Tag Archives: French

How to become a private tutor

Adrian-Beckett_09032013_035

I’ve talked to a few people who wanted to become private tutors, so I thought I’d write down a few tips for anyone who’s interested.

How did I start out?

I started as a private tutor quite by accident. It was 2009, and I was finding it hard to get work as a freelance management consultant when I happened to read an article in the Telegraph called 10 Ways to Beat the Recession. The author mentioned a few ways of earning some extra cash, including becoming an extra on film sets – which I was already doing – and working as a private tutor. I’d never done any proper teaching before, although I was a golf coach, and I’d coached skiing a few times in the Alps, but I thought I’d sign up with a couple of agencies and see what happened. Within a week, I had two clients, and I’ve never looked back since!

What qualifications do I need?

The first and most important thing to say is that you don’t need any teaching qualifications! Yes, that’s right. You don’t need a PGCE, and you don’t need to have done any training as a teacher. As a private tutor, you are just that – private – so you don’t have to jump through all the Government hoops that a teacher in a state school would have to do. Obviously, potential clients want the best person to teach their child, so you need to show some sort of academic record, but that can be as little as a degree in English – which is what I had when I started. Admittedly, I went to Oxford, which probably counts for a lot with Russian billionaires (!), but you don’t need to have an Oxbridge degree to become a tutor. Far from it. However, what you probably will need is a criminal records check. This is just a piece of paper that certifies you haven’t been convicted of a criminal offence and was often known as a ‘CRB check’, although it’s now officially called an Enhanced Certificate from the Disclosure and Barring Service, or ‘DBS check’. You can’t apply for an ‘enhanced certificate’ yourself, but your tuition agency can help you. In fact, they may require you to have one and even to renew it every year or two. It costs around £18 and can take up to three months to arrive, so it’s worth applying as early as possible. Some agencies may charge up to £80 to make the application on your behalf, so be careful! You can find further information here.

What subjects can I teach?

You can teach whatever you like! Agencies will just ask you which subjects you offer and at what level, so you have complete freedom to choose. I focus on English and Maths, which are the most popular subjects, but that’s mostly led by demand from clients. They are the main subjects at 11+ level, so that’s what most people are looking for help with.

What age children can I teach?

Again, the choice is yours. I’ve taught students from as young as five to as old as 75, but the peak demand is at 11+ level, when the children are around 10 years old. I make it a rule that I’ll only teach a subject to a level that I’ve reached myself, such as GCSE or A-level, but clients sometimes take you by surprise. When I turned up to teach what I thought was going to be English to two boys, the nanny suddenly asked me to do Latin instead. When I said I hadn’t done any Latin since I was 15, she just said, “Oh, you’ll be fine…!”

What preparation do I need to do?

  • Research. One of the big attractions of tutoring for me is that the work is very enjoyable. I like teaching, and I like spending time with children, so it’s the perfect combination! The reason I stopped work as a management consultant was the constant stress, the persistent worry that I wasn’t up to the job, but teaching 10-year-olds never makes me feel like that. Whether it’s English or Maths, I’m confident in my ability to teach and never worry about being asked an impossible question. However, that doesn’t mean you can walk into your first lesson without doing any preparation at all. In my case, I wanted to teach English, so I needed to find out what kind of questions cropped up in 11+ and 13+ entrance exams and come up with a good method of answering them. Once I’d done that, I was ready. Maths was a bit easier, but I still looked through a few papers to make sure there was no risk of being blind-sided by something I’d forgotten how to do or had never studied. Whatever the subject you’re offering, I suggest you do the same.
  • Past papers. The other thing I needed to do was to find past papers to give to my pupils. That was a bit tricky in the early days until a kind parent gave me a collection of photocopied exams. After that, I carried a couple around with me to take to lessons, but it wasn’t a great solution, so I decided to create a website – this one. Over time, I collected dozens of past papers and wrote various articles on how to do different kinds of question in Maths, English and French. Now, I don’t have to carry around anything with me or spend time dictating notes. I can simply ask my pupils to look it up online. Setting up a website is pretty easy using WordPress or something similar, but you should feel free to use the resources on my past papers tab if you don’t want to go to the trouble yourself, and all my articles are available for free if you need them. The main ones I use for English are about doing comprehensions and writing stories, but there are plenty more. The website proved unexpectedly popular, and I had over 28,000 visitors last year! The other advantage is that it generated enough business for me not to need agencies any more. That means I can charge what I like, I don’t have to pay any commission, and I can have a direct relationship with all my clients without anybody acting as an intermediary – and often just getting in the way!
  • Business cards. I know it sounds a bit old-fashioned, but having business cards is very useful. If you’re just starting out, nobody knows your name, so paying a few quid to market your services is one of the best investments you can make. You never know when people will tell you they’re looking for a tutor, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to give them a business card. Even if you don’t have a website, it will at least tell them how to reach you, and you should get a lot more clients out of it.

