Encouraging English (or any another language) in children 

Raising children in a bilingual environment requires parents to be somewhat cognizant of language development. There are simple and fun ways to encourage bilingualism in our children. Parenting includes giving children values, gestures and cultural communication habits and expressions. We can educate our children to be bilingual by surrounding them, as often as possible, with our linguistic experience. An important principle is “one language one person.” Children will associate a language with the person who speaks it. One individual who consistently and exclusively addresses the child in a language will become linked with that language. This helps the child navigate neurologically amid any number of languages she might hear. In a mixed-language environment, the person speaking the language less often used in day-to-day life needs to provide extra effort. In this note you can read about comprehending (listening) and expressing (speaking).


Listening is the primary and passive way to acquire a language. It is easy and non-threatening because the child remains silent while absorbing language from a constant caregiver. When we talk to our children, we name things, give them directions, sing together, make observations about the world. They listen to our stories and they overhear our conversations. No recorded, written or electronic material can replace the learning relationship established through a regular, continual communication contact with a loved one. 

Because listening is the major means of transmitting language, we should consciously include expanded vocabulary and more complicated sentence structures as the child develops. The messages can mature with the child. As parents, we are their primary interlocutors during the formative language-learning age (approximately up to 5 years old). By making the effort to translate or explain when necessary, by adding “This is how you say it in English,” we provide the child with vocabulary elements, syntax models and tonic phrase patterns: new words, sentence structure, and intonation.  Young children rarely balk at listening as a first step to language learning. Listening encourages participation and interaction for them to respond in conversation. 


Speaking demands more active participation from children. Some children speak with more ease and frequency than others and at different ages. Kids will answer our questions in the simplest language for them to use, and this will probably be the language they use daily or a mixture of the languages they are familiar with. Children will mix languages and make errors with insignificant effects on their future competency. 

All children react individually. As they get older and more self-conscious, some children may hesitate to produce and perform. Forcing them to answer in English may add an artificial or negative emotional challenge. Insisting on a particular language may lead to a power struggle, which could be counterproductive and might create undesirable behavior. Continue addressing the child in English. You can ignore the language they reply with. Their experience needs to remain positive, not coercive. Congratulate your child when they respond in English.

Language acquisition is cumulative but not a regular linear process. Long latent periods may be followed by spurts of high activity and integration. “Errors” are not necessarily representative of failure to learn. Example: When a child says “He goed home” she demonstrates her acquisition of the general rule for past tense conjugation, and her lack of only one irregular verb form “went.” 

Tactics towards bilingualism

At an early age, begin finger plays and singing games encouraging your child to sing along. There are many websites to remind you of your favorite early childhood games. Work into call and response and movements as you play together. 

Younger children will often react to a variety of verbal provocations from toys or dolls used as puppets. An English-speaking plaything or cuddle-animal can engage your child in conversation. (You provide the voice and movement, of course, wiggling the head while it speaks, leaning its ear towards the child when an answer is expected.) If the child answers in French, adapt to English “What did you say?” without comment or hesitation. AAWE members report good results from using a stuffed animal who only understands and speaks English used in this fashion.

Discuss stories and books with your kids: “Who is this story about?” “What do you think will happen next?” Even though the child’s English may not be perfect, continue soliciting their interaction. Do you enjoy telling stories?  Make up stories together. Adapt known stories in a manner the child might appreciate: Astronaut Goldilocks and the 3 Space Aliens or Grizzlylocks and the 3 Teddy Bears. Make up stories using Playmobil or figurines as characters, letting the characters talk to each other in English as you and the child play together. Make up stories about what you see in the street “Who do you think lives in that old house?” “Where do you think the truck is going?”

Some of these tactics will be more or less suitable for you and your child. AAWE friends and children’s activities can help support an English language environment.  Whether or not your child is speaking in English, you will want to read to them in English. We will discuss Reading in the next installment. 

Janine Brimbal

Ms. Brimbal found an early connection to linguistics and non-verbal communication. Love of great literature qualified her as a Title I resource teacher. While clowning around the nation’s capital disguised as a bear or the tap-dancing-Empire-State-Building, she taught drama at the Smithsonian Institution and participated in performing arts educational research and training projects. She used Contact Improvisation to develop Wheelchair Dance with adults, and is proud to have participated in the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act and directed a project to assist in the integration of children with disabilities.  

