Year Four Begins…

By   September 28, 2009

I completely missed my 3 year anniversary of living in France! In some ways, it seems longer than 3 years. In other ways, not so much. Year four brings a new apartment and city to discover, the same job but new students to teach, and another year closer to officially becoming French.

I feel like I’ve been slowly acquiescing to France’s lifestyle and feeling slightly less annoyed by the things I wish I could change. I still refuse to eat lunch at 12 sharp and I do wish stores were open on Sundays, but eh, what are ya gonna do? It’s funny now to see how frustrated people are when they first arrive in France and realize they have no control over anything. I just laughed at the never-ending schedule changes at work this year (too many students, not enough classes), yet I know the new lecteurs are freaking out and feeling stressed because they still don’t even know when they have to work and it’s the 2nd week of the semester. But I don’t care. It’s not the end of the world if something goes wrong, especially when it’s not your fault.

I don’t want to take my je-m’en-foutisme to the extreme, but sometimes you gotta have it to survive, or at least, to not have a heart attack due to stress. I could have pulled my hair out upon arriving at work and finding that only 11 of the computers worked and the internet was down, meaning we couldn’t use Dialang to do the placement tests. But I didn’t. Luckily only 11 students showed up for each class, so we started with a different vocabulary test that doesn’t require the internet, and the network was fixed in time to finish up with what I wanted to do. Things all worked out in the end.

My rentrée is almost here

By   September 27, 2009

Tomorrow I will finally start classes again! We are just doing placement tests so we can divide the groups by level, but it’s still work, especially since we’re using our lovely computer lab with Windows 2000 and so far 3 out of 18 of the computers are already dead. New computers will be installed, but not before the rentrée 2010 – when I will no longer be a lectrice there – so the computer techs will not help us at all this year if we have problems with the computers or server. I am going to have to croiser my doigts all year that our 15 remaining computers make it until April!

My schedule is done, I think. I’ll have class 16.5 hours a week (7 are labs, 7.5 are vocabulary class, and 2 are a special class for the Italian exchange students). So I will have to do some preparation this year (for the Italian students) and a lot more correcting of recordings since I have 5 vocab classes instead of the normal 3 or 4. But I’m excited. I felt so lazy this summer for not doing much, and I would always rather be too busy than too bored.

I keep thinking about next fall and what type of job I can get. I don’t mind teaching English, but I still feel like it’s preventing me from perfecting my French. And I would still prefer to teach French to Anglophones… Not that that will ever happen while I’m living in France, but at least I can try to teach people through my website. As a technology nerd, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on autonomous technology-assisted language learning. I definitely believe the bulk of language acquisition takes place outside of the classroom, when and where the students feel most comfortable and motivated and where they can be exposed to a variety of input. That’s not to say that the teacher or classroom are unnecessary in language learning though. Both are required for interaction, correction, feedback and to provide the tools for further study. But students need to take the initiative to study on their own, outside of the measly few hours they spend in class each week.

On a slightly different topic, I don’t really feel qualified to teach French even if I could. My Master’s is in Linguistics, and my Bachelor’s is in French & Linguistics, which I specifically chose because I love linguistics a million times more than literature. Yet most universities focus their language programs on literature, so even if I did become a French professor someday, I wouldn’t want to teach those classes. I wouldn’t mind teaching culture, film, music, etc. but literature? No thanks. I guess I just always prefer the spoken language. I’ve been looking at university sites to see what’s required for degrees in French nowadays, and also to see what textbooks they use, and I came across Hong Kong’s impressive course websites and resources. Sometimes I wonder how people learned languages before the internet!

But getting back to teaching English and my future job in France, I can’t decide what would be better: continue teaching English or just be a student in French. I’d love to start my PhD soon, but I want to improve my written French first. However, can we afford to live on only one salary for a while? Do I want to try to juggle teaching English with improving my French and/or starting my PhD? Maybe something else completely unrelated to teaching will come up and I’ll be able to improve my French while earning money so I won’t have to worry about it. My goal is to get French citizenship (I can apply in 2 years) and a career that allows me to use languages, whether or not it’s teaching, so perfecting my French is going to have to be a priority.  In the meantime, I just want to discover the best way to teach French through the internet.

