unfortunate hiatus in an otherwise productive schedule but as a necessary and enjoyable element in a normal day, holidays in France are not treated as inconvenient absences, but as an integral part of a rounded life. Thus, whilst in England tyrannical team leave calendars ensure that the office is never, and never appears to be, vacated, in France if you don’t take three weeks off in August people look at you as if you have some sort of affliction (and indeed, given that your presence alone is causing your company to spend its money on electricity during those weeks, you are little better than a parasite). Let us not forget that this is a country that gave school children an extra week of holiday in February in order to give everyone a better chance of going skiing during the winter.

My understanding of what school is has also undergone some modifications since I have been living here. In England, primary school was a place where the children learnt to read and to do sums, yes, but it was above all a sort of mystical place where they developed and became enriched as human beings. Despite the best efforts of league tables and Ofsted inspectors, this was basically an unquantifiable business, and consequently nobody could really determine precisely at what point it should come to an end each year. In France, primary school is cadré. In general terms this means that there is a programme and, if it is precisely adhered to, the school is doing its job well. If, as has been the case for my daughters, the programme has been completed before the end of the school year, well, what is there left to do? After all, in such an environment, one cannot countenance trespassing on the programme for the following year. My daughters have been fortunate enough to have delightful teachers who have filled the blank space with papier mâché and class outings, but even so they know that their “real” work conjugating verbs and learning multiplication tables is done and, accordingly, they have the strong sense that they no longer need to be there.

The weather is another contributory factor. In England, it is tempting to cling onto the school routine until the skies are blue enough for it at least to look like a holiday. In Lyon it is likely to have been warm since April and really quite hot since the beginning of June. The evening is one of the only times when it is possible to cool down and, as a result, the children go to bed increasingly late and are correspondingly difficult to drag out of bed in the morning. When you find that it is not your five-year-old who is brutally lifting your eyelids as you remain resolutely horizontal at 7.30 in the morning, but you who is threatening them with a sponge full of cold water if they don’t get up, you know that it is time to throw in the towel as far as school is concerned.

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And finally, well, I have learned that no self-respecting French parent would ever countenance, as I did last year, nine unadulterated weeks of their child’s company. Oh no, that, my friends, is what relatives are for. If you want to go on a three-week road trip in the US, there is no need to hesitate when your children can be bundled off for a week in the mountains with one aunt, a week by the sea with another, and finally a week in the countryside with mamy et papy. Or, if it’s just a question of needing to work (but who wants to work when even the boulangerie that opens on Christmas day is shut for a week in August and all the public transport workers are on strike), you need look no further than the wonderful array of children’s activities provided so cheaply, if bureaucratically, by the French state. In the second week of the break I will put the kids onto a bus at 8.30 in the morning and, as if by magic, they will reappear at 5.45, fed and entertained to within an inch of their young lives.

So you could say that, after eighteen months of French life, I have this holiday lark down to a fine art. Pretty soon I’ll be adopting that infuriating tactic honed by early retirees over the years and telephoning my English friends to moan that I have far too much to do before I can possibly go off on my (obligatory) long holiday…

 

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Double Dutch

In England, the more illustrious your qualifications, the more you play them down. Thus, in my old workplace, if a colleague were to be forced into admitting that they had a mere smattering of Latin, you knew to brace yourself to be on the receiving end of various erudite “jokes” delivered in conversant Latin and probably also Ancient Greek. In France, on the other hand, engaging in self-deprecation is a risky business because of the probability that you will be taken seriously. I discovered this to my cost when I turned up the first rehearsal of an ensemble in which I play my ‘cello and said of a fiendish passage that I had practised to death that I’d barely glanced at it. I was met with looks of utter disgust and was forced to explain that it was just une blague in order to prevent myself being fired without ever having played a single note.

A few weeks ago, I found myself being complimented by an acquaintance on my level of French. Caught off guard by the flattery, I instinctively indulged in some light self-deprecation, to the effect that, au contraire, I’d barely mastered the basics. My interlocutor looked at me askance: she knew something was not quite right with what I had said, but was not quite sure what. And then she uttered the immortal phrase: cest vrai, tu sais, avec le chinois, le français est la langue la plus difficile du monde.

