Medievalising beginners’ modern French: a sample lesson un-plan

(Possibly a true ghost story.)

It is often a source of suprise, not least to myself, that I find myself enjoying teaching FREN 101 & 102, our beginners’ courses. On the other hand, this is my job and I did sign up for it.* A case in point today:

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… and, as ever, the textbook offers description but neither explanation nor definition. Solution: bring on the monkeys (via Terminator and Charlemagne). Screenshots and photos of whiteboards taken at end of class, before returning to my office for office hours (from which I will be leaving in one minute, hours ended a few minutes ago; apologies for some images via iPad being weird big sizes, I’ll tweak them later to quote the great Rowan Atkinson).

So. We’d started work on prepositions of relative location last week, plus vocabulary for buildings, floors, rooms, furniture, and furnishings. To this we now added colours. I sent the students away for the first hour of class to do field-work; they returned with descriptions of the new UBC SUB Nest, the Nitobe Memorial Gardens, the rose garden feat. graduation, a café, etc.

We’ve met de previously; it’s always messy. Why not mess it up further by going for the motherlode jugular: especially if you then get stuck with tech issues when the Grand Robert électronique (= the French equivalent to the OED online) fails to load, and you then have fun trying to hook up a student’s computer (where the GRE has successfully loaded) to the projector, as the student’s computer is set up in Chinese. Mac universality is interesting, as icons and haptic-memory routes still work to some extent. Anyway: we get to this:

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and we don’t scroll through every blinking idiomatic expression using de, I just show the position of the teeny scroll-bar and leave the rest to students’ imaginations and I won’t ever ask who went back to look again, that would go against the delicate social contract of mutually-respectful geekiness. I start with a reminder of the de that they’ve met before, that they’ll meet again, and that may be one of several bits of French grammar which come to haunt their dreams:

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I point out the first written occurrences (medieval preen) and resist the urge to show them de in the Princeton Charrette Project lexico-grammatical database (two more preens) and point towards the hilarious joys that can be derived from the exemplary citations. Because proper dictionaries are bigger, better, geekier, and way sexier than simple searches.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Google and how good Google Translate has become and how great it is with longer chunks of text; seeing that long chunk of text appear and change shape as you type in the other box is a wonderful bit of live-action language for which the world is a better place, and being able to see how that long chunk makes sense (even if you don’t understand every word and couldn’t formulate something that complex yourself on your own) is a great comprehension exercise. But simple searches for a single term with no context?

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But I digress.

Next, we go to what we’re actually looking at today:

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The most important word here is RAPPORTS. Again, medieval smugness:

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A moment’s digression for gentle readers, as the citations here are supremely choice morsels:

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etc. Take a moment, be that for a rapturous sigh or to pick yourself up off the floor where you landed after FOCL.

Medieval smugness and the Strasburg Oaths will return in a moment.

Next stage on de: relationships of belonging. We started out with computers belonging to students (to trigger narrative memory: student computer used to look up de in the Grand Robert), and students belonging to computers being quite different (narrative memory and hooks via a digression).

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And a quick run-down of other belongings: je suis de appears early on the textbook in the classic first section that’s in every language-learning book post-Freud, so that students can describe themselves. We digress on the difference with je viens de and je suis originaire de. We add the rapports of personal relationship, belonging to friends and family.

(Note to self: don’t forget to talk about fils de…- and putain de bordel de merde-form insults; reusing that clip of The Merovingian from The Matrix Reloaded. Also not to forget the traditional Game of Thrones quiz on family and other relationships + possessive adjectives next week.)

I add up other related forms (de + tonic pronoun, possessive pronoun) on another board,

and then we do some de-spotting and play “spot the possessive (of any sort)” in the Strasburg Oaths, also as a general reading comprehension exercise while I read aloud. My pre-11th c. French pronunciation is a bit shaky, so any students reading this: apologies. The Oaths article on Wikipedia is a great one for loads of de and possessives, loads of them around the direct genitive of generation.

All that is just one of those uncanny unplanned things that sort of happen haphazardly and spontaneously when teaching in a manner that allows for and actively uses improvisation; remember, I had also not planned on having to hook a student’s laptop up to the projector, and that was what led to the use of Computers / AI / Robots Taking Over The Earth for grammar examples.

That was a lot of grammar and accidental philology, and I had promised monkeys, and we were under half an hour from the end (we’ll start Tuesday’s class with the monkeys though):


Using this as a model for sentence-formation: note that I was nice and generous and didn’t pick any of my own absolute favourite Discarding Images monkeys & other primates (though students did pick one of these; yes, the obvious image):


From Scaramanga and Saruman to Skynet, from not seeing the woods for the trees to trans-sylvania: this post is dedicated to the memory of that great Carolingian of famous involvement with dark forces and monkeying around, Sir Christopher Lee. 

* A large part of my job is the teaching, coordination, and other course design and management and suchlike of our FREN 101 & 102 (multiple sections—25-ish altogether, 35 students per section—and teaching-people, including everyone from beginner graduate student TAs to full professors).

These are the first two of a four-term introductory French series, FREN 101-102-111-112, which satisfies the language requirement of students in the Faculty of Arts and is at a requisite level to be comparable to end-of-high-school French. “French 12” has further versions and variations, but grosso modo students should be able to go either from it or from our 101-through-112 sequence (they can start at various points along the way, if they’ve done some French previously, but all roads lead to 112) into our “traditional first-year French course”: FREN 122-123, taught in French, and the first in the series of French courses that could contribute to a degree in French.

(While the content and level of “French 12” vary considerably, the end of 123 = between CEFR B2 and C1; its inclusion of literature and some introductory literary analysis moves it into C1 territory. We also have nice useful online placement tests, though they’re only open to students registered at UBC, but that does include people who’ve just registered and are starting in September.)

Be that a minor or a major or honours, everything that counts towards a UBC degree in French must all be in French and should be equivalent to a degree in French from a Francophone university; Canada being an officially bilingual country, this is an important principle. (Well, it’s actually a multilingual country and a large number of First Nations languages should surely sensibly have at least the same status as those two colonial languages of longest standing? But I digress…)

My current teaching is the summer-session double-time FREN 101; instead of 3h/week, it’s 3h/day x 2, Tuesday & Thursday. Many of my students are also working and/or taking other courses at the same time; I discovered just today to my utter horror that the university allows students to take up to four summer classes at a time. That would be 24h/week of classes, and if each course necessitates the usual 2:1 ratio of homework, prep, & practice etc. : class time, that’s a 72 hour week. This is why my students are not allowed but actively encouraged to do their online practice exercises together, at least in buddy-pairs if not larger groups. Also because:

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