How can I find work?

Tuition agencies are the best place to start, but there are different kinds. Some are online and simply require you to fill out a form for them to check and vet, but others ask you to go through an interview, either over the phone or in person. Either way, you need to put together a tailored CV that shows off your academic achievements and highlights any teaching experience you’ve had. This may not be very much at the beginning, but you simply need to show enough potential to get you through the door. Once you’ve shown enough aptitude and commitment to get accepted by a few agencies, you’ll rapidly build up your experience on the job.

Here is a list of the tuition agencies I’ve been in touch with, together with contact details where available. I’m based in London, so there is obviously a geographical bias there, but some of the agencies such as Fleet Tutors offer national coverage, and you can always search online for others in your local area.

Name

Email

Telephone

Website

A-Star Tuition astartuition@btinternet.com 01772 814739 astartuition.com
Approved Tutors approvedtutors.co.uk
Athena Tuition athenatuition.co.uk/
Beacon Tutors info@beacontutors.co.uk 020 8983 2158 beacontutors.co.uk/
Bespoke Tuition emma@bespoketuition.com 07732 371880 bespoketuition.com
Bigfoot Tutors tutors@bigfoottutors.com 020 7729 9004 bigfoottutors.com
Bright Young Things 07702 019194 brightyoungthingstuition.co.uk
Dulwich Tutors info@dulwichtutors.com 020 8653 3502 dulwichtutors.com
Enjoy Education kate@enjoyeducation.co.uk enjoyeducation.co.uk
Exam Confidence
First Tutors firsttutors.co.uk
Fleet Tutors 0845 644 5452 fleet-tutors.co.uk
Gabbitas gabbitas.com
Greater London Tutors 020 7727 5599 greaterlondontutors.com
Harrison Allen harrisonallen.co.uk
Holland Park Tuition recruitment@hollandparktuition.com 020 7034 0800 hollandparktuition.com
IPS Tutors info@ipstutors.co.uk 01509 265623 ipstutors.co.uk
Ivy Education ivyeducation.co.uk
Kensington & Chelsea Tutors tutors@kctutors.co.uk 020 7584 7987 kctutors.co.uk
Keystone Tutors enquiries@keystonetutors.com 020 7351 5908 keystonetutors.com
Kings Tutors emily@kingstutors.co.uk kingstutors.co.uk
Knightsbridge Tutors 07890 521390 knightsbridgetutors.co.uk
Laidlaw Education laidlaweducation.co.uk
Mentor & Sons andrei@mentorandsons.com 07861 680377 mentorandsons.com
Osborne Cawkwell enquiries@oc-ec.com 020 7584 5355 oc-ec.com
Personal Tutors admin@personal-tutor.co.uk personal-tutors.co.uk
Russell Education Group joe@russelleducationgroup.com n/a
Search Tutors searchtutors.co.uk
Select My Tutor info@selectmytutor.co.uk selectmytutor.co.uk
SGA Education s@sga-education.com sga-education.com
Simply Learning Tuition simplylearningtuition.co.uk
The Tutor Pages thetutorpages.com
Top Tutors 020 8349 2148 toptutors.co.uk
Tutor House info@tutorhouse.co.uk 020 7381 6253 tutorhouse.co.uk/
Tutor Hunt tutorhunt.com
Tutorfair tutorfair.com
Tutors International tutors-international.net
UK Tutors uktutors.com
Westminster Tutors exams@westminstertutors.co.uk 020 7584 1288 westminstertutors.co.uk
William Clarence Education steve@williamclarence.com 020 7412 8988 williamclarence.com
Winterwood  winterwoodtutors.co.uk

