Preparing to study French at university: tips from Cristina Johnston and Hannah Grayson

This post is part of a monthly series on bridging the gap between secondary and higher education. It is intended for students and teachers from both systems to reflect on how to make the transition smoother.


Cristina Johnston is a Senior Lecturer in French and Hannah Grayson is a Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies, both at the University of Stirling.


What do students enjoy about studying French at university?

It varies massively from student to student and it’d only be fair to say that not everyone who is studying French at University is necessarily enjoying studying French… Generally, our students enjoy seeing their own fluency and confidence building, often most obviously through their weekly oral/aural classes but also, as they progress through the degree, as they start work on translation and longer compositions in French. In many cases, across our Year 1 and 2 modules, they seem to particularly enjoy learning more about periods of recent French history, politics and society they haven’t studied before (we focus on late 19th century to present day at Stirling) and learning about the Francophone world beyond metropolitan France.

A turning point often comes halfway through the degree. In line with other Scottish Universities, our degrees are 4 years or 5 if you undertake an English Language Assistantship and it is precisely that question of time abroad that can be a particular source of enjoyment for many of our students. Some of them apply to be ELAs between Year 2 and 3, many will have an integral Semester Abroad in the 2nd half of their Year 3 and spend it at one of our study exchange partners (Erasmus or otherwise) – it is not smooth sailing for all of them, by any stretch of the imagination, but in the majority of cases, it is a positive experience and, perhaps most importantly, an experience whose benefits they see and are proud of. When we invite our finalists to talk to younger cohorts about their experiences or to give presentations at schools outreach events, for instance, we are always struck by the number of times study abroad or living abroad features most positively, most glowingly in their account of their studies.

What is different between studying French in Sixth Form and in university?

There are a couple. Firstly, just having to adapt to a learning environment where you really don’t know anybody and where there can be a very wide range of levels of French (and levels of confidence) within a group. It’s not unusual for us to have, in the same classroom, some students who have come to us at the end of their 5th year of secondary school (with Higher French), some who have come at the end of 6th year (with Advanced Higher), others who have come through the English school system so have A-Levels and have studied the language in a slightly different way, and others still who have come from outside the UK and who have gone through a Bac-style system, for instance. And alongside all of those groups, you might have the occasional bilingual student or someone who has taken time out before starting University and happens to have spent some or all of that time in a French-speaking part of the world. All of that, together, in one classroom, with tutors you don’t know, fellow students you’re only just getting to know, in a new town can be an intimidating mix. There’s always a levelling out over the course of Year 1 as people start to see that, while someone may be very confident in their spoken or written class, others may be more at ease speaking about literature or cinema in seminars, but it can be a bumpy ride for the first little while.

The second main challenge, I’d say, is the adjustment from classes tending to be more teacher-led at secondary school to being more student-centred at University. I don’t mean that there’s a complete shift and that everything is then in the hands of the students but it does also take time to figure out what feedback is, how it works, what you’re supposed to do with it, how to navigate your timetable, what the difference might be between a seminar and a lecture and how you might learn differently in different classes, and so on. And, for Languages students, there’s that kind of immediate set of changes and adapting that needs to happen at the same time as Module Coordinators, Programme Directors, Study Abroad Advisors and some other students will be talking about what’s coming up a couple of years down the line when you need to go on Study Abroad. You’re having to concentrate on the immediate context and adapt and adjust to that, at the same time as thinking ahead and thinking about the ways in which the work you’re doing in Years 1 and 2 is (hopefully) setting you up for that time abroad. When employers say that they value Languages graduates for their flexibility, adaptability, willingness to rise to a challenge… they’re not only talking about Languages students’ time abroad but everything that leads up to that time abroad and the time management, organisation and communication skills that are being bolstered over the first couple of years of the degree that precede that time abroad.

To help with the transition, we provide what we term ‘Bridging materials’ to incoming first year students to engage with (if they want to) in the summer before they start at Stirling. These involve in explanations of who we are and how we work as a department, as well as practice exercises in language and culture work, so that students get an idea of the kinds of things they’ll be doing in their first semester. Students have the option of submitting a practice essay in the first few weeks of term, and the chance to receive written and spoken feedback on this, so that they can go through the motions (including the new process of having to submit work online, for example) before they are submitting anything for summative assessment.

Any tips or recommendations for teachers or for students who would like to study French?

In terms of actual ‘content’ work, I don’t think we’d really have many tips or recommendations. Teachers are already working under enough pressure to fit in the required curriculum, to meet targets, to think about league tables, etc without an academic who finished school well over 20 years ago trying to tell them what else they should be teaching! For us, it’s more about managing the expectations of the pupils who are about to become University students – encouraging them to understand that much more onus will be placed on them to follow up on feedback, to come and talk to tutors to find out how they can improve after an assessment has been graded/given feedback, to see studying a language (and, indeed, studying at University as more than just what happens in the classroom), and so on. If teachers have any contact with (recent) former pupils who can come back and talk to current pupils about their experiences, that can also be helpful, just in terms of preparing the pupils for the shift that will happen.

As for the students themselves, any and all exposure to the language they’re about to study helps so, between the end of school and the start of University, watch films, listen to podcasts, watch videos on YouTube in French, follow Twitter accounts in French, read news articles… And then keep doing that as you start at University, making it part of your daily routine. And try, as far as possible, to remember that studying a language is made up of much, much more than learning grammatical ‘rules’ – it’s about taking risks, building your confidence, making mistakes, listening to what others say and how they say it, grabbing opportunities, talking to tutors, asking questions and not getting too worried about a specific grammar point that you just can’t seem to get your head round

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