Month: January 2016

Things to do with a degree in French…

Fiona graduated with a first degree (in French and English Studies) back in 2012 and came back to Stirling to complete an MSc in Translation with TESOL in 2013-14. In between, she has had postings as an English Language Assistant through the British Council’s scheme and, since Autumn 2015, she has been working as a lectrice at the Université Franche-Comté. Before starting that job, though, last Summer, Fiona found herself working at an English Language Summer School in Edinburgh…

“I was delighted when, nearing the end of my second stint as an English Language Assistant in a French high school, I was offered the role of Activity Manager at an English Language Summer School in Edinburgh. What I didn’t fully grasp at the time was just how intense summer school could be, especially for managers. You have no choice but to hit the ground running!

2016 Mears Summer School Photo 1 School

The madness began almost straight away with the arrival of our first group of students and it didn’t really stop! It soon became clear that there are many duties concealed behind the title ‘Activity Manager’; not only did I manage and organise activities and excursions, I took part in them.

As the only member of staff who knew the city, I spent two Saturdays in Stirling, where I relished the experience of climbing the Wallace Monument’s 246 stairs twice in the space of half an hour after all three group leaders on the trip threw a hissy fit and refused to go up. On the upside, I was rewarded with a rare few hours off later that afternoon.

2016 Mears Summer School Photo 3 Kelpies

I also went to places that I had never got round to visiting: Linlithgow Palace, Falkland Palace, Holyrood Palace (good job I enjoy looking round palaces), the Royal Botanic Gardens, Dynamic Earth… As you might imagine, going to such places isn’t a wholly relaxing experience with fifty or so teenagers in tow, but any opportunity to escape the campus was one that I was going to take.

As well, I took part in on-campus activities (playing Ultimate Frisbee was a personal highlight), I carried out placement testing, taught, tour guided, shepherded students into lines in the dining hall and patrolled corridors at night. It all sounds very glamourous, I know. I greeted new arrivals and waved off departures. And on top of this, I did what I had daftly perceived would be my job, that is, making sign-up sheets, confirming bookings, doing staff observations, preparing itineraries, typing risk assessments, setting out materials needed for activities and excursions and generally ensuring everything on the activities side of things ran smoothly.

2016 Mears Summer School Photo 4

All in all, summer school was one of the most stressful, demanding and downright exhausting experiences of my life so far. Yet it was by no means a negative one. It taught me a lot. It gave me my first taste of management, which I discovered I’m not too bad at. It put my organisational and prioritisation skills to the test. I learnt to predict potential hiccups and to have a plan B (and C and D) for everything, and I learnt to think on my feet when problems inevitably cropped up. Having to phone to make and confirm reservations forced me to get over my dislike of talking to strangers over the phone. It put me out of my comfort zone, in a good way. Staying focused and not losing it after a close to 100-hour working week is no easy task – but I did it. I’m just glad that summer school happens in 4-week blocks!”

Updates on Fiona’s new job as a lectrice in France will (hopefully…) follow soon!

Experiences as an ELA (Part III)

Our final account of a year as an English Language Assistant comes from Ellen, who found herself in Sarreguemines in the Moselle region for her year:

‘Last year I applied to be a language assistant in France in order to improve my understanding of the French language and culture. During my time abroad I saw lots of France, discovered the culture, practised and improved my French but I gained so much more. Being a language assistant gave me the opportunity to try teaching for the first time and I have realised that it is a career that I would love to pursue in the future.

2016 Ingram Photo 4

I arrived at Lycée Jean de Pange in Sarreguemines (Moselle) last September and I had no idea what to expect. The school was very welcoming when I arrived and was keen to give me information about the area and help me settle in. On the second week I was thrown into the deep end and was given groups of pupils to teach (on my own) about Scotland and Scottish culture. At first I was terrified but very soon I became comfortable in my role and enjoyed leading the classes.

Throughout the year I spent most of my working week at the lycée teaching students up to the age of 22. I spent two hours a week at Collège Fulrad teaching pupils who were as young as 10. It was difficult at first to find an appropriate style of lesson for each age group but with the help and advice of the teachers and spending time with the pupils I soon became more able to create suitable and (hopefully) interesting classes. I had one class a week with the BTS which was something that I never really got used to as it was really strange to teach people who were older than me, especially when they referred to me as ‘Madame’.