That’s obviously a long list, but, to give you an idea, I earned the most from Adrian Beckett (teacher training), Bespoke Tuition, Bonas MacFarlane, Harrison Allen, Keystone Tutors, Mentor & Sons, Personal Tutors and Shawcross Bligh.

Once you’ve been accepted by and started working for a few agencies, you’ll soon see the differences. Some offer higher rates, some the option to set your own rates, some provide a lot of work, some offer the best prospects of jobs abroad. It all depends what you’re looking for.

Where will the lessons take place?

When I first started tutoring, I had to cycle to all my clients. I put a limit of half an hour on my travel time, but it still took a lot of time and effort to get to my pupils. Fortunately, I’m now able to teach at my home, either in person or online using Skype and an electronic whiteboard, which means my effective hourly rate has gone up enormously. Travel is still a little bit of a problem for most tutors, though, and I certainly couldn’t have reached my pupils without having a bicycle. I didn’t have a car, and public transport wasn’t really an option in most cases. You just have to decide how far you’re prepared to go: the further it is, the more business you’ll get, but the longer it’ll take to get there and therefore the lower your effective hourly rate.

The other possibility, of course, is teaching abroad. I’ve been lucky enough to go on teaching assignments in Belarus, Greece, Hong Kong, Kenya, Russia, Switzerland and Turkey, and it’s a great way to see the world. The clients can sometimes be a little bit difficult, and the children can sometimes behave like spoiled brats (!), but staying with a great client in a sunny getaway overseas can be a wonderful experience. The only reason I don’t apply for more foreign postings is that I don’t want to let down my existing clients – going away for three weeks just before the 11+ exams in January would NOT go down well!

When will the lessons take place?

If you’re teaching children, lessons will usually be in the after-school slot between 1600 and 2000 or at weekends. That does limit the amount of hours you can teach, but it’s up to you how much you want to work. I used to work seven days a week, but I eventually gave myself a day off and then another, so I now work Sundays to Thursdays with Friday and Saturday off. During the holidays, you lose a lot of regular clients when they disappear to the Maldives or somewhere for six weeks (!), but others might ask for an intensive sequence of lessons to take advantage of the extra time available, and there’s obviously a greater chance of a foreign assignment. All that means that the work is very seasonal, so you should expect your earnings to go up and down a bit and plan your finances accordingly.

What should I do during the lesson?

I generally teach from past papers, so I ask pupils to do a past paper for their homework and then mark it during the following lesson. ‘Marking’ means marking the questions, obviously, but it also means ‘filling in the gaps’ in the pupil’s knowledge. If he or she is obviously struggling with something, it’s worth spending a few minutes explaining the topic and asking a few practice questions. I’ve written a few articles on common problem areas in English and Maths, such as commas and negative numbers, so I often go through one of those and ask the pupil’s parents to print it out and put it in a binder. After a few weeks, that collection of notes gradually turns into a ready-made revision guide for the exams.

If the parents want you to work on specific topics, that’s also possible. For example, one mother wanted to help her son with ratios, so she printed out dozens of past papers and circled the ratio questions for him to do. He soon got the knack!