Colloquial French Grammar

By   September 23, 2009

I just finished reading Colloquial French Grammar by Rodney Ball, which I highly recommend to those who want to learn the “rules” of everyday spoken French. You do have to have some knowledge of French because sometimes there are no translations given, and a linguistics background would be helpful to understand all of the grammatical terms.

One aspect that I was surprised to not find in the book was the usage of on and specifying the people included in on. I learned very early in my French classes that on is a more common substitute for nous, which can be a little confusing since it takes a singular verb and not a plural one. But I never learned that it is possible and common to name the person or people that you are referring to when you say on. For example, On est allé au cinéma, avec Marc actually means Marc and I went to the movies and NOT We (= someone else and I) went to the movies with Marc. In English, if you use we and then say with [someone], that someone is an additional person not already referred to or included in we. But perhaps this is possible with nous (I never hear anyone use nous so I don’t even know) and so it’s not considered colloquial?

Chapter 7, titled “Grammatical Effects of an Unreformed Spelling System,” reminded me of Joel Walz’s 1986 article “Is Oral Proficiency Possible with Today’s French Textbooks?” The answer was, of course, a big fat NO and I’m sure the answer remains no even in 2009 because textbooks really haven’t changed all that much over the years, unfortunately. In the chapter, Ball grouped adjectives and verb conjugations together according to their pronunciations instead of their orthography. This was a large part of Walz’s article on how textbooks only teach the written form of language and group certain grammatical items together solely by spelling and not by pronunciation.

As Walz points out, adjective agreement and the number system are highly complicated in oral form, but simpler in written form. Therefore, textbooks group the adjectives together based on their spelling changes, without regard to the many pronunciation changes that occur. “A typical textbook presents twelve adjectives showing fifty-two oral forms” yet when students are tested on their knowledge of adjectives, it is usually the spelling of feminine or plural forms with complete disregard to the pronunciation changes that do or do not occur. Most textbooks teach the numbers from 0 to 100 or to 1,000 in a single lesson, even though “the numbers zero through ten alone have twenty-two possible oral forms.”

On the other side of the spectrum, verb conjugations are easier to learn orally than in written form. Yet the textbooks do not adequately describe the pronunciation and instead focus on highlighting the spelling changes for verbs that do not actually change pronunciation, such as adding a cedilla to verb stems ending in -c before the -ons ending of nous. Writing ç is due to the archaic and complicated French writing system and not because the pronunciation changes during conjugation.

In Ball’s group of regular -er verbs, he states there are only two forms that need to be learned since the on form is more common than nous. Here is the IPA for the conjugated verb forms:

j’arrive [aRiv]
t’arrives [aRiv]
il/elle arrive [aRiv]
on arrive [aRiv]
vous arrivez [aRive]
i’z/e’z arrivent [aRiv]

The same two-verb system can be used for the imperfect, future and conditional, though of course, it does get more complicated with -re and -ir verbs. But the point is that it is easier to learn the conjugations if they are based on pronunciation alone. The written forms should be secondary, but in textbooks, they are always primary.

Ball and Walz both explain the syntax of forming questions, and how intonation is actually the most common even though textbooks still insist on teaching inversion and est-ce que. Walz even states “if the more frequent form is also easier for the learner to acquire, then textbook writers have an added incentive to develop that form pedagogically.” It is common sense to teach intonation to form questions since it is the exact same word order as for declarative sentences. But textbooks teach inversion of subject and verb, which actually delays acquisition for elementary French learners, because it is the standard form in written, academic French.