2016 Ingram Photo 2

My main aim was to teach the pupils about Scottish and British culture in English so they could learn more about the country as well as improve their language skills. I made lessons about Scottish pop music, films, history and events and celebrations. On St Andrews day I told them about the history of Saint Andrew and it is celebrated in Scotland by teaching them some Scottish dances and letting them try some tablet and shortbread. I found it really rewarding when my lessons went well, especially when the students told me that they enjoyed it. Over the year I also got the opportunity to assist marking course work and CV’s as well as helping with speaking exams. I learned more about the role of a teacher as well as the French education system in general.

Working at Lycée Jean de Pange and Collège Fulrad was a fantastic experience which was made possible by the support from the teachers and students at both schools. At the end of the year I was sad to leave especially after receiving lovely gifts and messages from the schools. On my last day the 6è class performed ‘Hello, Goodbye’ by the Beatles which was really sweet. A week after finishing the assistantship, I got to join the pupils and teachers on the school trip to Edinburgh which was a really strange but rewarding experience. It was so nice to see the students get to see places that I had taught them about over the year and remember stories about particular places and historical events.

2016 Ingram Photo 1

Overall, I had a brilliant time in France and learned so much. I would encourage anybody who is considering applying to be an assistant to go for it as for me the experience has been something that I could never regret.’

Experiences as an ELA (Part II)

The second of three accounts of a year spent in France under the British Council’s English Language Assistantship scheme, this time from Colm who spent his year near Montpellier:

‘Around this time last year I was on my way to the beach in the South of France. I was living over near Montpellier and working in a Lycée as an English Language Assistant. Truthfully, I chose to take a year out firstly to improve my French as it seemed like a great way to get immersed in the language and culture but mainly, who doesn’t want a yearlong holiday? However, professionally I have no idea what I want to do after I graduate and teaching has always been an option so spending a year – or 7 months – working in a school would be the perfect opportunity to try out working with kids.

2016 Harvey Marseillan Plage

When I first arrived a week or so before the classes started of course I was nervous but who wouldn’t be? Unfortunately the airport where I arrived wasn’t well connected to the village I was going to live in. Although I had been warned taxis in France are expensive, I thought they wouldn’t be much more than back home. I was wrong. About 90€ and 30 minutes later I arrived at my new home.

Fortunately, the school had helped me with accommodation and had given me the details of a woman who rented her spare rooms out to the assistants. So that’s how I came to live with Marianne – the most helpful French person I’ve ever met, and Maria – the Spanish assistant. This was great as straight away there was another person in the same position so we could complain about work, catch the wrong bus and travel. A lot.

This was probably my favourite part of the job; every 6 weeks we had 2 weeks holidays and even when we were “working” it was only for 12 hours a week. Basically, this means lots and lots of free time. Throughout the year I probably saw more of France than a lot of my new French friends – Paris, Nice, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse. French trains are a lot better and quicker than Scottish trains, I was only 3 hours from both Paris and Barcelona, and with a carte jeune (50€ to buy) the discount was amazing.

2016 Harvey Lyon


At the school the strangest thing I noticed was that if the teacher wasn’t there for whatever reason neither were the pupils, that resulted in me turning up to school to find I actually had no class. Again another benefit of living in the village and only 2 minutes from the school. However, when I did actually have to teach the work was quite enjoyable – depending on the class – and very varied. With one teacher I had to do a practice speaking exam with her pupils one by one while another teacher told me “They’re studying Australia right now so plan something on that.” Quite vague but at least it gave me the freedom to do more what I wanted.

2016 Harvey Night at Hospital
Night in the hospital


Unfortunately, it wasn’t all a blast. Last November I got mugged while in Montpellier. In hindsight I was just in the wrong place and not being that careful. Yet, every cloud has a silver lining; I got to spend a whole night in the hospital with my friends and experience first hand French bureaucracy which is extremely complicated. There are 2 types of police depending on the crime, everything has to be copied at least 20 times, and if you’re foreign it just gets even worse. This is the same for CAF (housing benefits), sécurité sociale and anything else you can think of. Do you want to eat at the school canteen? Paperwork. Register at the gym? More paperwork.

Despite all this I had the best time. I even found some jobs and stayed for an extra 4 months (I only came back because I had to start 3rd year again). Yes, the paperwork is tiring and soul crushingly tedious, and I got a black eye in the process but I wouldn’t change it for the world, as clichéd as that sounds.

Take me back!’

