French is in Joeys DNA. Marist founder Marcellin Champagnat hailed from rural France, and Brother Emilian, the first College headmaster, was born in Languedoc-Roussilon. Indeed, French has been studied at Hunters Hill for over 100 years.

Ms Ailbhe Heffernan is a proud inheritor of this linguistic tradition, having accepted a teaching position at the College in term three of 2019. She is steeped in languages – Spanish and English were spoken in her home growing up – and she learnt Irish Gaelic as a high school student in Ireland. Her passion for French stems from her early childhood in Brussels and a life-long love affair with Paris and the beauty of its spoken word.

Languages have enabled her to work and travel all over the world. They are an essential tool in the 21stCentury economy. They also facilitate understanding between peoples. “Languages enable you to think about other people’s way of lives and consider the different factors that build a culture,” she says. “This leads to a more caring, empathetic person.”

At Joeys, the emphasis in the classroom is on oral and aural skills – the spoken language. Unlike in previous generations when grammar was the bedrock of learning, boys are introduced to sentence building first and already have a chunk of communication they can converse and write in before they unravel the complexities of the language. This means when they come to studying grammar – often a bugbear for new students – they are at an advantage because they’ve been using it naturally in conversation. The idea is to make learning enjoyable, through active participation and challenges. 

It is an approach Head of Department, Ms Courtney Berriman, feels gets the best out of students: “It is our mission in this ever-changing world to make languages fun and fascinating while equally inspiring and motivating our young men to become articulate and literate members of a collaborative global society.”

To this end, Joeys boys enjoy excursions to the French Film Festival and restaurants and the possibility of studying in France. And from Year eight, they do incursions that allow students to engage with real-life situations they might encounter in France, like for example, how to order from a café. “We bring in French food and drinks to the classroom and the boys have to order from the teachers, who play the waiters,” Ms Heffernan says. “When you’re in France and you want your tea or coffee, you’ll find a way to communicate. And as long as you make yourself understood, that’s using the language. It’s about creating realistic tasks, and being able to get what you want, which is a huge motivator.”

Covid has forced change on all Joeys boys. In the language department it highlighted the exceptional facilities available to students, as remote learning became the new normal. One clear benefit of this adjustment was the need to self-record, so teachers could check students’ progress. It meant boys had to lose their inhibitions and listen to their recorded voices, which is very important in French, where a wrong accent can change the meaning of a sentence. Those same boys are now much more comfortable with the process – and are reaping the benefits. 

“I think they really appreciate how helpful it is,” Ms Heffernan says. “Recording yourself can be a strange experience, but they’re buying into the idea more and doing some self-assessment by listening to themselves and then coming into class and comparing their pronunciations.”

The pleasure of seeing pupils learn motivates all teachers. Ms Heffernan is particularly inspired by the positive attitude her students display towards French. She says their enthusiasm is infectious.

“It’s amazing. What I really love about the boys here is they’re confident kids. I’ll cross them in the corridors and I’ll hear ‘Bonjour Madame, ca va?’”

When class starts, the boys are jumping out of their skins to speak French. “Everyone asks each other how they’re going, and you can see they’ve each planned a sentence to speak. And if I cut it short to get on with the rest of the class, they complain I didn’t get to say my sentence. It’s great to see.”

“It’s amazing. What I really love about the boys here is they’re confident kids. I’ll cross them in the corridors and I’ll hear ‘Bonjour Madame, ca va?’”

MS Ailbhe Heffernan – FRENCH TEACHER

She admires her students’ curiosity and eagerness to explore other cultures. “It’s a huge asset to them,” she says. “I think Joeys boys are risk-takers. And I would say they are open-minded kids. They want to know things about the world. If you let them go off on a tangent with questions about France, you will have the whole class asking questions – they want to know about the world.”

But she acknowledges there can be a hesitancy, especially in Australia, to embrace language learning. Unlike in Europe, where knowing a second language is commonplace, there is a failure to recognise the benefits – both on a personal and professional level – of speaking a foreign tongue.

Fortunately that ignorance doesn’t extend to Joeys boys. “We get many excellent students who continue with French right through to the HSC and they really love it, just like I do.”

She is confident languages, and French in particular, will continue to play an integral part in the ongoing history of the College. “Everyone can learn a language. It really opens up the world.”