I approach English in a slightly different way to begin with. There are two types of question in the 11+, comprehensions and creative writing, so I generally spend the first lesson teaching pupils how to do one of those. I go through my article on the subject online and then ask them to answer a practice question by following the procedure I’ve outlined. They usually finish it off for their homework. After a few weeks of stories or comprehensions, I’ll switch to the other topic and do the same with that. I also ask pupils to write down any new words or words they get wrong in a vocabulary book because building vocabulary is very important for any type of English exam (and also for Verbal Reasoning). I ask them to fold the pages over in the middle so that they can put the words on the left and the meanings on the right (if necessary). Every few weeks, I can then give them a spelling test. If they can spell the words correctly and tell me what they mean, they can tick them off in their vocab book. Once they’ve ticked off a whole page of words, they can tick that off, too! I usually try to reinforce the learning of words by asking pupils to tell me a story using as many words as possible from their spelling test. It can be a familiar fairy story or something they make up, but it just helps to move the words from the ‘passive’ memory to the ‘active memory’, meaning that they actually know how to use them themselves rather than just understand them when they see them on the page.

What homework should I set?

Most children who have private lessons have pretty busy schedules, so I don’t want to overburden them. I generally set one exercise that takes around 30-45 minutes. That might be a Maths paper or an English comprehension or story, but it obviously depends on the subject and the level. Just make sure that the student writes down what needs to be done – a lot of them forget! You should also make a note in your diary yourself, just so that you can check at the start of the next lesson if the work has been done.

What feedback should I give the parents?

I generally have a quick chat with the mother or father (or nanny) after the lesson to report on what we did during the lesson, what problems the child had and what homework I’ve set. This is also a good time to make any changes to the schedule, for instance if the family goes on holiday. If that’s not possible, I’ll email the client with a ‘lesson report’. Some agencies such as Bonas MacFarlane make this a part of their timesheet system.

How much will I get paid?

When I first started, I had absolutely no idea how much I was worth, and I ended up charging only £10 an hour, which is not much more than I pay my cleaner! Fortunately, a horrified friend pointed out that it should be ‘at least’ £35 an hour, and I upped my rates immediately. I now charge £60 an hour for private lessons, whether online or in person. Unfortunately, some agencies such as Fleet Tutors don’t allow you to set your own rates, so that’s one thing to bear in mind when deciding which agencies to work with. However, they did provide me with quite a bit of work when I first started, so it’s swings and roundabouts. The pay scale often varies depending on the age of the student and the level taught, so you’ll probably earn more for teaching older students at GCSE level or above if the agency sets the prices. If you have any private clients, you can obviously set whatever rate you like, depending on where you live, the age of your pupils, whether lessons are online or in person and so on. Personally, I only have one rate (although I used to charge an extra £5 for teaching two pupils at the same time), and I raise it by £5 every year to allow for inflation and extra demand. Tutoring is more and more popular than ever these days, and I read somewhere that over half of pupils in London have private lessons over the course of their school careers, so don’t sell yourself short! You should be able to make around £25,000 a year, which is not bad going for a couple of hours’ work a day!

Foreign jobs are a little different, and there is a ‘standard’ rate of around £800 a week including expenses. That means your flights and accommodation are all covered, and you can even earn a bit more on the side if you decide to rent out your home on Airbnb while you’re away! When it comes to day-to-day expenses such as taxis and food and drink, it’s important to negotiate that with the agency before accepting the job. It’s no good complaining about having to live in the client’s house and buy your own lunches when you’re in Moscow or Bratislava! It can be a dream job, but just make sure you look at it from every angle:

  • What subjects will I be teaching?
  • How many hours will I have to teach?
  • How many days off will I get per week?
  • Where will the lessons take place?
  • How do I get to and from my accommodation?
  • How long is the assignment? (I refuse anything more than three months.)
  • Where will I be staying? (NEVER at the client’s house!)
  • How old are the children?
  • Will I have any other responsibilities (eg ferrying the children to and from school)?
  • Do I need a visa?
  • What is the weekly rate?
  • What expenses are included (eg flights, accommodation, taxis, food, drink)?