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Bingo. For a second there I had thought that my false modesty had been misunderstood and that, once again, I was going to have to embark upon a round of humiliating and doomed explanations of my strange sense of humour. But evidently not, for here was a person who had met my disingenuous self-criticism with her own biting sarcasm. So, after a lengthy pause for me to complete this thought process, I roared with laughter… French, the hardest language: pull the other one! It was only after this burst of hilarity had become quite raucous and prolonged that I looked at the person I was laughing with and realised that she was not laughing at all: indeed, she wore the hurt expression of someone who was being laughed at, for reasons she did not comprehend.

In that split second I realised a) that she had been deadly serious about the French language being, along with Chinese, the most difficult language in the world, and b) that I had just consigned my budding friendship with her to history. Even as I struggled (and ultimately failed) to excuse myself for my bizarre and rude behaviour, I began to turn this over in my mind. Was this woman alone in believing that French was one of the two most difficult languages in the world? For whom was French so difficult, and was it equally difficult for everyone around the world? And where o where had this touching notion come from in the first place?

I have been surreptitiously carrying out my inquiries ever since and have discovered that this woman is not alone in believing that her language presents those wishing to speak it, including francophones, with almost insurmountable difficulties. Indeed, even as one of my students has been in the process of destroying the English language, he has expressed the view that English is really the easiest language ever invented, whereas French is quite impossible. Unable to rise above the extreme affront that I felt under these trying circumstances, I quizzed this student about why he thought this. He looked at me as if I were really quite half-witted and explained, slowly and loudly, that in French there is conjugaison and there are les accords, but in English we don’t conjugate and our nouns are not gendered. Did he not think, though, that for a Spaniard, for example, the similarities between the structures of the two languages might make French really quite straightforward, where Arabic, or Thai, or Hindi, or Amharic might seem quite challenging by contrast? No, he was quite confident, without speaking any of those other languages, that French was more difficult that any of them in any context.

In the end the origins of such bizarre pronouncements turned out not to be all that mysterious. Our eldest daughter came home from school one day with instructions to learn how to conjugate various irregular verbs in the future tense. Despite being able to do it on her first attempt she insisted that I test her once again because, she solemnly intoned, conjugation made French one of the hardest languages in the world and it was important that she concentrated very hard to get it right. So it was that I discovered that the cult of the complexity of the French language in itself forms part of the French curriculum. This notion might make me chortle but it has its advantages: every time I fluff my tenses I toss it nonchalantly into the conversation and, instead of squints of incomprehension, I get nods of sympathy. My French may not be perfect but, given the intricacies of the language, I am doing exceptionally well ever to have got past bonjour.

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I can really recommend this post on the London School of English blog on the way British people view the English spoken by non-natives.

For some thoughts on the relationship between the French and English languages you would do well to start here.

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Culture vultures

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I play the ‘cello. In London that admission had to be forced from me: I muttered it, blushing scarlet. You see, unlike being a bit nifty with a set of decks, outside a few unusual social circles (usually identifiable by their left-leaning, deodorant-defying, muesli-munching, earnest Beowulf-reading worthiness), playing the ‘cello was a hobby with the potential to demolish every last inch of any meagre street-cred that I had managed to accumulate. In the world in which I moved, even astrophysics had more cachet than string quartets. In social situations, if forced to confess to my liking for Mahler, say, or even Mozart, the best I could hope for would be a blank look. More usually I met with a chippy “oooooooooo, la-di-da”; a disingenuous remark about my being “far too brainy”; or just a gaze of open bafflement. Who, after all, would choose to get themselves up in black tie and ponce about with a piece of Stravinsky on a Saturday night, when they could be better occupied watching the football, hosting a fabulous dinner party, working late on some mega corporate deal, or simply drinking themselves into noisy oblivion?

In England it is relatively rare, outside the seasonal madness of the Proms, to see classical concert audiences get to their feet at the end of a performance. For elite professional orchestras standing ovations are given, of course, but often in a predictably muted British way, with at least half the participants looking sheepishly around them to make sure that they do not become stranded in their conspicuously vertical positions. It is no wonder in such an environment that, as a child, one of my biggest sources of mortification was the tendency of my father to leap up as soon as the performance had ended, emitting noises somewhere between an excited squeak and a delighted roar before he would begin thundering his palms together and shouting bravo in defiance of the astonished stares from everyone around us. Back in the days when I had the privilege to play in some fairly exciting orchestras, as young amateurs, the best we could hope for was that the applause sounded more enthusiastic than was strictly compulsory and that my dad might shout encore out of solidarity.