Fortuitously performing at the Alternative Theatre Festival in Nancy, she found herself in France, and the food convinced her to stay. She has directed a local lycée theatre group for 17 years and has published articles on drama and disability in a number of international publications. Currently retired and the mother and grandmother of brilliant researchers, Janine is thrilled to contribute to AAWE in any way.

What would you like to know about the French system of education?

Here’s a brief description for you of its background, its structure, and some of its important characteristics, just as an introduction.

French education, like that in other countries, is struggling greatly to cope with the current pandemic. Its functioning is in enormous upheaval. Its very remaining open is problematic and controversial, and organization of instruction in safe conditions is an ongoing challenge. The information in this article describes the system as it operates under normal circumstances  (which may be a long time in returning) but it should help nevertheless to understand the underlying nature of the system.

You should know that in its organization and administration, the French system of education is very different from that of the U.S. and of some other English-speaking countries. It provides a striking contrast for Americans, who have no centralized Ministry of Education, but rather 16,800 or so basically autonomous school districts run by locally elected school boards, and even differing regulations from state to state. The centralized French approach to education stems, of course, from a long overall tradition of centralized government, and was designed to ensure at least égalité to French citizens by providing free, universal instruction accessible to all.

In France, the centralized public school system is under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education, Youth, and Sports.  It is for all intents and purposes the same everywhere, including overseas, except for minor differences due to local conditions or constraints. There is a national curriculum with national exams. Teachers must obtain national certification, and belong to a national corps of civil servants.

Like other educational systems in the developed world, the French system has of course to cope with a number of concerns, including the very serious problems of violence and substance abuse in some schools, problematic math and reading levels, teacher training and absenteeism, and the competition with the internet, phones, and TV for students’ interest and time.

There is concern about anxiety and depression among students. There are naturally periodic complaints about all these issues, and calls for reform of various kinds which successive Ministers of Education have tried to deal with, with varying success.

Nevertheless, you will see that the French system has an intellectual and educational tradition of quality and high standards, of which the country is generally proud. Its graduates are highly regarded throughout the world.

16 Key Characteristics of the French Educational System

  1. Most notably, its extreme centralization with national curricula, exams, and corps of civil servant teachers, plus inspectors.
  2. Longer school days and more vacation days than in most other European countries. The total number of school hours in the year is, however, roughly the same.
  3. The stress on the secular character of public education, a principle held very strongly by government and educational authorities. This has, for example, led to a national problem concerning the wearing of a Muslim head veil to school, which has been basically forbidden by authorities. The argument is that all conspicuous apparel of a religious nature ought not to have any place in the secular schools where everyone should be equal and neutral. There is a refusal of what they call communitarisme, or the juxtaposition and delineated coexistence of identifiable ethnic or religious communities, as in the US.
  4. The importance of education to the French public. The bac is a sacred institution, a matter of public interest. The press covers the topic extensively, and the actual exam questions are announced to the public nationwide after the exams. In late August and early September, the whole country prepares for the Rentrée Scolaire, with considerable press and TV time devoted to the return of the country’s youngsters to school.
  5. An emphasis on abstract thought. The French primary curriculum tends to deal with abstract concepts in math and grammar sooner than in other countries. The four hour-long bac essays in French and philosophy ask abstract questions like, “Can philosophy get along without a reflection on science? Or “Is human freedom limited by the necessity to work?” or “How does one recognize that an event is historic?” (These are actual philosophy bac questions.)
  6. A tradition of the transmission of knowledge, the cerebral duty of teachers to instruct, not educate in the most comprehensive sense. In connection with this, secondary teachers mostly come to school for their 16-18 hours of class, but do not have to be in school otherwise. Monitoring of halls, classes, cafeterias, and recreation areas is done by surveillants hired expressly for that purpose, since it is not considered part of a secondary teacher’s job.
  7. A relatively elitist approach, and accompanying this, a tendency toward individual competition and achievement. One of the areas where teaching practice has evolved most in the last couple of decades is the inclusion of small group work and team projects to teach students how to work together cooperatively.
  8. Early orientation at the end of the ninth year into the type of study a student will follow, as contrasted with the American system, in any case, when this is still the beginning of high school and choices remain open.
  9. A tradition of rigor and clear thought in presentation of ideas. A noted French philosopher Alain, said, “L’homme se forme par la peine”, that is, “man is formed through effort” and this idea has always been present in French educational circles. Learning is not generally expected to be fun.
  10. A certain reliance on rote learning and lectures, despite much change in teaching practice in general. One of the areas where teaching practice has evolved most in the last couple of decades is the inclusion of small group work and team projects to teach students how to work together cooperatively.
  11. A generally large number of subjects studied, at all levels of schooling, and relatively few options as opposed to compulsory subjects, especially for the bac. The role of math is especially important in French education and is the fundamental means of selection of the best students.
  12. Relatively short shrift given to the arts, except when chosen as an optional subject in the lycée. Students may get only an hour a week of music or art in early secondary school, and none later. The existence of the outside network of arts possibilities means that those who have the interest and the means tend to pursue the arts outside of the school setting.
  13. Sports practiced outside of school in community teams rather than school ones. Sports are available to varying degrees to French students, but this is definitely not a sports-oriented educational culture.
  14. A marking scale from 1-20. The passing mark is 10, thus a little lower than in other marking systems.
  15. Absolute marking standards, making it possible to have a whole physics class with marks below the necessary required average and severe marking practices. Giving low grades is sometimes considered to be a way of motivating students to do better. Corrigés, or corrected answer sheets, are often given out after exams, including literature essays, to indicate what should have been the answers or key points treated.
  16. Several parents’ associations with links to major political factions. Sometimes representatives of several associations attend the same class council meetings.