Walz goes on to explain that “academic purism prevents many writers [of textbooks] from describing the spoken language as it exists. Written language has always enjoyed more prestige.” There is a reason why textbooks seem to be clones of one another. Authors are afraid to teach spoken French because it is considered inferior to written French and publishing companies would just throw their manuscripts out. Another facet of textbook publishing is simply the profit factor. Publishing companies print textbooks to make money, not to help students learn. Otherwise, textbooks would be open source and online for everyone to learn from, for free. But I digress…

Part of the problem with teaching French based on orthography is French’s ridiculous spelling system with its numerous homonyms and spellings for one phoneme. There are 13 spellings for the phoneme [o] !! There will always be debates about reforming the system (especially during la rentrée), but I don’t know if it will happen anytime soon. It did happen in the 1800’s actually, but no one really knows about it because all of the earlier famous works in French literature were re-written with the new spellings. Today’s French has changed a lot since the time of Molière so when purists claim that the langue de Molière shouldn’t be reformed, they are just showing their ignorance because it has already been changed. (Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow’s The Story of French explains this and much more about the history of the French language throughout the world.)

I completely agree with Walz that French (or other languages with complex orthography) should be taught based on the pronunciation because it is easier to learn and because language, at its core, is more about spoken (or signed!) communication than written. Of course writing a language is important too, obviously, but speaking and understanding should be primary. French majors who have only learned textbook French have an incredibly hard time understanding everyday French when they study in, or move to, or merely visit, a French-speaking country. They never learned colloquial French so they cannot understand the majority of interactions in French, unless they plan on doing nothing but listening to the nightly news or presidential speeches.

Especially with French, it is important that the students do not get distracted by the spelling, so they should always learn the pronunciation of a word first or simultaneously with the spelling of the word. I’m a very visual learner and I need to see the spelling of a word in order to remember how to spell AND how to pronounce it even if the spelling has nothing to do with the pronunciation. But I learned the phonology of French first, and later applied that to the spelling sytem, so I can keep them separate in my head.

This post is getting incredibly long, so I’m going to stop there. But the point is that I wish textbooks would teach the real spoken language instead of fake textbook language that no one really uses. When is someone finally going to write and publish a textbook on colloquial French that includes authentic language samples from a spoken corpus and that focuses more on the vocabulary (especially slang) needed to survive in everyday situations instead of standard grammar?

Hot Potatoes and Audio Flashcards

By   September 21, 2009

As of September 1, 2009, Hot Potatoes (and Quandary) became freeware software. Anyone can download and use the flashcard and exercise authoring programs, whether or not you’re affiliated with a university or upload your work to the web. I use HP for work and for my website. I’ve made several flash cards and quizzes for French, Italian and German so far. With the help of flash mp3 players, I’m starting to make audio flashcards too. I started with FSI Italian and now I’m focusing on French since I know that’s the most popular tutorial on my site.

I also use the Before You Know It flashcard program for my own personal vocabulary learning. Unlike HP, it does not create independent webpages in which to study the flashcards or do the exercises, but rather everything is within the BYKI software (or you can study through their site). It does have a lot of  functionality (create your own lists, import photos and mp3s, generate multiple choice quizzes, dictations, etc.), but only if you buy the Deluxe version. The Lite version is free, but limits you to studying only the lists that can be downloaded through their website.

There are some websites like Wordchamp (free) and Quia (not free) where you can create flashcards, games and quizzes, but the main problem with these sites is that all of your work is stored on their server – so if the website goes down someday, you will lose everything. At least with HP, you have the original HP files and the HTML files saved on your hard drive. The same is true of BYKI, obviously.

I wish there were some way to integrate BYKI and HP flashcards though. I like using them both, but BYKI helps save time because the exercises are automatically generated; however, HP is completely free and can be made into webpages so you can share them with everyone with an internet connection.  There’s no need for learners to download and install software. In addition, the BYKI word lists can only be printed, and not copied into a word processor or exported into HTML as with HP.

I would like to be able to create both versions of flashcards for my website for those who prefer BYKI. As it is right now, I would have to type in the lists and import the mp3s separately for each program which means twice the work. I’ll probably just stick with HP for now though since I can share the flashcards and exercises with the most number of people.