Experiences as an ELA (Part I)

The deadline has now closed for students applying for English Language Assistantships in France (though anybody interested in applying for Spain has a little longer to apply…) and, as ever, a large number of our Year 2 students and a growing number of finalists have submitted their applications. As they wait for news over the coming weeks and months, it seemed like a good time to post some tales from previous assistants with thanks to Charlotte (the author of this piece), Colm and Ellen (the authors of the next two pieces!) for sharing their experience:

Charlotte spent 8 months living and working as an English Language Assistant in Bordeaux and would ‘100% recommend giving it a go as although it sounds clichéd, it definitely has been the best experience of my life so far. My time in France taught me a great deal, it wasn’t always easy but I have gained so much from it, and I learnt from both the negative and positive experiences that I encountered.

2016 Cavanagh Miroir dEau
Le Miroir d’Eau, Bordeaux

The first few weeks I spent in France were some of the toughest moments I have ever had to experience. This was due to a number of reasons: problems with accommodation, problems with the organisation of the school (which never got easier), organising mobile phones and bank accounts and the language barrier.  I went to France thinking that I could speak the language well, but I was soon to realise that I had a lot to improve on. I had regular experiences of listening to someone talk for 5 minutes and not understanding a single word that they had said! But it got easier over time, the important thing is to be patient as it does get easier.

For me, the highlight of the year abroad was getting the opportunity to live with French people. My language skills vastly improved due to this and I was given the opportunity to experience Bordeaux the “French” way. When I arrived in late September, I thought I had accommodation organised by my school, but when I arrived to a room with no lock on the door, no kitchen, no water and no internet I quickly realised that I would have to find another home. After a painful 3 weeks living alone and having no luck in finding anything, I found a flat share in the city of Bordeaux. It was no palace, but everything was on my doorstep and I got free travel to and from the schools as most of the staff lived on Bordeaux. From the moment I moved in, my experience of living abroad drastically changed for the better. I was able to meet other assistants, meet the friends of my flat mates and truly experience France in the way I had depicted it.

2016 Cavanagh Lycee

If I was to give one word of advice, it would be patience. Learning a language is a long, tiring and sometimes humiliating process but as long as you stick with it, you will only improve. Having patience is also key in France as administration and paperwork takes a very long time to organise- I am still yet to receive my “carte vitale” health card! The 3 schools I worked at were particularly disorganised at times, which became very stressful. I would receive my timetable the Sunday evening, there were weeks where I worked only 5 hours, and others where I would work 14 or more. It is a stressful process moving abroad, but if you persevere you will definitely benefit and learn a great deal.

Although teaching does not seem to be the profession for me, working at the schools was still a great experience as I did enjoy teaching about life in the UK and watching the pupils improve as the year went on. I worked in 3 different schools; each one being completely different from the other, enabled me to work with the pupils and staff in a numerous amount of ways. For example in the lycée pro (the Lycée Professionnel de l’Estuaire Blaye) there was a working restaurant which different year groups ran depending on the day. I often had lunch at the restaurant and ordered my food in English to help them practice their language skills. This simple activity was one of the highlights of working and I built up a good relationship with the school because of this.

Lastly, a few tips that I would give to anyone thinking about going abroad:

1) Patience and perseverance are key

2) If you need help with anything, ASK other assistants and the teachers you work with. There will be someone who is in the same boat as you and there will always be someone there to help.

3) Remember that you may not get placed in a city centre. But the important thing is to make the most of the experience, travel at every opportunity you get.

4) Be prepared for the criteria of your lessons to be: “Talk English to them” and get ready to teach more pupils than you should be teaching!

5) Join the Facebook groups for assistants in your region. You’ll realise that people are in the same situations as yourself and people also organise day trips on the page so you don’t want to miss out!’

2016 Cavanagh Travels

What’s it like being a ‘lectrice’ at Stirling?

At all levels of study in French at Stirling, our students have weekly oral and aural classes, in small groups, taught by our native Language Assistants, Brigitte Depret and Mathilde Mazau. Given the key role they play in our students’ progress through their studies, we thought it’d be good to start the year with their take on what it’s like to be a lectrice at Stirling. Here’s Brigitte’s view of things:

2016 Brigitte Photo

‘Since first being introduced into universities the lectrice or lecteur has become essential to students’ language learning. Despite the considerable versatility of the job in terms of responsibilities, most of us have teaching qualifications or a university degree. I had a previous teaching activity in France where I taught English. Now, my main activity consists in teaching my native language at university level, being a free-lance translator and in my rare spare time, writing a book. As teachers, through peer reviews and seminars, we are given the opportunity to improve or even maintain the quality of our teaching, to update, evolve and meet the increasingly varied demands of students.

