Grammar teaching in France

On the history of teaching of French as a foreign or second language: SIHFLES Documents vol 58-59, 2017.

Information mostly from Antonio Balvet (a linguist living in France with two children in school), but also from Emilie Kasazian and Isabelle Barrière. See also Belgium and Quebec.

  • [Isabelle Barrière in 1997]
    • In the French school system, children are taught to carry out the following:
      • classification of words (as noun verb, etc)
      • identification of grammatical functions (subject, object, etc)
    • I cannot remember whether I was taught at school how to produce visual representations of sentence structure.
    • At the time I went to school (about 20 years ago), we were taught from age 8.
  • [Marina Yaguello in 1997] In France, there is a lot of emphasis on grammar in the curriculum (at least one hour a day in primary school). the grammatical analysis of sentences along the lines you suggested begins at the age of six(11th grade) and goes on until age 15 (third grade). I don’t know how successful it is on the whole but to judge by my linguistics students it does give them some sort of background as far as parts of speech, parsing, functions etc.
  • [(Emilie Kasazian] But there is much debate about content, aims and methods – see articles by Manesse, Chiss & David, and Léon.
  • Theoretically, as language teaching has been reformed (both first language and foreign language(s) teaching), kids are not supposed to be exposed to any formal grammatical analysis (infamously known as “analyse logique” among pupils). Teachers are not supposed to formally teach anything resembling conjugation, syntax, spelling etc. Rather, they are supposed to emphasize communication skills, and they are supposed to teach only the relevant aspects of grammar, conjugation, spelling etc. wrt the communication skills and the documents used (supposed to be authentic documents). This is supposed to apply to both elementary school and most of all collège and lycée.”
  • “This is theory, as many teachers keep on doing what they have been trained to do. Every time some member of the ministry of education so much as hints at changing something about how French is taught, pandemonium ensues, with demonstrations, strikes and angry parents yelling at said politician(s). I can tell you that teachers are still doing spelling exercises (dictées), asking for essays (rédactions: what did you do during the holidays, etc.), conjugation exercises and so on, even among the most “modernists”. As far as I know, nothing fundamental has changed in the way kids are exposed to grammar, in spite of the different reforms that have been voted and are now a legal obligation.”
  • “As an example, I am sending you official administrative documents about how grammar teaching should happen (produced before the recent official ban on all formal grammar). [See the 1998 and 2009 documents below.] The documents were clearly influenced by structuralist linguists. As a linguist, I would be happy if teachers stopped teaching kids that grammatical functions such as the subject can be found by asking the question “qui fait l’action?” (who is performing the action), or the object by “qui subit l’action?” (who undergoes the action), etc. The documents I’m sending you are official documents, which every teacher and head of school should know. As far as I know, this is far from being the case. As you will see, they emphasize the need for a consistent terminology, based on structural syntax and explicit analysis procedures. This is never taught, as far as I know: teachers keep using “article défini/indéfini” instead of “déterminant” (determiner), “adjectif démonstratif” instead of “déterminant démonstratif”, without ever explaining why something is called an “article” in some cases, and an “adjective” in some other cases. Which does nothing to make grammar analysis an appealing moment for kids. They even give exercises on concrete/abstract nouns… without ever explaining whether it is the referent (the object in the world) that is concrete/abstract or what.”
  • [Dick Hudson: I don’t understand the status of the official documents you sent.] “Honestly, neither do I. They are official documents, produced by committees in favor of a reform of how French is taught. So at some point, someone in charge tasked some experts to produce those documents. As far as I can tell, from the textbooks I’ve seen recently, they have had little to no influence so far. But this should not come as a surprise, really: the spelling reform (orthographe rénovée) has been effective for more than 15 years, and only last year did the journalists realize something had changed… causing the inevitable uproar amongst teachers and parents alike… The only difference is now there is a public awareness that you can spell “nénuphar” as “nénufar”, and that some, but not all, of French’s most blatant idiosyncrasies have been regularized. Like you can use “évènement” instead of “événement” (wow, what a dramatic change!). But you still need to spell weight as “poids” just because some guy got his Latin etymology wrong in his dictionary in the 16th century (Robert Estienne is the culprit), that‘s not going to change any time soon (while other romance languages use “peso”, and English uses old French “avoirdupois“)…”
  • [Dick Hudson: You have exactly the opposite problem from us: your teachers ignore official instructions to stop teaching grammar, whereas ours ignore official instructions to start it! In both cases the reason is the same: teachers like to teach what they know and enjoy, and hate to have to teach new stuff – and our teachers simply don’t know any grammar because they were never taught it at school.] “Well, our teachers think they know grammar, but what they know covers a very tiny portion of the domain, and it’s far from being consistent, since it is not based on the structuralist method (I’m not in favor of the generativist framework, here, not at all). But yes, basically, they have spent a lot of time and effort learning something, and they are not ready to change their ways anytime soon. I was discussing how inappropriate the “qui fait l’action?” scheme was to my neighbor, who happens to be an elementary school teacher. I was demonstrating how wrong that scheme was, when dealing with common sentences, like “Max est malade” or “Max dort”. Where is the action here? Can we really tell kids that “sleeping” is an action and get away with it? Of course not, they’ll start questioning the teacher’s authority, and rightly so. I had to stop there, because she was getting mad at me… but I had to bite my tongue. And, of course, if the kids follow this path, they will inevitably come up with analyses like “malade” is an object complement of “est” (Max est quoi? Malade -> COD de “est”), which kinda makes sens (in dependency analysis for example) but is considered “wrong” in traditional grammatical analysis. But you see, this never happens, basically because our educational system teaches kids NEVER to question the teacher’s authority. So it really is a system designed at spotting the elite and sending them to the appropriate very selective curricula (ENS, Polytechnique, hautes écoles) and making sure the rest of the herd never shows any initiative. The result of this very efficient conditioning can be seen at the university level: I always have to ask foreign students (Erasmus) to shut up whenever I ask questions, so that the French students can start blurting out some sort of answer.”
