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Learn to Read French in Five Weeks

Associate Professor of French Peter Shoemaker

Have you ever flipped through a foreign language book and wished for a fleeting moment that you could read it?

After a five-week summer-term course called French 500: Reading for Comprehension, you may be able to do just that for books written in French. The university also offers versions of the course for German and Spanish.*

The aim of the course sounds too ambitious to be achievable: In five weeks — meeting four days per week, two hours per class — enable non-French-speaking graduate students to read scholarly articles written in French.

“I think for any serious graduate student, it’s important to be able to read a language apart from one’s own. It allows one to read major scholarly works in one’s field, which may not be in one’s own language,” begins Lauren Brannon, a master’s student in medieval history from Charlottesville, Va.

But however scholarly that may sound, Brannon admits that her chief motivation for taking the course was actually a children’s book, Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. “It’s such a beautiful and poetic bit of writing,” she says. “I felt certain the original French must be even more beautiful and poetic, and I wanted to read it.”

For those just beginning the course, it seems like an adventure story with a stay-tuned-till-next-month outcome. The students are wondering: Five weeks from now, will I find that I can, indeed, read French?

One of the students, Rev. Marianus Pale Hera, S.V.D., had a special reason to be skeptical about learning to read a language so quickly. While working on his M.A. in biblical studies in Japan, he endured two years of intensive coursework just to be able to read an article in Japanese.

The teacher of Reading for Comprehension, Associate Professor of French Peter Shoemaker, is careful to rein in the ambitions of the course: “There’s a fantasy in the world that there is some method to learn a foreign language quickly and without studying,” he says. “French 500 is not about that. It’s not about really learning a language in five weeks. The goal is recognition of French on the page — not writing it, speaking it, or understanding it when spoken. It’s about learning how to slowly make your way through an academic text — reading it with the aid of a dictionary — which is an entirely different thing.”

Still, the goal of the course is to be able to comprehend French writing without needing to slavishly refer to a French-English dictionary to define every few words. That said, learning to read scholarly French writing with a good deal of comprehension in five weeks still sounds kind of magical, n’est-ce pas?

Reading for Comprehension class
The 20 graduate students in this particular summer class couldn’t have a better guide in the task they’re undertaking. Professor Shoemaker has been honored as one of the best teachers at CUA, having won the 2007 Provost Award for Excellence in Teaching. In spring 2006, students rated him the best teacher of any honors-program course offered that semester.

Sitting in his classroom, one soon begins to see why he has won awards. Kind, enthusiastic and humorous, he guides the class through whole armories of French grammar — verb conjugations, idioms, direct objects, pronouns — rapidly but without a sense of hurry. Asked a question, he answers immediately, precisely and thoughtfully.

“I enjoy teaching this class,” he says, “partly because I have to make it fun for them, so I have to come up with readings and warm-up activities that are interesting — and that makes it fun for me.”

Those warm-ups include having the students translate a French newspaper article about Pope Benedict XVI’s April visit to Catholic University, in addition to several humorous texts. One of the latter was a joke that the French tell to make fun of Americans — an English translation of which is, “What is the difference between an American and a yogurt? After a certain period of time, the yogurt develops a culture.”

Seeking to be nonpartisan, the professor also includes jokes that the French tell about themselves, such as the following: “After having created France, God found that it was the most beautiful nation on the Earth. He realized that would make the other countries jealous, so to re-establish equilibrium, he created the French.”

These jokes seem particularly droll when reading them in French, and they are simple enough to give beginning readers the satisfaction of understanding the joke without having to look up many words.

So how did the grand adventure of French 500 wind up? Were the students able to read French at the end of five weeks?

When Sara Blauvelt, a master’s student in religious education, came into the class, she had zero background in French and some serious commitments to divert her attention: a full-time job and three children to raise.

“At the end of the third day of class, I thought, ‘No way,’ ” she recalls. “I was so overwhelmed and felt I wasn’t getting it. The professor would work his way around the room asking for the answer to successive exercises and you could count ahead and get ready for your question, but more often than not I didn’t know the answer when he got to me.”

Blauvelt told Professor Shoemaker after class that she didn’t think she could keep up, and was glad that he didn’t seem distressed. Rather, he gave her a couple study hints that hadn’t occurred to her: drilling on vocabulary with flashcards and looking at the big picture of a French passage to figure out what it’s saying, rather than looking up every other word in a French-English dictionary.

“His suggestions freed me a bit from the dictionary,” she says. “I began looking up one word per sentence, rather than five. I began doing better and I shifted in my thinking, beginning to tell myself, ‘I’m going to pass this.’

“Saying that I’m ‘reading French’ now is probably too generous, but I can comprehend it if I need to,” she concludes. “Three weeks after I took the course, I was installing a printer on my computer and I covered the explanatory pictures and tried to read the French instructions. I could, and that was exciting.”

And what about Lauren Brannon’s quest to read that favorite French children’s book?

Le Petit Prince
“At the start of the class,” she says, “I used to carry the book Le Petit Prince around with me, and every so often decided to take a crack at it. I eventually fell out of this habit, and didn’t take another look at it until I had completed the course. On the day of the final, just for fun, I picked up the book again.

“When I looked at the pages, it was as if I was looking through magic decoder glasses — everything made sense. The difference was like night and day. I hadn’t even realized how much I had learned and internalized!”

*There is also a 15-week version of these classes offered during the academic year.

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Revised: November 2008

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