Having now attended a few concerts here in Lyon it comes as no surprise to me that the words shouted out by my father to show his appreciation at the end of concerts are Mediterranean in origin. Take a friend’s performance of Handel’s Messiah last week, for example. This was an amateur choir, of mixed abilities, singing a piece of music which, whilst having the advantages of being joyful and well known, is also rather lengthy and full of pronunciation traps for French-speakers (for we like ship, for example, or for ze glary, ze glary of ze Lard). The choir performed alongside four excellent soloists and a group of period instrumentalists who were utterly virtuosic but who, for all that, from the look of them were members of the aforementioned muesli and Beowulf crowd. The total effect was nonetheless very impressive and I enjoyed the concert very much, which is why I applauded loudly and lengthily at the end.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the ecstatic reaction of the remainder of the audience. Within seconds of the baton going down, they broke out clapping with wild, unrestrained enthusiasm and, within a minute, the first of them were on their feet. Pretty soon entire rows were standing up, applauding, calling out bravo and encore, and, much to my very British stupefaction, some people, quite ancient ones at that, were even wolf-whistling. It is not an exaggeration to describe the applause as having been deafening. Looking round in bewilderment, I realised that the church where I had been sitting was jammed to the very rafters with these fervent spectators from many different age brackets who were, quite literally, standing in the aisles. Eventually the applause turned to rhythmic stamping which, having been sustained for no short while, produced the desired encore. You should bear in mind that, by this point, it was nearly half past eleven, and absolutely nobody was doing the customarily discreet scurry to the exit. I shut my eyes and tried to imagine an amateur choir of a similarly mixed standard attracting such a throng of enthusiasts to one of its concerts in London and then provoking such fervent calls for more, even into the middle of the night. Nope. It just wouldn’t happen.

Thus, whatever the relatively lowly standing of “cultural” subjects such as literature, art or music within the formal education system in France, I have discovered that the cultural life of ordinary French people is much freer and richer than it is for their counterparts in the UK. Here the fact that I play the ‘cello is a badge of honour rather than one of shame. Here, there is far less of a sense of them and us when it comes to classical music. If someone is prepared to put on a concert, they will find no shortage of people beyond their circle of dutiful friends who are willing to attend. I am delighted to be in a place where people can partake of “culture” with such unbridled joy. And who knows, perhaps I become less embarrassed by my father’s musical appreciation now that I know that it will be stifled by the whoops and stampings of the dignified old dear sitting next to him…

20:20 vision

When I was but a pale youth learning about literature at school, I witnessed an exchange between a classmate and our English teacher, who was diminutive in stature, gargantuan in brain and an expert in crowd control by means of biting sarcasm. We had been instructed to go away and produce an essay on the subject of redemption in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The pupil in question asked whether or not King Lear had been redeemed by the end of the play, since this would have a bearing on her answer. In response, my teacher asked the girl whether she was taking French as an A-level. Yes, she was. Then, what, pray, was the meaning of the verb essayer? To try, came the reluctant answer. Yes, said the teacher, essayer meant to try, and from that root sprang the word essay, which meant an attempt. And this was precisely what was being asked of the pupil. It did not matter whether the teacher agreed with her conclusion or not: the point was to try to write something meaningful.

I have no idea how the girl in question reacted to this contribution to her literary development, but it has stuck with me ever since. Indeed, it was as a consequence of that overheard exchange that I developed a notion of the French as being a nation of heroic strivers and philosophers, forever questing after intellectual perfection, even as their very academic terminology acknowledged that this work would never, could never, be completed. In short, the French were a people who understood the importance of the essai.

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As it turns out, this idea of perpetual imperfection is embedded within the very foundations of the French educational system. Take the marking scheme, for example. From secondary age, pupils are marked out of 20. Unlike in the UK, where teachers start with a blank sheet of paper and add on grades like baubles until pretty soon the cleverest are bedecked with undeserved As and A+s, in France teachers start at 20 and deduct points for every mistake, whether it be substantive, or due to handwriting that does not lie within the precisely prescribed millimetre rules on the page. It is a fairly routine occurrence, therefore, for even the brightest pupil to end up with a score of 12, not because of any lack of brilliance in their arguments, but because of a slapdash approach to cursive lettering. So brutal can this system be that some schools even proudly vaunt their decision to prohibit teachers from giving out negative marks (-20, say, if you have made 40 mistakes). No wonder that you hear French people saying that a mark of 20 is for God, 19 for the King and 18 for the Président of the République, leaving a somewhat miserly 17 available for the elusive top-scoring pupils.

