Rage against the… books?

I have this habit of taking online French placement tests, just for fun. (Most language schools’ websites have free tests you can take.) The majority of these tests focus on verb conjugations and agreement between nouns and adjectives. In other words, grammar. This is why I always get near perfect scores on these tests even though I know I’m not fluent. Yes, I know French grammar as well as English grammar, but that doesn’t mean I can speak the language that well.

I also have a ridiculously large collection of French textbooks and teach yourself French books. The table of contents is always something like this: articles, question words, feminine adjectives, prepositions, partitives, present tense. Six chapters later, you can finally learn the past tense. Why do textbook authors think that everyone speaks in the present tense???

Browsing through the many French books that are available, you’ll notice that most are designed for the traveler who doesn’t actually want to learn the language, but rather memorize sentences that one would rarely use in his native language. A lot of textbooks are written this way as well, as if they expect that is the only type of French you will want to know – forget those who will never visit the country or those who will actually move there (for which there are two different types of French altogether).

Do you really need to know how to ask where to buy film if you are never planning on going to a French-speaking country? Maybe you just want to learn how to read French literature. What about opening a bank account, applying for a residency card, finding an apartment? Those little phrase books conveniently leave out those sections, as do most textbooks.

And the pronunciation (or should I say lack of?) in language books. ::sigh:: How do you expect anyone to learn to SPEAK or UNDERSTAND a language with no linguistic input? I understand that CDs are expensive and push up the price of the book, but if you have no phonetic pronunciation next to the words, (and I’m not talking about one little measly pronunciation section in the very beginning that everyone skips anyway) how is anyone going to learn to pronounce words and sentences correctly?

The vocabulary. Where is it? I see lists of common things with the general names, but where is the real French? The number of people who say cotton swabs instead of Q-tips in English is probably the same as the number of people who say correcteur fluide instead of Tipp-Ex in French. The vocabulary tends to be too abstract, as if you will never need to know the names of cheeses or pastries that you’d like to order. Apparently if there is no exact, direct translation into English, you don’t need to know it.

Similarly, forget about learning slang from regular language books. You have to look for books that are specially geared toward informal language (and there aren’t many.) Many years ago, I learned that travailler means to work, but how often have I actually heard people say that word? About 10 times less than I’ve heard people say bosser instead. Watching TV or listening to random conversations, you’ll hear words like frangine and piges and ça caille, but did you ever learn those in your French classes? I didn’t think so. You learned sœur and ans and il gèle instead.

I was told the only ways to form questions were 1) inversion of subject and verb or 2) add est-ce que to the beginning of the sentence. That’s fine for formal speech or writing. But what about just using subject + verb + question word? “Oh no, that’s incorrect. You CANNOT say that.” Perhaps the millions of French people who construct their questions like this in everyday speech didn’t get the memo?

Reduced forms, anyone? None of my textbooks taught me to reduce unstressed vowels. Phrase books definitely don’t mention this. What the heck does t’a’d’la monnaie mean? Ah, it’s tu as de la monnaie ? Or Est-ce que tu as de la monnaie ? as my books always taught it.

I understand that most textbooks are designed to teach you to read and write a language. But some of us would like to speak and understand as well. I just wish I could find more books that focus on meaning instead of form. Grammar-translation is not exactly the best method of learning a language.

End of rant. Thank you for suffering through it.

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  • DestinationMetz

    Interesting post. I agree with you, most textbooks are really geared towards French for travellers. And so often asking a question without understanding the answer! One little phrasebook that is absolutely hilarious is the lonely planet french phrase book, it has how to buy drugs, things to say during sex, and drunk talk! At any rate, it’s an amusing take on a phrasebook! ;)

  • DestinationMetz

    Interesting post. I agree with you, most textbooks are really geared towards French for travellers. And so often asking a question without understanding the answer! One little phrasebook that is absolutely hilarious is the lonely planet french phrase book, it has how to buy drugs, things to say during sex, and drunk talk! At any rate, it’s an amusing take on a phrasebook! ;)

  • IslandGirl4Ever2

    Amen on this post!! I am soooo with you on this topic… I find that watching countless hours of American epidsodes dubbed in French has greatly improved my French speaking skills…. NO JOKE!!! But, who wants to sit in front of a tv all day long? I ask my hub a lot of questions, too.. but you can’t ask every little thing there is to learn about French… My French is pretty good though and conversational at this point… Hey… there should be some classes somewhere that focus on conversational French…I am thinking to write a little dictionary for myself of American expressions that don’t exist in French… like those words…That’s a rip-off! and other stuff like that.. I will keep you posted…Take care, Leesa

  • IslandGirl4Ever2

    Amen on this post!! I am soooo with you on this topic… I find that watching countless hours of American epidsodes dubbed in French has greatly improved my French speaking skills…. NO JOKE!!! But, who wants to sit in front of a tv all day long? I ask my hub a lot of questions, too.. but you can’t ask every little thing there is to learn about French… My French is pretty good though and conversational at this point… Hey… there should be some classes somewhere that focus on conversational French…
    I am thinking to write a little dictionary for myself of American expressions that don’t exist in French… like those words…That’s a rip-off! and other stuff like that.. I will keep you posted…
    Take care, Leesa

  • The Late Bloomer

    Ah, so true, so true! But I think, interestingly, that this is one of the reasons why in fact often foreigners who have studied a language very intensely, as you have, end up speaking the language even better (and more appropriately) than the natives do! Because we have studied the language in such detail and wracked our brains over phonetic pronunciations and challenges, we learn the rules, the hows and whys so to speak, and we sometimes make less grammatical mistakes than natives.But then again, we sound like we’re speaking the language much more formally than the people actually do on an everyday basis. So it’s a real tradeoff! I think the bottom line is that with time living in the country you learn to speak it naturally, throwing in all that argot and verlan, etc… And then you end up getting a nice balance of correct grammar, and everyday language — best of both worlds, non ? ;) But it is quite the challenge…You really know your books, though — I don’t think I’ve cracked open a French grammar book in more than 10 years, and I don’t even remember what it’s like to study the imparfait du subjonctif… But believe it or not, in reading books and such, that did end up coming in handy!

  • The Late Bloomer

    Ah, so true, so true! But I think, interestingly, that this is one of the reasons why in fact often foreigners who have studied a language very intensely, as you have, end up speaking the language even better (and more appropriately) than the natives do! Because we have studied the language in such detail and wracked our brains over phonetic pronunciations and challenges, we learn the rules, the hows and whys so to speak, and we sometimes make less grammatical mistakes than natives.

    But then again, we sound like we’re speaking the language much more formally than the people actually do on an everyday basis. So it’s a real tradeoff! I think the bottom line is that with time living in the country you learn to speak it naturally, throwing in all that argot and verlan, etc… And then you end up getting a nice balance of correct grammar, and everyday language — best of both worlds, non ? ;) But it is quite the challenge…

    You really know your books, though — I don’t think I’ve cracked open a French grammar book in more than 10 years, and I don’t even remember what it’s like to study the imparfait du subjonctif… But believe it or not, in reading books and such, that did end up coming in handy!

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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