Foire de Savoie

By   September 19, 2009

Last night David & I went to the Foire de Savoie, mostly because one of their main exhibits was Tahiti et ses îles and I’m still really interested in seeing French Polynesia one day. Everyone was dressed in traditional Polynesian outfits and they were selling flowers, oils, jewelry, clothes and vacations to Tahiti. They even had a tattoo artist giving (removable) ink tattoos of Polynesian symbols.

tiki statue

In the other six buildings, most of the vendors were selling things for the home like couches, kitchens, pools, sheds, etc. which is great if you have a house but a bit depressing if you don’t. There were a few stands selling other things like Italian or Basque food as well as some activities such as fake palm tree-climbing and ziplining, but these were only for children. The only thing we ended up buying was some candy called chouchou – peanuts covered in crunchy caramel. If we had a yard, I would have loved to buy this:

I am glad we went – we entered a drawing to win a 10 day vacation to Tahiti so keeps your doigts croisés for us – but we had a bit of a scare on the way. It was really crowded because it was Friday night, and some roads were closed so the traffic was awful. We had just crossed some railroad tracks and stopped because of the red light further ahead. I noticed the car behind us actually stopped on the tracks instead of waiting to make sure there was enough room to cross the tracks before advancing like you are supposed to do. I made a comment about how that driver was an idiot because you never know when a train will come along and sure enough, the bells rang to signal that a train was coming. Lucky for him, the traffic started moving right away and he was able to get off the tracks without about 2 seconds to spare. I didn’t even see the train because it was going so fast that by the time I turned my head around to look, it had already passed. Just thinking about that car on the tracks made my stomach upset for the next half hour though.

Hazardous Effects of Dubbing

By   September 17, 2009

Ok, maybe not hazardous, but the effects sure are annoying. France dubs almost all foreign TV shows and movies into French instead of leaving the original spoken language and adding subtitles. I absolutely hate it because the lips don’t match the words, the voices don’t match the actors, and it’s really distracting when the French voice of Gibbs is also the voice of Bones’ dad! (Are there really not enough voice actors in France for all the shows?)

It is much, much cheaper to subtitle than to dub, it helps people learn foreign languages, and it keeps the original work closer to its intended form. So why do countries insist on spending extra money on dubbing? To create a few more voice acting jobs? Because the general population doesn’t like to read? I would really like to know the reasons because it makes no sense to me.

The last time I went to the movies, five out of six of them were American and dubbed into French. It got me thinking about growing up in a country where most of the entertainment is from a different country (usually America), and having to watch everything dubbed. Would it annoy me? Would I just get used to it? I have never watched a foreign movie dubbed into English so I don’t know what it’s like to hear your native language, but know that everything about the movie is completely foreign and different. What do the French think about American high school movies? Don’t they find it weird when the characters talk about things that don’t even exist in France, like cheerleaders or Prom? I know these words translate into French (pom-pom girl and bal de la fin de l’année) but do the French really know what they are? Or why they’re so prevalent in American culture and entertainment?

Another thing I don’t understand is when people say that a certain actor is their favorite actor ever, and yet they have never heard his real voice. The voice is so important!! Even the body language can’t be conveyed or interpreted the same since that’s highly dependent on culture. Are they simply referring to his physical look or perhaps to the French voice? (A lot of the really famous American actors have the same French voice actor for all of their movies so they can be more recognizable.)

Of course, the main reason I prefer subtitles is for their effect on listening comprehension in other languages. Scandinavian and Dutch learners of English always outperform French, German, Spanish and Italian learners of English. Hmm, I wonder why? Last year only about 5-10% of my students said they ever watched movies in English, and it certainly showed in their listening and speaking abilities.

Countries in red do dubbing, those in blue do subtitles (with some dubbing for childrens’ programs).

I know I’m a bit biased being a language teacher/linguist who highly values listening comprehension in order to learn proper pronunciation and who views audio-visual input such as television and films as major language learning tools that everyone should utilize. Unfortunately, I also know there are some people out there who don’t actually want to/refuse to learn another language or culture.  I’d like to think even if I weren’t so passionate about foreign languages, I would still prefer subtitles to dubbing for the simple reason that it doesn’t destroy the authenticity. It’s just a few words at the bottom of the screen.

