Cultural and Linguistic Lesson Learned
Benjamin Hirt, French Teacher
Keystone School, San Antonio, Texas
It is hard to disagree with the notion that French spelling is extremely complex. The dictée nationale is less about completing a perfect dictation than having a score that is more accurate than that of those around you. Having written, emailed and texted native French speakers for decades and having lived with native French-speaking adolescents and adults, I’ve seen firsthand how inaccurately many French speakers spell, even highly educated ones. In light of this, how fair is it that we hold our students to such a high bar as to expect them to make past participles agree with feminine and plural subjects when using être or with preceding direct object pronouns in the passé composé with avoir, for example, when many French people can’t or don’t do it themselves? Are we doing students a disservice by sharing so many potential roadblocks with them? Add to this the “écriture inclusive” (inclusive writing) movement in French today where some French speakers and teachers are actively subverting spelling rules to more accurately express individual identity as opposed to the often out-of-touch rules imposed by the Académie Française, and one can see that French speakers themselves often either don’t use the accurate spelling by accident or by political choice. The existence of so many rules for hundreds of years makes the battle to simplify French spelling and unlock the hold of gender agreement seem impossible. Yet, in the face of these seemingly impossible challenges, there is a beautiful sense of liberation when comparing all this to the consistency between written and spoken forms of Alsatian, one of France’s most widely spoken, and increasingly more commonly taught, regional languages. Thanks in part to efforts by OLCA (l’Office pour la langue et les cultures d’Alsace et de Moselle), Alsatian is more accessible to all through extensive programs to clarify the language, account for its regional differences, and maintain and improve its presence and popularity in the 21st century.
Whereas standard French, German and English, for example, have been accepted for a very long time, dialectologists and linguistic specialists of Alsatian have, after much research, adopted a standard written form of the language, called ORTHAL, only within the past decade. What is ORTHAL? First, it is the fruit of years of research that tested a wide range of students and adults and analyzed hundreds of dictations-worth of data. Additionally, since Alsatian is a Germanic language, it incorporates many rules of standard German. However, it possesses many of its own unique characteristics as well. The following is the definition given by its founders:
ORTHAL is a supple writing system, with several variants. It is adapted to all speakers and must allow every writer the possibility to write her/his own dialect, while remaining faithful to her/his unique pronunciation.
In other words, its key characteristic is that it is supple in order to be able to unite while still representing the linguistic variations belonging to the different parts of the Alsatian-speaking community.
Since languages evolve over time, it is understandable that the written and spoken versions of a language often diverge more and more from one another, and the written updates to reflect these changes don’t keep up. However, as I began learning Alsatian, a language that is still lacking in second-language learner oral pedagogical resources, I realized that this was not as big a hurdle as I’d initially thought it would be since the recently adopted written forms more closely match actual pronunciations. Moreover, some flexibility is given to the individual speller to reflect their own pronunciation. In fact, older texts, or texts written in a different dialect of Alsatian, often mirrored the pronunciation of that region’s version of the language. So for me, it became quite empowering to see that I could learn spoken and written language in concert and simultaneously discover oral, regional and personal diversity reflected in the spelling of the language.
And yet Alsatian and its Alemannic variants along the Rhine River Valley and in Switzerland have existed for many centuries, just as French and English have. At what point must we acknowledge that a written language, like French, is perhaps too out of sync with the spoken word? If we wish to maintain and promote French as a truly modern world language, mustn’t we work to abolish the notion (and for many, the reality) that it is prohibitively complex, rigid and unfair? Yes, there is beauty in complexity and the artistic combinations of French grammar are not without merit. But do we want French to be so challenging or abstract that we struggle to attract the average language learner? And should we hold our students to a higher standard than the average French teenager (or adult for that matter)? Furthermore, should we ever take off credit if a girl forgets an extra “e” to make her sentence agree with her gender, especially when the pronunciation is unaffected? Does this not penalize girls who forget that they had to do something extra that the boys didn’t? Or perhaps even more tragically, what about students struggling with their own gender identity and who, even if they had total mastery of French grammar rules, may still struggle to choose between the masculine and feminine forms? By the very nature of presenting gendered grammar norms, we are imposing on them a sense of an intrinsic clarity surrounding gender identity that they may not be ready, willing or able to make. I have witnessed this struggle, uncomfortable silences and indecision on multiple occasions in my own classroom and each time I am reminded that this situation must change.
On one hand, perhaps we should join those who have embraced inclusive writing in an effort to be more flexible, accepting and understanding twenty-first century teachers, spellers and grammarians. But on the other, why not learn from these lessons from Alsatian and go even further to focus more on spelling for communication rather than for form. Additionally, regarding gender expression, let’s have French learners, like Alsatian writers, express their own unique “accent” or voice. I believe that this would better promote the attractiveness of French. Our kids are listening and the word will get out!
In twenty-first century pedagogy, we are constantly pushing for less of an emphasis on grammar. Yet without addressing the complexity of grammar and the disconnect between pronunciation and spelling, we cannot step away from a form-heavy focus that is, given the complexity of the language, necessary for written accuracy. I am not saying that we should throw all standardization out the window, as Alsatian, too, has adopted necessary rules for clarity and consistency and must also navigate the implications of certain gendered components. But perhaps there is room for more systemic change in French education and assessment for reasons of social equity, personal and regional variation, and efficiency and so that we can better focus on meaningful communication. In this way, perhaps our students, much like writers of Alsatian, will be able to better express themselves. Thanks to Alsatian, we can see that it can be, and indeed has been, done!