How do I get paid?

Most agencies ask for a timesheet and pay their tutors monthly via BACS payments directly into their bank accounts. That’s a bit annoying from a cash flow point of view, but there’s not much you can do about it – other than using a different agency. When it comes to private clients, I generally ask for cash after the lesson, but it’s even more convenient if they can pay via standing order – as long as you can trust them! I once let a client rack up over £600 in fees because he tended to pay in big lump sums every few weeks, but then his business folded, and I had to use a Government website to try and chase him up. Fortunately, his wife saw the email and paid my bill, but it took months to sort out. Normally, though, the worst that happens is that a client just doesn’t have the right change and promises to pay the following week, so you just need to keep track of who owes what.

I hope all this helps. Good luck!

 

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Preceding Direct Objects in French

French verbs

“I hate French!”

 

Forming the perfect (or pluperfect) tense in French is sometimes made harder than necessary by what’s called a Preceding Direct Object (or PDO). The object of a sentence is whatever ‘suffers the action of the verb’, eg the nail in ‘he hit the nail on the head’. If the object is a pronoun and the perfect (or pluperfect) tense is being used, the French put it before the auxiliary rather than at the end of the sentence as in English, eg ‘il l‘a frappé’ or ‘he it has hit’!

You might think that’s bad enough, but the real problem is that the past participle has to agree in number and gender with the PDO, eg ‘il les a frappés‘ or ‘he’s hit them’.

When it comes to reflexive verbs, it gets even worse. By definition, every reflexive verb has a PDO, so that means you have to watch what you write when a female character is speaking, eg ‘Je me suis lavé’ for a boy, but ‘Je me suis lavée’ for a girl. Having said that, one of my male pupils once told me that the best way to get a good mark in his French prose was to tell a story in the first person and pretend to be a girl – that way, he’d get a tick every time he used a PDO!

French regular verbs – conditional tense

French verbs

“I hate French!”

The conditional tense in French is used to show that someone ‘would do’ or ‘would be doing’ something. All verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and the endings are different (as shown here in red):

Verbs ending in -er, eg donner (to give)

Je donnerais

Tu donnerais

Il/elle donnerait

Nous donnerions

Vous donneriez

Ils/elles donneraient

Verbs ending in -re, eg vendre (to sell)

Je vendrais

Tu vendrais

Il/elle vendrait

Nous vendrions

Vous vendriez

Ils/elles vendraient

Verbs ending in -ir, eg finir (to finish)

Je finirais

Tu finirais

Il/elle finirait

Nous finirions

Vous finiriez

Ils/elles finiraient

French regular verbs – future tense

French verbs

“I hate French!”

There is only one future tense in French, and it’s used to show that someone ‘will do’ or ‘will be doing’ something. Verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, but the endings are the same (as shown here in red):

Verbs ending in -er, eg donner (to give)

Je donnerai

Tu donneras

Il/elle donnera

Nous donnerons

Vous donnerez

Ils/elles donneront

Verbs ending in -re, eg vendre (to sell)

Je vendrai

Tu vendras

Il/elle vendra

Nous vendrons

Vous vendrez

Ils/elles vendront

Verbs ending in -ir, eg finir (to finish)

Je finirai

Tu finiras

Il/elle finira

Nous finirons

Vous finirez

Ils/elles finiront

French regular verbs – past tense

French verbs

“I hate French!”

Here are the basic forms of French regular verbs in the past tense, which include the perfect (or passé composé), pluperfect, imperfect and past historic (or passé simple). All verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and there are different endings for each that are shown here in red.

Perfect (or passé composé)

The perfect tense is used in formal written French to say someone ‘has done’ something, but they sometimes use it in conversation and casual writing in the same way we use the simple past tense (or ‘preterite’), eg ‘j’ai donné’ might mean ‘I gave’ rather than ‘I have given’ – you just need to look at the context to help you decide which is the right translation.

