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French as students’ first foreign language

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Gyosei High School students perform a French play at the 38th French festival in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on June 9.

The Yomiuri Shimbun Speeches and plays in French were presented by more than 100 high school students learning French as their “first foreign language” at a recent event in Tokyo.

The event was 38eme Festival de Francais (38th French festival), which was held at Gyosei High School in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on June 9. Participants were students from five private mission high schools, including Caritas Girl’s High School in Kawasaki.

Admiration was expressed by some visitors involved in French education. One said, “With such high-level speech ability they can compete even with French high school students.”

Gyosei is an integrated junior and senior high school where students learn French as well as English from junior high school. Only 10 students in the high school course, or 2 percent of all students, choose French as their first foreign language. But many of the students who study French in high school also study French literature to enhance their education, according to Ken Mitsufuji, deputy principal at the school.

At the school, six classes a week (one class is 50 minutes long) are allocated for French study as a “first foreign language.” There is no authorized textbook like for English study. Since the school was founded in the Meiji era (1868-1912), teachers in charge of French at the school have used teaching materials compiled by French monks among others, revising them many times. They also use grammar books available on the wider market and teaching materials created by the teachers themselves.

“Each student has a lot of time to talk in conversation practice in class since it is a small class run by a native speaker. So plenty of content is covered in class,” Mitsufuji said.

Caritas is an integrated junior and senior high school too, and its students also learn French and English from junior high. About 50 high school students, or 10 percent, choose French as their first foreign language.

Students who choose French as their first foreign language must take more classes and learn more in the way of conversation, expressions and grammar than those who choose it as their second one.

“Students get accustomed to trying to study more deeply and it leads to the improvement of their skills,” school principal Chikako Hagiwara said.

Gyosei and Caritas along with St. Dominic’s Institute, Shirayuri Gakuen and Futaba — all are integrated junior and senior high schools — have formed a private association for French education. There is no mock examination provided by the private sector for university entrance examinations for French students, so Gyosei and Caritas now prepare their own tests four times a year and share them with the other schools.

However, there are also problems because French is a “minority” language compared to English. French is included as a subject for entrance examinations less often than English at national, public and private universities or university faculties. In recent years, there is even a trend to exclude French from the entrance exam subjects.

Hitotsubashi University removed French from the subjects of its first-term exams since this spring. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies also plans to remove French and other non-English foreign languages in the 2021 academic year. An official at the university explained the reason for the removal, saying, “We must take measures in response to the growing need for English in the real world.”

The liaison association submitted a request to Tokyo University of Foreign Studies last summer, asking for a review of the measures so that students learning French as their first foreign language would not be disadvantaged in taking entrance examinations. In 2015, it also asked the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister to give consideration to students learning foreign languages other than English.

“Although educational reforms are being carried out to diversify students’ individuality, it is against the trend to limit foreign language examinations to English.” said Yasuteru Otani, professor emeritus at Osaka University.

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