Dare to assert ourselves in foreign languages!

Confidence word cloud, generated from words collected from Entrevues project questionnaire


Why do French people apologize for their language ability?

That is the question that launched this doctoral dissertation. When I was a language teacher, nearly every French student new to a class introduced themselves with some iteration of “I am “nul” (literally: ‘nothing’) at English.” Indeed, this led to apologies for their English (“I’m sorry for my bad English”) to the extent of generalizing the whole country as incapable of language learning (“You know, the French are the worst at languages.”)

What does it mean to be “bad” at a language?

Perhaps the first idea that pops into your head are grades, perhaps ability to communicate, maybe even ability to express what is inside one’s head. In any case, it seemed that there is a binary of being good at a language or being bad. If being “good” at a language means being “fluent”, it becomes a target that is indefinable and quite often slips away from us the more we study a language (cf. The Language Confidence Project podcast, S1E1). Using this logic, everyone stays in the category of “bad” at a language. Is the way we approach language learning a leading cause of lack of self-confidence?

The three-year dissertation project is divided into four main categories of project development: contextual projects, confidence-based experiments, language learning in the virtual world, and engaged training and professional development.


« Je dois me convaincre de mon potentiel. »
(“I have to convince myself of my potential.“)

Encouraging statement to students from teacher during observation, Pay It Forward project.

The Oser s’affirmer ! dissertation is composed of two contextual project axes: Entrevues and Pay It Forward. Each axis gives a perspective of confidence through the eyes of a different actor in the education process. In addition to these two axes, a two-part literature review adds a comprehensive background to confidence and learning in the virtual world. Therefore, the context section of the dissertation conjoins theory, practice, and testimonials to present a multidimensional perspective of confidence in didactic and pedagogical contexts. The axes are explained below.

Entrevueslearning experience

“Interviews” in English, Entrevues is an interview-based field study, with 100 participants. Participants are recruited based on two criteria: they must have completed their secondary education in France, and they must have taken at least one foreign language during their secondary school years. Entrevues is dedicated to getting a broader view on the connection between interactions and confidence in language learning in France through learner experiences when learning a foreign language at school.

In Entrevues, two ideas are taken as constants. One, that French people’s first main encounter with a “foreign” language is in secondary school. Two, that there is a connection between the experience one has in secondary-school language classes, and language ability they have as an adult.

The hypothesis is that the learners’ pedagogical experience heavily impacts their ability to feel confident in a foreign language. Therefore, the researcher plays the role of interviewer that meets one-on-one with one hundred different people who have undergone some form of pre-university language education in France.

Pay It Forwardteaching and learning methodologies

As a way of complementing the learner perspective, this axis focuses on the teaching perspective. Pay It Forward is an observational field study of 100 foreign language classes at the university level, with comprehensive feedback sheets freely given to teachers after observing each class. Although the primary objective is to test the relationship between methodology and interactions, the secondary objective is to instill an interest in promoting a culture of peer feedback and interdependence between colleagues.

The observed classes are for French speakers of foreign languages as well as French as a foreign language classes for non-native speakers. The goal is to observe the differences between the two different types of classes in an effort to draw parallels that would elucidate associations between methodologies, student profiles, and interactions.

In Pay it Forward, two ideas are also taken as constants. One, that each class observed is the only type of class for that language that the students are taking. This means that the students are not receiving private tutoring. Two, there is a connection between interaction types, might they be simple or complex, and the confidence that one has in expressing oneself in a foreign language.

After each class, I write a feedback sheet based on nine angles of observation send it to the language teacher. Whether the teacher uses the recommendations in the feedback sheet, I attempt to connect the methodologies used and interactions I observed to prior methodologies from the same teacher. Since 100 observations is a bit of a dense workload, I have divided the observations into three sets of about 33 observations each. After each observation set, I anonymize and compile all the feedback sheets before synthesizing the information. Next, I reflect on the format and efficiency of the feedback sheets and scope of the observation, which is done in collaboration with each individual teacher. B meeting with the teachers and discussing the feedback sheets one-on-one, I get personalized, pertinent, and direct feedback that I may then use to rethink the feedback sheets. As a reference, here is the list of observed aspects from observation set one:

Aspect of the classDescription
Teacher profileDescription of teaching stance and teaching presence
Teaching styleApproaches, methodologies, and strategies utilized in the class
Teacher strengthsMost prominent aspects of teacher’s capabilities
Student profileDemographics and description of student attributes and trends
Student engagementInstances of student interaction, interaction types
Difficulties, remediesDifficulties noticed by the observer and possible ideas for solutions
Classroom organizationDescription of classroom setup, sometimes including possible alternatives
Board organizationDescription of board categorization, sometimes additional categories advised
Class activitiesList of all activities done during the lesson
These were followed by final remarks and additional resources from the observer to the teacher.

The primary hypothesis is that methodologies used in the classroom impacts the interactions had; therefore, I formed a sub-hypothesis. If confidence in language classes is measured by the types and quality of interactions had in the classroom, then teaching and learning methodology have a direct impact on confidence in language learning.




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