Verbs ending in -er, eg donner (to give)

J’ai donné
Tu as donné
Il/elle a donné
Nous avons donné
Vous avez donné
Ils/elles ont donné

Verbs ending in -re, eg vendre (to sell)

J’ai vendu
Tu as vendu
Il/elle a vendu
Nous avons vendu
Vous avez vendu
Ils/elles ont vendu

Verbs ending in -ir, eg finir (to finish)

J’ai fini
Tu as fini
Il/elle a fini
Nous avons fini
Vous avez fini
Ils/elles ont fini

Pluperfect

The pluperfect tense is used to say someone ‘had done’ something. This is common in story-writing when an event is described that happened before that particular moment in the story, eg ‘j’avais donné’ means ‘I had given’.

Verbs ending in -er, eg donner (to give)

J’avais donné
Tu avais donné
Il/elle avait donné
Nous avions donné
Vous aviez donné
Ils/elles avaient donné

Verbs ending in -re, eg vendre (to sell)

J’avais vendu
Tu avais vendu
Il/elle avait vendu
Nous avions vendu
Vous aviez vendu
Ils/elles avaient vendu

Verbs ending in -ir, eg finir (to finish)

J’avais fini
Tu avais fini
Il/elle avait fini
Nous avions fini
Vous aviez fini
Ils/elles avaient fini

Imperfect

The imperfect tense is used to say someone ‘was doing’ or ‘used to do’ something, eg ‘je donnais’ means ‘I was giving’ or ‘I used to give’.

Verbs ending in -er, eg donner (to give)

Je donnais
Tu donnais
Il/elle donnait
Nous donnions
Vous donniez
Ils/elles donnaient

Verbs ending in -re, eg vendre (to sell)

Je vendais
Tu vendais
Il/elle vendait
Nous vendions
Vous vendiez
Ils/elles vendaient

Verbs ending in -ir, eg finir (to finish)

Je finissais
Tu finissais
Il/elle finissait
Nous finissions
Vous finissiez
Ils/elles finissaient

Past historic (or passé simple)

The past historic is the equivalent of the simple past tense (or preterite) in English and is used in novels and other formal writing to say someone ‘did’ something, eg ‘je donnai’ means ‘I gave’ or ‘I used to give’. It is never used in conversation, where it is replaced by the perfect tense.

Verbs ending in -er, eg donner (to give)

Je donnais
Tu donnas
Il/elle donna
Nous donnâmes
Vous donnâtes
Ils/elles donnèrent

Verbs ending in -re, eg vendre (to sell)

Je vendis
Tu vendis
Il/elle vendit
Nous vendîmes
Vous vendîtes
Ils/elles vendirent

Verbs ending in -ir, eg finir (to finish)

Je finis
Tu finis
Il/elle finit
Nous finîmes
Vous finîtes
Ils/elles finirent

 

Common French verbs – present tense

French verbs

“I hate French!”

Language changes over time because people are lazy. They’d rather say something that’s easy than something that’s correct. That means the most common words change the most, and the verbs become ‘irregular’. In French, the ten most common verbs are ‘être’, ‘avoir’, ‘pouvoir’, ‘faire’, ‘mettre’, ‘dire’, ‘devoir’, ‘prendre’, ‘donner’ and ‘aller’, and they’re all irregular apart from ‘donner’. Here are their forms in the present tense.

Note: the irregular forms are shown in red.

Etre (to be)

Je suis
Tu es
Il/elle est
Nous sommes
Vous êtes
Ils/elles sont

Avoir (to have)

J’ai
Tu as
Il/elle as
Nous avons
Vous avez
Ils/elles ont

Pouvoir (to be able to, ‘can’)

Je peux
Tu peux
Il/elle peut
Nous pouvons
Vous pouvez
Ils/elles peuvent

Faire (to do, to make)

Je fais
Tu fais
Il/elle fait
Nous faisons
Vous faites
Ils/elles font

Mettre (to put)

