Parlez-vous français? CSU language professor coordinates online partnership with French university

Professor Frédérique Grim in Colorado State University’s Languages, Literature, and Cultures Department wanted to give some of the French language students the opportunities and human connection they needed when the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated every chance they had to be in person. 

After coordinating with an English professor at the Université de Haute-Alsace in France, Grim found a way for them to use technology to their advantage.

Grim initially started by joining a Facebook group for French people living in the U.S. She sent a message asking if anyone would be willing to partner with her then completely online students in the 300 and 400 level French classes and received an overwhelming response. The initial idea was to do an equitable exchange: 50% of the time the students would be spend the meeting conversing in French and the remaining 50% in English.

“It was surprising, I think I got 40 or 50 replies for my program idea,” said Grim, who moved to the United States from the northern French city of Dunkirk in 1998 and has taught at CSU since 2005. “Lots of people want to find a way to practice their English and were happy to exchange their native French (language) for the opportunity.” 

The Fall 2020 Semester had brought the challenge of flexibility and new technology to virtual classrooms all over Colorado State University’s campus, but with the French language classes typically having many in-person events to practice communication, it was clear they needed to think quickly. 

At first, Grim tried to organize students with French speakers online from the Facebook group who were sometimes much older than the CSU students. It was a helpful experience, but just the first phase of the partnership program with the Université de Haute-Alsace. 

While she received more responses than she originally intended, a strong plan finally formed  when she virtually met Anne Sommacal, who is an English as a Second Language professor at the Université de Haute-Alsace, who wanted to help her. Sommacal had many students who were native French speakers but also needed help practicing their English with native speakers, and then everything began to fall into place. 

It was decided that it may be easier this way if the students could connect, a partnership of two students from each university, for the entire year. They could also do it on their own terms rather than supervised under one or both of the professors, and most importantly, they were all college students.

After the Spring 2021 Semester’s pilot attempt at partnership between CSU and  UHA, students came back with extremely positive reactions. 

The partnership has so far continued into this semester with around 30 CSU French students paired with 30 from UHA, each ideally meeting at a minimum of five times a semester. 

“Some students meet every week if they can, practicing as much of both French and English as they can,” Grim explained.

Student experiences

Two students that are participating in the program currently have had great experiences discovering how to be both learners and teachers through this project. Camila Steele, a first-year at CSU, is partnered with two different UHA students but has explained that her prior experience as an English tutor for Spanish students has helped her with teaching English in her partnerships. 

“Both of my partners are girls and they’re also around my age, so we get to bond and talk about what it’s like to be women in college in two different perspectives,” Steele said. 

Another student named Jules Ducrot-Huet is a native French speaker, but participates in the program because he knows how important English is to learn in France and also how difficult it is to find a good language peer. His partner, Flavien Cunis, at UHA meets with him online as often as possible to talk about school, English assignments, and just daily activities they like to do.

Jules Ducrot-Huet and his language partner Flavien Cunis during a video chat. Photo by Jules Ducrot-Huet.

“My partner is great, and he usually comes to our meetings prepared with questions, but those usually end up as just talking points we work through,” Ducrot-Huet said. “It’s definitely not what I expected. There’s a lot more talking and understanding than analyzing and not as much pressure.” 

He mentioned that it’s very common in France for students to be required to learn English in addition to a second foreign language of their choice, but the quality of education isn’t always the best. Yet, in the United States students are rarely required to become fluent in another language and if so, not for as many years as foreign students are usually required. 

“It’s a little disappointing because so many American students may be missing out on the importance of learning multicultural awareness and the implications in your communication,” Grim said. “Through learning another language, you are exposed to other cultures, which prepares you for a true global experience and understanding, often sought in professional careers.”

Learn more

CSU offers a variety of comprehensive courses in French linguistics, culture, literature, and language and also specific content courses for French translation and business communication. A teaching track is also available. There is an official CSU French club and several study abroad options for students seeking to learn more about French language and culture. If interested, the French information page in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures can be found here.