What’s it like for English speaking children to go to French school?


I’ve been inspired to write this post by a message I received a few days ago from a reader who is planning a move to France in about 18 months.  She has three small children, and is desperate for information from experienced families who have already made the transition.  In this particular family, nobody speaks French for the time being, though they’re very interested in starting to learn before making the move.

While searching school options in France, there are a few options…

For those who have the financial means, the desire to do so, and the possibility of living in or near a large city with lots of expats, there are exclusive international and bilingual schools.  I don’t have any experience with these kinds of establishments, so I can’t really comment as to whether I would send my children there.  I have known American families who have come to France for work, and their companies have paid for schooling for the children.  Everyone I know in this situation seems to have had a positive experience, but the kids didn’t necessarily go back to the States fully bilingual.  I’m assuming that’s because many of their classes were taught in English, most of their friends spoke English, and the parents didn’t learn French to the point where they were speaking it at home with the kids.

A much more economical solution, and the most “natural” in my opinion, is to send your children to French school.  Public or private, this particular option seems like the most frightening, especially for parents, but it is the most efficient way of immersing your family into French culture and learning the language.  Now, it’s true that before moving to France last summer, our children were already bilingual (we’d always made a special effort to speak only in French at home while living in the U.S., and their dad is French).  However, when we got married sixteen years ago, we did spend almost a year living in Béziers.  At that time, my eldest son (who is now almost 23!) was only 7, and he didn’t speak a lick of French when we put him in French school.  He was fully bilingual (using the subjunctive correctly and everything) by January 1.  Enrolling your children in French school is a way to help them integrate, find friends in the community, and it’s also an excellent means by which your family can befriend other families in the area.

Depending on where your’e coming from, French “private” schools (and by that, I mostly mean Catholic schools) are a lot less expensive than you may be expecting.  I’m saying that from an American point of view, but all I can say is that in St. Louis, we were paying almost $800 per MONTH for two children to attend a parochial school (yes, it’s a great school, but come on).  Here in France, the equivalent costs us 114€ per month for two children.

Here’s a question I have for anyone reading this post who may have a response, because I personally don’t know, and I haven’t heard any of my anglophone friends here in France mention it.  Are there FLE (français langue étrangère) resources for non-native speakers in public French schools, like the ESL resources provided in American public schools?  I’ll see if anyone has any knowledge on that topic, and I’ll also ask around here in town to see what kind of response I can find.

I’d be very curious to hear input on this topic.  Feel free to share your opinion:  public, private, bilingual?  Reasons why?

5 thoughts on “What’s it like for English speaking children to go to French school?”

  1. There are many options for those of us who come speaking very little French. However, since they have 18 months I recommend to begin now. When they do arrive, agencies such as Leo Legrand (located in most towns), Amicale Laïque and numerous other organisations. Here is our village, I badgered and found a few others and MJC provided a classroom and teachers so we have our own. Your local Office of Tourism can be helpful in searching for courses. Of course one could go private but there are benefits to having a class. I am currently attending a course at Amicale Laïque nearby and also the one in my village and am enjoying both.

  2. If they go to a big city with an international school, it will have integration services for non-native French speakers. My kids spoke French fluently but I wanted to make sure they also became fully bilingual in my native English, so I sent them to the CSI (Cité Scolaire Internationale) in Lyon. There were kids from all walks of life and places (from Japan to Poland) and the French instruction was more open-minded to outsiders than a typical French school would have been. We did have to pay for the English-language instruction (unfortunately we had no corporate employers to pick up the tab!) but no regrets there: both our kids went on to pursue university degrees in English with no difficulty. So overall, a very positive international school experience.

  3. I totally agree with your feeling about immersion in French schools for non-French speakers. When we moved to Bordeaux (2.5 years ago), our children did not speak French at all..Two of my children were in Elementary school and one started at the Maternelle. All of them had good experiences and there was general acceptance and understanding of where they were starting from. After about 4 months, all of them were speaking like it was their native tongue. Here’s a link to a post I wrote a few months ago about choosing schools in France – http://americanmominbordeaux.blogspot.fr/2013/10/education-in-france-our-experience-of.html

    To also address you question about extra support for non-speakers, I can only speak of our experience. All of my girls did get extra help – it was called – soutien during lunch time once or twice a week to help them -1 to 2 30 min. sessions for vocabulary and grammar buidling. This support was given at the Elementary and Maternelle levels. I’m not sure how much is available at the college/lycee level. I highly recommend also speaking directly to the school that you are looking to enroll a child. Most schools are more flexible than people think. It’s often the case that if you don’t personally experience it, then you are not aware of what is available. (Unlike school districts in the States that have comprehensive websites/educational services guides – French schools do not publicize this information – it’s often available, but one has to ask. For this reason, even many French people are not aware of what’s available if they haven’t personally experienced it.) Personally, I feel living in a foreign country and learning a new language is a treasured experience. For those interested in doing it, it’s so worth the effort.

    1. Hey, thanks so much for this very informative response! I remember reading that blogpost of yours, and I highly recommend it to everyone reading this! I find that in general, in France, once you ask you do find a lot of helpful information. As you said, you just have to ask. Thanks again🙂

  4. Ah, not only is this feedback informative, it is encouraging! We are still in the early stages of exploring our move (and husband is applying to multiple phd programs in multiple countries), but this concern has been haunting me. Following this conversation should anyone else have additional insight. THANK YOU!!!🙂

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