Key figures:

  • 535 overseas schools under the French system, located in 139 countries.
  • 28 regional administrative districts (Academies) headed by Recteurs
  • Schooling is free and compulsory from 3 to 16 years of age.
  • Of France’s 67 million residents, 13 million are children in primary and secondary schools, and over 800,000 are teachers.
  • About 17% of schools are private.
  • Approximately 97% of these private schools are under contract (contrat d’état) with the Education Nationale, which requires that their school programs be identical to those in the public system, in exchange for a substantial subsidy. These schools are largely Catholic.

Nancy Willard-Magaud holds degrees from Wellesley College and Yale University. Formerly Director of the American Section of the Lycée International de St. Germain-en Laye, she helped to create the American Option of the French Baccalauréat (OIB) and served as its Inspectrice Générale Déléguée (head moderator). Her three sons attended French schools and American and French universities. She has been awarded the Palmes Académiques for her service to French education and culture and is currently special consultant to the English-Language Association of France (ELSA-France).

To locate a school, zoom in on your area of this map.

Click on each red marker to see the page number where this school features in the AAWE Guide to Education in France (9th edition, 2021).

If you haven’t yet purchased your copy of the AAWE Guide to Education in France with complete school listings and details, you can order it here for delivery by mail, or for pickup at AAWE in Paris.

Got kids? Need a school? We can help! The AAWE Guide to Education in France was born back in 1985, when a bunch of American moms within AAWE in Paris put their heads together to investigate school choices for their bilingual children. Now in it’s 9th edition, the Guide has grown to include this accompanying blog to tackle questions such as:

• Which school is best for a new arrival in France who speaks only English?
• Which school is best for my bicultural child, a native speaker of French and of English?
• What exactly are those school supplies I’m supposed to buy?
• How do I make sense of the French education system? What are the issues I should consider?
• Which questions should I ask when visiting a school?
• How do I maintain my child’s English level?

Whether you are relocating from overseas or raising a bilingual child right here in France, you’re in good company. For almost 4 decades, parents of bilingual children all over France have relied on the AAWE Guide to Education in France, researched by our group of mostly American women enjoying our bicultural lives in France, all facing the challenge of finding an ideal bilingual and bicultural education for our kids. (Join us – we welcome new faces!)

Over the years, the way parents access information has changed significantly, so we are eager to announce this new blog – AAWE Education Insights – which will allow us to keep providing essential information, update this information frequently, and interact with readers. You can expect a new post every few weeks, coming from experienced parents, education professionals, parent associations, and experts in child development. Our writers are members of AAWE, sister associations, and guest bloggers.

And if you haven’t yet purchased your copy of the AAWE Guide to Education in France with complete school listings and details, you can order it here for delivery by mail, or for pickup at AAWE in Paris.

-Anjali Morard