The content and the level to which I teach can vary significantly. Firstly, at undergraduate level, I teach the technical or grammatical knowledge of the language, through the teaching of syntax, focusing on competence in writing or comprehension and production. I also teach oral/aural language classes at the same level. Here, the focus is on oral/aural competence. Occasionally, I offer specific language seminars where I teach or give talks to post-graduate students in the realm of translation studies. Finally, my role goes beyond teaching too. All teachers’ roles have an administrative side too. Before the start of a semester, my work includes putting together an exercise work pack here, several oral language work packs there. On a weekly basis, it includes preparations, corrections, marking, sampling, feed-back, invigilating, replying to emails, meetings and a couple of feedback and guidance hours when students can pop in if need be.

We cannot evoke our beautiful French language without mentioning its thorny grammar. Ah, French grammar! All our students have to get through it and the grammar remains a very technical and confusing part to especially our English native speakers who tend to have learned their own grammar intuitively. Through the first couple of years, in weekly seminars, our students will be taught and explained our daunting French grammar that is full or rules and exceptions, which will often times leave them scratching their heads. They will complete exercises where grammar is taught in context, so it is not just theory. The seminars aim at enhancing the students’ technical language skills so they can confidently apply what they have learned in writing their own piece.


To be able to teach French grammar, doesn’t only require a very accurate knowledge of my native language, but also the ability to walk in the students’ shoes so I can offer them clearer explanations. It does involve a lot of patience and creativity! Indeed, sometimes one explication won’t suffice and I will have to find strategies, tricks and more examples to ensure that they all have understood the point.

As far as the speaking skills are concerned, these are the hardest skills to work on as the success of the course strictly relies on the students’ implication and will to communicate. The differences in level (we have some bilingual students, false beginners, shy students…) and the fact that we welcomes more and more students whose native language is not English, make an oral language class, an interesting ‘dance’ where the participants sometimes try hard to follow the steps not to lose the rhythm. The various themes we work on with our students, range from cultural aspects (humour, politics, ecology, feminism, cinema, songs, comics) or linguistic aspects (colloquial French and slang).

It’s the personal choice of the lectrice to decide which material to choose to support our activities. It varies, but usually, these are press cuttings, videos links, extract of a book etc. They are put together in a work pack for the students’ use.

In a spoken language class, I often question my practice: ‘Am I speaking too fast? Did they get what I said? Should I repeat in English for those who are lost? Should I ask someone to rephrase my question?’ In fact, I think I question myself more than the students dare ask me to repeat! Don’t we all have this awkwardness when we don’t understand a sentence and feel very uneasy to ask ‘Vous pouvez répéter, s’il vous plaît?’

The fluency in the oral language is the most difficult skill to perfect as it regroups all the fine competences required to be able to communicate on a satisfactory level: listening, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, syntax structure and last but not least, intonation and rhythm. This is a heavy load on the beginner’s brain. At the beginning I often ask my students to try repeating in a chorus. It works well. I feel like a conductor and they are my musicians, training together first, in a view to letting them play solo at a later stage.

It’s good to see the students gaining confidence, but sometimes the lectrices alone cannot perform miracles. This is what saddens me the most in my practice when I don’t see quick positive results. However, all is not lost! Students who have had the opportunity to study abroad in France or another French-language country are proud to come back and show us how their French has improved. Most importantly, the mastering of a language, really comes together when the students have no other choice than to speak French when they find themselves in total immersion.

This is why I truly believe the perfection of their oral practice is not all down to the teachers. We strongly encourage our students to expand their knowledge by reading, listening to radio shows, watching the news or movies in French outside of the classes, since we cannot spoon feed them at that level. The students have numerous tools at their disposal in this big era of the social and digital media. We have a Facebook page on which we post relevant pieces from the French press on a daily basis for the students to read.

Finally, one of the last things I wish to mention about this job I do absolutely love, is that I have had the chance to organise a few cultural or celebratory get together with my students. Beyond teaching, to connect with them outside of the class through my language, or when they email me news from France writing in a perfect French, to tell me about their experience and how nicely they have progressed, that in itself is enough to make my day and want me to keep teaching as long as I can.’