La Maison de Jean-Jacques Rousseau dans les Charmettes

By   September 14, 2009

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of Social Contract fame, lived in a house in the Charmettes, just outside of Chambéry, from 1735-1742. He kept a garden and vineyard there while he spent the rest of his time writing. It is open to the public for free and there is also a temporary exposition until December 31 titled “Je ne suis pas à vendre” that includes the showing of the film Crésus.

La Maison

Inside the House


Herb garden and house

View of Chambéry and the Alps

Let’s herbalize (?) with JJ!

I want this archway at my future house.

C’est dommage que les Savoyards ne soient pas riches,
ou peutêtre seroit-ce dommage qu’ils le fussent;
car tels qu’ils sont, c’est le meilleur et le plus sociable peuple que je connoisse.
S’il est une petite Ville au monde où l’on goûte la douceur de la vie
dans un commerce agréable et sur,
c’est Chambéri.
– Rousseau (writing with 18th century orthography)

It is a pity the Savoyards are not rich:
though, perhaps, it would be a still greater pity if they were so,
for altogether they are the best, the most sociable people that I know,
and if there is a little city in the world where the pleasures of life
are experienced in an agreeable and friendly commerce,
it is at Chambery.

Zee French Appartement

By   September 12, 2009

Even though we moved into this apartment back in May, we are still not finished acquiring all the furniture we want/need. The last piece of the puzzle is a clic-clac for the living room. We do have a small couch, but it’s too uncomfortable and impossible to sleep on.  We were supposed to receive the clic-clac today but when we called Conforama asking why it still hadn’t been delivered hours after they said it would be, they told us it was not in stock yet and to call back on Monday. ::sigh:: Well thanks for making us waste the day waiting around for an imaginary delivery truck.

Our apartment is 51 square meters (about 550 square feet), with two balconies and storage space in the basement. I really wanted a two-bedroom apartment but we were pressed for time and we didn’t even know how much money David would be making, so we decided to budget the same as for our last apartment. So we are paying the same amount for rent, but overall it should be slightly cheaper since the heating here is collectif instead of electric. Plus we are much closer to downtown – only about 5 blocks from the train station – and there is parking in the underground garage, except we have yet to get our garage since the owner is a tad senile and constantly forgets to bring the right keys to the agency. We’ve been waiting 4 months so I am starting to lose a little hope for the garage…

I had planned on posting pictures of the “finished” apartment, complete with clic-clac, but thanks to Conforama you’ll just have to imagine this clic-clac in place of the green couch.

Salon: That’s my bookshelf full of language books. David’s bookshelf is on the opposite wall. (There are, of course, more bookshelves in the hallway and bedroom.) We’ve also got a little armchair that you can just see the edge of.

On the opposite side of the room, my desk is next to the radiator and windows. I didn’t take a picture of David’s desk (to the left, next to the filing cabinet) because it is way too messy. And yes, that is Château Frontenac in Quebec City on my desktop.

Cuisine: Kitchens in Europe are mostly “bring your own” deals, so usually the only thing that is included is the sink. You must bring your own stove, fridge, and even cupboards. There will most likely only be one or two electrical outlets as well.

If you’re starting to wonder why the walls are all bare, and why I have a painting sitting on the table instead of hanging up – we are not allowed to make any holes in any walls because the apartment was just repainted a month before we moved in. For some reason they also painted over the wallpaper, and put wallpaper on all the ceilings, which are also painted over. Yeah, I don’t understand why either…

Salle de bains: Our bathroom is unlike most French bathrooms because the toilet is in the actual bathroom and not in a little room by itself. Luckily our last apartment was like this too, because the thought of a “toilet room” with no sink to wash your hands disgusts me. The shower (which already had the showerhead attached to the wall!) is to the left. The washing machine is a bit big, and barely fits in the bathroom, so the toilet is a bit cramped in the corner. We don’t have a drying machine, but just a drying rack that I put on the balcony.

