French Language Blog

Education in France and Counting Backwards Posted by on Nov 11, 2015 in Culture, Vocabulary

Image by eltpics on Flickr. Licensed underCC BY-NC 2.0.

Image by eltpics on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Je viens de revenir en France (I just came back to France), which means I’ve been dealing with le décalage horaire (the time difference). That also means all the confusion of living abroad in another language has come rushing back, bringing up interesting interactions.

Having a conversation with un ami (a friend), I wanted to tell them about something that happened during my time as an undergraduate student in an American university. I started the sentence with,

“Quand j’étais au collège….”
When I was in middle school…

And proceeded to talk about university level classes. The confusion on la visage de mon ami (my friend’s face) made me realize I’d made an all too common mistake. Le collège (middle school) and college are very different things in French and in English.

It lead to an even more confusing conversation about le système d’education français (the French education system). After a long conversation and many explanations I still wasn’t quite sure whether fifth grade was the same as en cinquième.

Une fois à la maison (once I was home), I looked up just how each classe (grade) is said in French and found an article here on Transparent Language explaining the differences. I then understood why I didn’t get a perfect score. The naming convention is very different and the differences can look scary when they’re written out.

"EducationFr" by Thomas Steiner - created with the help of the referenced images and the french article about french eduation. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons -

“EducationFr” by Thomas Steiner. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons.

The important things to remember are that the general ideas of elementary, middle, and high school exist, they’re just said very differently.

L’école primaire (elementary school) lasts for 5 years, with kindergarten being a part of l’école maternelle (nursery school) in France, le collège (middle school) lasts for 4 years and starts en sixième (sixth grade), and le lycée (high school) is 3 years long. The hard part is counting backwards from sixth grade!

Remembering these basic steps will make understanding your French friend’s enfance (childhood) much easier!

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About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.


  1. Cathy:

    Great idea. It really helps explain the educational system. Thank you.

  2. Natasha:

    Just to point out, college in England is not the same as College in the US – it’s more like a high school that you’d attend from 16-18 as opposed to spending 2 additional years at school. They usually do more vocational type courses as well as or instead of academic subjects too.