Preparing students to study French at university: tips from Antonia Wimbush
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.
Dr Antonia Wimbush is a Teaching Fellow in Politics, Languages & International Studies at the University of Bath. She has been teaching French language, history and literature, and academic skills since 2014.
Tell us about your background and what you teach
I’ve always really enjoyed helping students of all ages to gain confidence when using the French language. In 2014, I completed my PGCE in secondary French with Spanish at the University of Exeter before embarking on my PhD in Francophone Postcolonial Literature at the University of Birmingham. During my doctoral studies I led seminars for first-year students on 20th century France, and I also worked as an academic tutor helping students of all disciplines to develop their essay writing and study skills. I worked as a lectrice in Montpellier for a year, which was a great opportunity to enhance my own French skills and get used to a different way of teaching – teaching English communication skills to 50 students without any IT equipment was certainly an experience! After completing my PhD at Birmingham in 2018, I worked as a Teaching Fellow in French there, where I taught a range of language and translation modules. I started at the University of Bath in September, where I teach French and European politics.
What do your students enjoy about studying French at university?
In my experience, students particularly enjoy developing their linguistic skills before their Year Abroad. For many, a year studying at university, teaching English with the British Council scheme, or undertaking a work placement abroad is the highlight of their university course, because they are able to use the knowledge and skills they have developed in practical, real-life situations. They are also interested in learning about the histories and cultures of the French-speaking world. Some students have had little exposure to countries beyond metropolitan France and are therefore fascinated to learn about the diverse locations across the world where French is spoken. Translation practice is a further area of interest for students. At Birmingham, the translation pathway is extremely popular as students are introduced to the multiple aspects of a career in translation.
What is the biggest challenge for first year students?
One of the biggest challenges is being taught predominantly in the Target Language. While for some, this is not a huge difference from the ways they were taught at A Level, others can struggle to follow lectures which are given entirely in French and feel daunted when asked to give their opinion in French during seminars. Another hurdle is writing essays and assignments on literature, history, and politics in either language. This is often a new skill for students, and it can be difficult for them to get to grips with essay structure, analysing quotations — and, of course, the dreaded referencing systems!
Any tips or recommendations for teachers on how to prepare their students for studying French at university?
I would recommend using the Target Language as much as possible in class and encouraging students to increase their exposure to French in their own time. Reading French magazines and newspapers and watching French TV are all really good ways to improve reading and listening skills. Downloading apps such as France24, Franceinfo, and LeFigaro can help too, as well as vocab games such as Kahoot. It might also help students to talk about the importance of acknowledging academic and media sources when they are preparing written assignments, so that they get the hang of referencing early on.
Studying languages at university is challenging and academically rigorous, but also lots of fun and highly rewarding! I wish all your students great success!