Balcons: The front balcony runs the length of the living room and bedroom. Luckily Canaille cannot fit through the bars, unlike the back balcony. He used to walk along the little ledge over to the neighbor’s balcony, but their balcony is closed off with glass doors, so he had to back up in order to return to our balcony which nearly gave me a heart attack every time. We are 3 stories up above a concrete parking lot, so that’s why there is now a green grillage on the kitchen balcony in the photo above.

I love love love having balconies. Being able to sit outside and have this view is probably the main reason why:

Chambre: Our bedroom also has the same big doors that open onto the front balcony. The closet is really deep, but it’s all shelves so I have to hang clothes in the hallway closet. I was pleasantly surprised that there actually was a closet in the bedroom since most of bedrooms I’ve seen here have nothing. (Bring your own closet is also common.)

I don’t care if my map of France totally clashes with the awesome purple walls and yellow trim and black dresser. I also have maps of the US and the UK on other doors. Tape on doors, unlike holes in walls, was not expressly forbidden on the lease, so take that propriétaire!

So there’s our French apartment in Chambéry for those of you (hi mom) who were interested. Once we get the stupid clic-clac we can finally have guests stay with us, as long as they don’t mind this furball sleeping on their legs:

We are already looking for a house to rent out in the countryside, but even if we found one in our price range (not likely), we wouldn’t be moving until I’m finished working at the university in the spring. That also means David would have to drive to work everyday and I don’t know if my car is all that reliable. In any case, his office is moving in a few months so he won’t be able to walk to work any longer anyway which was the main reason why we wanted this apartment in the first place.

Ready for my Rentrée

By   September 10, 2009

School starts in 11 days and I’m so excited! I love my job and being on vacation for nearly 5 months was getting a little old. I can’t wait to get back in the computer room and audio labs and play with the technology teach students English. Everything will be so much easier this year since I know what to expect and I’ll have a lot of the same students because I teach first and second year classes.

Plus there’s a new American lectrice in the literature-based/future teachers language department that I’ll probably be sharing labs with. (I teach in the business/international relations-oriented language department.) My schedule for the semester is almost finalized. I have six pronunciation labs, four translation labs, three vocabulary classes, and one class of “soutien” for the exchange students from the Aosta Valley in Italy. I love these students. They are so motivated! They’re studying their 3rd (English) and 4th (Spanish or German) languages and their English is usually quite good already.

Luckily I start at 1:30pm everyday Monday-Thursday, except for Wednesdays when I have one lab at 9am. It really sticks out on my schedule. I guess I can always run home and go back to bed afterwards during my 3.5 hour break. And there’s really no way around it. I’ve already looked over all of the schedules hoping to find any other hour to put it in, but no luck. At my university, and a lot of French universities I think, the schedules are made for the students so they don’t actually get a choice when their classes are. When you sign up (and I do mean sign up, not apply, because anyone with a high school diploma can go to a public university in France) to do a program, you basically choose your “major” right then and you take classes with the same people every semester. There are no electives or general education requirements, and with our program, you must start in the fall because the winter semester is just a continuation of the fall semester.

It’s going to be so nice being less than 10 minutes from campus instead of 50. I will save so much money on gas and tolls. And I might actually use my office this year! I already cleaned out my closet to make sure my work clothes still fit. I’m so geeky for school that I even bought a pencil case for my whiteboard markers. I always giggled a little when I saw my high school and university students set out their pencil cases on their desks because to me, pencil cases are for 5 year-olds. But in France, every student and teacher has one no matter what age they are. So when in France…

Is your French better than a reality show contestant’s?

By   September 8, 2009

Meet Vanessa. She’s on a reality show in France called Secret Story. If the fact that she’s on a reality show doesn’t already tell you she’s a moron, her 53 grammar mistakes in 27 seconds will. (Ok, she didn’t make quite that many mistakes, but come on! I speak French better than her!!)