  • “As for grammatical representations, the traditional grammatical analysis (analyse logique) is based on:
    • identifiying non-essential modifiers (compléments circonstanciels): time, place, goal, etc.
    • identifying essential constituents (“groupe nominal” = NP, “groupe verbal” = VP) and identifying their functions.
    • underlining (sometimes using different colors) or using brackets to identify each constituent’s boundaries.
  • [Dick Hudson: I also see that you’re interested in dependency grammar. I am too, and in my research for the book I’m writing about grammar teaching dependency grammar is an important strand, especially when diagramming starts in the nineteenth century. Do you know if French schools teach any kind of diagramming system?] I know, from reading Tesnière’s biography and English translation of Structural Syntax (the French version is extremely hard to find), that he tried it way back in the 1930’s: he introduced his dependency syntax representations to 1st and 2d degree teachers. Apparently it had a good reception, but his being “agrégé” probably helped (the figure of authority). Since then, apart maybe from experiments in alternative schools (Montessori-inspired), I am pretty sure no-one dared try it again. And Tesnière died before he could really propose a consistent framework for grammatical analysis”
  • “Traditionally, grammatical analysis focuses on very typical grammatical paradigms: simple sentences, sentences with relative clauses or adjectival modifers, PP-modified NPs (le chat de la voisine). Essentially, grammatical analysis is geared towards agreement phenomena (agreement of the “passé composé” when the auxiliary is “avoir” and the object precedes it: “j’ai pris ma voiture” -> “je l’ai prise”). And it is also viewed as a “soft” way to introduce pupils to analytical thinking (ancient Greek classes were also viewed as facilitating French spelling and grammar, it has been left out of modern school programs). You will find an example of
  • “This grammatical foundation will be elaborated upon whenever students engage in higher education curricula to become teachers, either primary school teachers, elementary, or secondary (collège and lycée) teachers. Each teaching level is associated with a very selective procedure (concours), since a numerus clausus applies (all teachers are functionaries of the state). The most elitist being the “agrégation”, which is a prerequisite for teaching at lycée level. Needless to say, structural syntax generally finds itself in total contradiction with the “traditional” grammatical exercises for the CAPES (collège) or AGREGATION (lycée), as structural syntax emphasizes explicit discovery procedures, based on reproducible tests, while the traditional way is a mishmash of semantic-syntactic considerations. I know this from what I can see at my university. For example, “subject” is always ambiguously presented as either the syntactic sybject function or the semantic “agent” role. Another example would be the notion of infinitival clause: the traditional account of such clauses, is to consider that there can only be an infinitival clause if its (inherent) subject is different from the main clause. Thus, in : “je veux partir”, “partir” will not generally be considered as an infinitival clause. But in “j’entends le train siffler”, since “le train” is “subject” (agent really), “le train siffler” is an infinitival clause. The structural linguist will wonder “oh, and where is the subject of ‘partir’”. But apparently, having a consistent framework is not what the traditional grammatical analysis is all about. It’s more about providing the expected answer while applying for a selective curriculum.”
  • “If this is representative of how grammar is done in the classroom, I can tell you this would not easily happen in a French school: everybody helping with the assignment? Kids writing at the whiteboard? Not your typical French classroom situation. Things are changing, though, but the usual situation is TEACHER tells the ~30 PUPILS what to do, nobody speaks unless prompted. There definitely is room for improvement on our part.”
  • “Grammar analysis is still a very good way to select the most “apt” candidates for selective curricula. This applies to teaching curricula, of course, but also to speech therapists (écoles d’orthophonie), as well as a host of other selection procedures. You will find grammatical analysis exercises in the most unexpected places, like in the selection procedure (concours) to become a nurse at a special school (école d’infirmière). As you can see here (questions contributed by former candidates), a good command of grammar, vocabulary and spelling are apparently prerequisites to become a competent health professional in France.
  • [Dick Hudson: But why is grammar so hard to get right? My theory is that it’s because it used to be tied to Latin, so it has to be rethought when Latin disappears and we try to apply it to living languages that children already know.] “Yes, at least for French, it is a known fact (among linguists at least) that French grammar was inspired by Latin grammar, which in turn was inspired by Greek grammar. Emile Benveniste showed that pretty clearly in his chapter “catégories de pensée et catégories de langue” (an unofficial pdf can be found here: Sylvain Auroux has written a lot about this (you might want to read la révolution technologique de la grammatisation). When Latin died away, nobody, among the grammarians, cared to rethink French grammar from scratch. My theory is that it is a caste thing: there are those who know, and those who don’t, which get kicked out of the selective curricula. Besides, members of the elite had it considerably easier, since they also happened to know Greek and/or Latin. The only ones who have been trying to simplify things are linguists, but there is a strong chasm between linguists and “littéraires”, so every time a linguist proposes something in the way of making grammar a little more consistent, the “littéraires” go on the war path.”




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