Shaking up the Standard in a Course on French Phonetics

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by David Divita, French

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008

In the fall of 2006, I taught French 35: Practical Phonetics and Listening Comprehension, replacing a senior lecturer who had overseen the course for 25 years and was about to retire. During her tenure, she had tested and implemented a number of innovative pedagogical methods, eventually designing a program that was almost entirely computer-mediated. Knowing that I was daunted by this extensive use of technology, she suggested that I take the course myself the semester before I was scheduled to teach it. I did so heartily, thinking this would be an ideal way to learn how to integrate technology into my pedagogical practices.

To my surprise, the course’s technological component turned out to be far less of a concern for me than its actual content. Students were expected to learn the phonetic rules of “standard” French, but they were not encouraged to reflect on the historical origins and political implications of such a construct. Whose standard were they learning? Who had the authority to claim it as such? How were they to position themselves vis-à-vis this standard? In a course designed to teach “correct” pronunciation, it seemed to me such questions could not remain unasked.

Keeping this in mind as I devised my own syllabus, I decided to incorporate a number of exercises that would evoke these questions while I continued to teach the rules of standard phonetics as defined by our textbook. Thus, at the beginning of the semester, I had students read excerpts from Louis-Jean Calvet’s La sociolinguistique (2004), in which the author introduces key concepts such as language ideology, language attitudes, and linguistic variation. Afterwards, we had a lively discussion about the way such concepts might be considered within both French- and English-speaking contexts. I asked students to bear this in mind as they engaged with audio and visual artifacts from all over the Francophone world — recordings from Quebec, Louisiana, Senegal and Belgium — that I had added to the course website and then introduced to them throughout the semester. The pronunciation they were practicing in class then served as a basis of comparison to the other varieties they encountered, some of which might themselves be considered standard in other contexts. Thus, while students were learning to recognize and produce a Metropolitan standard, they were also beginning to see how the very notion of a standard is inherently problematic.

Towards the end of the semester, I determined that students were prepared to undertake sociolinguistic projects on their own. I asked them to conduct and record interviews with a French-speaker of their choice, inquiring about their interlocutor’s linguistic history and posing questions aimed at revealing his or her definition of, and relationship to, what s/he considered to be standard language. After transcribing an excerpt from their interviews, students then wrote an extensive analysis of the interviewee’s speech patterns and language attitudes in light of what we had been studying in class. They each did brief presentations of their research, after which we brainstormed as a group about the relationship between people’s ideas about standard language and the language they actually produce.

This project — and indeed, the semester-long critical reflection that led up to it — proved to be extremely fruitful, based on the quality and enthusiasm of students’ participation in the final discussion and the sophistication of their written analyses. Furthermore, their end-of-semester evaluations almost uniformly stated an appreciation of the sociolinguistic component of the course and of their sharpened sensitivity to the ideology of the standard, especially as it informs their own language studies.