It could be argued that the French system is at least honest about the unattainability of perfection. Contrast this with the UK, where children are regularly told that their scribblings are Nobel Prize material, and it begins to look quite attractive. At university I lost track of the number of people I met who arrived as big fish accustomed to dominating their tiny ponds, only to suffer near breakdown when they realised that in the bigger academic pools they were but mere frogspawn. Watching their tortured falls from their gilded pedestals was enough to convince me that children could and should be given more realistic assessments of the magnitude of their achievements and that the development of humility was fundamental. The more you know the more you realise that you don’t know, as I was told by one particularly insightful tutor.

The trouble with the French approach, however, is that, for all its ruthless rationality, it singularly fails to take account of human psychology. The French grading system tells all school pupils that they will never, ever, be good enough. For a clever, conscientious child this can lead to eventual despair or, worse, a creeping indifference to the quality of their output (why try any harder when they can never get top marks?). The plight of children ranking at the bottom of the class is unthinkably worse. Not only can they never aspire to the somewhat disappointing score of 17, but it is conceivable that they will never make it above zero. Why bother at all? After a few years of being marked down, French-style, there is a risk that all the system will have created is a collection of cowed individuals, with no incentive or aspiration whatsoever. At least in the UK the prospect of a stellar musical career, however unlikely, gives our tone-deaf miniature Yehudi Menuhins the impetus to practice their violins every day.

It is true, of course, that a brutalist numerical marking scheme works better in some subjects than in others. In maths, for example, a domain where, at school at least, there are answers that are objectively right, and others that are objectively wrong, it is arguably fair enough to mark pupils ruthlessly out of 20. In the arts, however, it is an unmitigated catastrophe because, once you take away the solid categories of correct and incorrect, who is to say what the unattainable 20 would look like?

I have the privilege to teach literature to three highly gifted teenagers here in Lyon. Despite their obvious intelligence and their impressive perspicacity and inventiveness in class, whenever I set them an essay, one of them is bound to ask me what it is that they should write. When first presented with this question I trotted out the answer given by my own English teacher all those years ago: the right answer does not exist, but it is your attempt to find an answer that is intellectually coherent and interesting that counts. I was met with weary sighs. Why, I asked myself, were these French students, these girls raised from birth in the culture of the essai, so lacking in courage when it came to putting pen to paper? It was only after a good six months of these tedious and unfruitful negotiations that one of them finally put me out of my misery. But, she said, we all know that a right answer does exist. Somewhere out there is a 20:20 response, and as their teacher I should be able to tell them what it was.

It turns out, you see, that the 20:20 bonne reponse to any essay question set for the Baccalaureate is published on the internet the very next day. My students could not understand why, in this context, I persisted with the fraudulent notion that every essay would be read on its own terms. In the French system, it transpires, literature is not a landscape of nuanced greys, as I had been patiently explaining, but rather a horizon dominated by the black and white of correct and incorrect, in which the objective 20 could be found with single click of a mouse.

I am still enraged by this six months on. What hope does any literature student have of developing an independent capacity for analysis and insight if everything that they ever write is subjectively marked down as being inadequate compared to an equally subjective, but purportedly objective, perfect response dreamed up by some demi-God examiner? If I ever see my old English teacher again I will tell her just how fortunate I feel to have been allowed in my youth to make genuine, if naïve, attempts at literary insight, instead of being condemned, as my students are, to making doomed rehearsals of rote-learned points, secure in the knowledge that they will never, can never, reproduce exactly the bonne reponse that will be published the next day.

In the meantime I hope that the French examiner will write to Mr William Shakespeare, to give him the benefit of their 20:20 insight into the issue of whether or not King Lear was ever redeemed. I am sure he would be pleased to hear it.

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This is not my last word on the French education system: there are of course many things about it that are better than the UK system too.

If you are interested in some other perspectives on the differences between the French and English education systems, you could visit Franglaise Mummy or France in London or even the Guardian

 

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