Je mets
Tu mets
Il/elle met
Nous mettons
Vous mettez
Ils/elles mettent

Dire (to say, to tell)

Je dis
Tu dis
Il/elle dit
Nous disons
Vous disez
Ils/elles disent

Devoir (to have to, ‘must’)

Je dois
Tu dois
Il/elle doit
Nous devons
Vous devez
Ils/elles doivent

Prendre (to take)

Je prends
Tu prends
Il/elle prend
Nous prenons
Vous prenez
Ils/elles prennent

Aller (to go)

Je vais
Tu vas
Il/elle va
Nous allons
Vous allez
Ils/elles vont

French regular verbs – present tense

French verbs

“I hate French!”

Nobody likes French verbs – not even the French! – but I thought I’d start by listing the most basic forms of the regular verbs in the present tense. All French verbs end in -er, -re or -ir, and there are different endings for each that are shown here in red:

Verbs ending in -er, eg donner (to give)

Je donne
Tu donnes
Il/elle donne
Nous donnons
Vous donnez
Ils/elles donnent

Verbs ending in -re, eg vendre (to sell)

Je vends
Tu vends
Il/elle vend
Nous vendons
Vous vendez
Ils/elles vendent

Verbs ending in -ir, eg finir (to finish)

Je finis
Tu finis
Il/elle finit
Nous finissons
Vous finissez
Ils/elles finissent

If you’re learning French and have to memorise the present tense, it helps if you can spot the patterns:

  • The je, tu, il/elle and ils/elles forms all sound the same for -er and -re verbs (and the same is true of the je, tu and il/elle forms of -ir verbs)
  • The nous and vous forms always end in -ons and -ez (although -ir verbs have an extra -ss- in the middle)

People learn things in different ways, but the best way I’ve found is to make a recording on my phone and try to repeat the words at the same time as I listened to them on my headphones. I did a lot of acting at Oxford and in the Edinburgh Fringe, and that was the way I learned my lines. If I made a mistake or forgot something, the recording prompted me with the right words, and I could carry on repeating the exercise until I was word-perfect. It meant I could learn my lines any time, anywhere – whether I was watching sport, making dinner or cycling around town!

Good luck…

Learning the right words

French. Nuts...

French. Nuts…

One of the frustrations about learning French is that you’re not given the words you really need to know. I studied French up to A-level, but I was sometimes at a complete loss when I went out with my French girlfriend and a few of her friends in Lyon. I was feeling suitably smug about following the whole conversation in French…until everyone started talking about chestnuts! At the end of almost every story, someone would mention them. Now, it’s not often that chestnuts crop up in conversation (!), so I thought I’d check with Isabelle later on. When I asked her about it, she said her friends hadn’t been talking about chestnuts at all. When I pressed her, she said they hadn’t been saying ‘marrons’ but ‘marrant’ – which is slang for ‘funny’! The next day, I started a list of all the slang words – or ‘argot’ – I came across, and within a few weeks I had over a hundred.

This is just a trivial example of what anyone knows who has lived and spoken French among French people: the words they use are almost never the ones you find in Longmans Audiovisual French! More often than not, they are ‘argotique’ or slang. For example, a house is not a ‘maison’ but a ‘baraque’, and a car is not a ‘voiture’ but a ‘caisse’ or a ‘bagnole’. In addition, there are rules about when you can use slang and when you can’t. I got into real trouble with my girlfriend when I threw a few slang words into my conversation with an old family friend of hers. I was just trying to practise my ‘argot’, but Isabelle told me in no uncertain terms that you NEVER, EVER use slang with someone you address as ‘vous’!

Pupils spend a long time being taught vocabulary for a given set of situations and environments – doing the shopping, going to school, going to the cinema etc – but they are rarely given a simple list of the most common words. You can easily find such a list online (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:French_frequency_lists/1-2000), and learning those words strikes me as much more useful than wasting time with ‘le muguet’ (or lily-of-the-valley), which I remember cropping up in my own Longmans text book!