I recently got a look at Oxford University Press Canada’s cleverly-titled Communi-quête French program, more specifically, at the cahier (homework practice book). In my view, Communi-Quête– at least as far as the research into language acquisition goes– is very poorly designed. Today we’ll take a look at some items from the student workbook for Communi-Quête, which neatly illustrate how a workbook should not be designed. Did you all figure out the brilliant pun in the title?
Btw this post refers to the level 2 book, called “En route vers la Francophonie.” The idea, basically: students will learn about the varieties of French– and attendant cultural stuff, like foods, etc– in the Francophonie, i.e. Switzerland, Mali, Québec, France etc– grammar being stuff like using the passé composé, food vocab etc.
Ok here we go. Item:
Conjugate the verb (i.e. add the right endings to the verb). My questions (the answers I suggest are in italics):
A) how interesting is this? not very
B) do people do this in real life? Do they get sentences and then conjugate verbs? no, no
C) can you do this without thinking of the meaning of the sentence? yes
For this assignment, you have a list of French slang terms and then their Québecois equivalents. Your job: read the paragraph, underline the Québecois slang items, then rewrite the thing using French slang, paying particular attention to a couple of grammatical features.
A) how frequently are these expressions used? (not very often) Patate, for example, is not in the top 1000 most-used French words. Why would a teacher present second-year kids with vocab that is low-frequency? (I wouldn’t)
B) what is the point of teaching kids the difference between French and Québecker slang? Will consciously knowing this help them understand or speak common French? (none, no)
C) does this activity teach any background– why are there different expressions? Are the connotations different? (no, dunno, maybe)
D) why is there no explanation of what the expressions mean? If your idea is to teach the less-common Quebecker terms, what will the kids learn if they don’t know the meaning of the French expressions? (dunno, no)
E) Could you do this without understanding it? (Yes– you could literally rewrite it with a coupe of minor errors just by copying terms)
Again, conjugate the verb. Questions:
A) can a student do this without looking at the meaning of the sentence? (yes)
B) is this interesting either to read or do? (probably not)
C) why would a student bother reading the sentences? (dunno) If I had this as homework, I’d only fill the blanks in– ideally by copying someone else in the halls before class– because this is boring and not worth my time.
D) Does this teach us anything meaningful about Senegal or Tunisia? (no)
A) Is this interesting? (no…I mean, let’s be honest, people: who gives a flying fark when the train leaves?)
B) is this anything other than grammar– conjugating verbs– in disguise? (barely)
Some more general questions for Oxford University Press Canada:
— If we know that the primary driver of language acquisition is comprehsible input, why do these workbook activities feature almost entirely written output? Where are the masses of reading that would make this easier on the students?
— If we know that specifically practicing grammar– e.g. conjugating verbs– has limited and short-term effects, why is this activity front and center in this workbook?
I asked the French teachers what they do with these cahiers. I pointed out that most of these activities were boring, useless etc etc, and they said that teachers only selectively use these, or they odify the activities. If this is the case, the question becomes, “why use them at all?” Cahiers are expensive–$2 a pop, or $60/class– and why spend $$ if we don’t use much of them? For $120, I could order a class set of French novels, which I could use with four classes, and which would deliver more language, and comprehensible input.
Now, my Mother has always said, “if you criticise, construct,” so here are some suggestions for Oxford University Press Canada for next time they design a French curriculum:
A) include a TON of reading. You could write a bunch of short stories, or a novel, that include all this vocab, have characters with real problems, who have difficulties when traveling a la Francophonie…
B) if you must “teach culture,” do something other than talking about vegetables and markets. If somebody taught foreigners about Canada and the U.S. by discussing Tim Hortons and McDnalds, you would be rightly skeptical.
C) if you must do output, make it student-interest-focused and interesting. I mean, how mind-bogglingly dull is writing sentences about buying train tickets in Mali? VERY! I would imagine that other typical things the course asks kids to do (if the Communi-Quête teachers I have seen are any guide) would include shopping in Mali, etc, as well as buying train tickets. The problem here: fake stuff.
Now, technically, everything in a language class is fake– especially T.P.R.S. stories– so what should we be doing? Well, not “faking reality,” in my view. I would rather have people doing one of two things:
1. Talking about their actual lives.
2. Being “completely fake:” doing something that uses real, rich language but which does not have to adhere to “reality.” If it is fun, easy, and uses real language in real (although not necessarily realistic) ways, I think it’s OK.
If the kids are learning about la francophonie or traveling, we can do things like
A) have a hassle-filled travels story. Jean buys tickets, boards the train, stows his luggage but forgets his wife! Oh no! The conductor does jot know where his wife is. Jean is sad but finds his wife asleep in the luggage car!
I mean, think of any story you’ve ever heard from a traveler: they are ALWAYS about hassles and the unexpected.
B) treating culture inteligently by dealing with it in English. Mali, like every other country, produces amazing music, poetry, art, etc. (One of my favorite musicians, Ali Farka Touré, wrote amazing songs in 10 languages about everything from love to markets to Islam.) BUT the vocab is ultra-low frequency, and the songs are full of metaphor etc. Best practice? Listen, read a translation, enjoy, discuss in English, as opposed to torturing students with dense obscure French they’ll never see again.
If the goal of “teaching culture” is to honour the culture we are learning about, let’s honour it by not simplifying it to tacos in Mexico, tango in Argentina, and markets in Mali.