Annie goes shopping for a chic new speak

November 24, 2000

Each of these publications has a catchy French title (almost de rigueur these days?) and makes extensive use of recorded audio material - of good quality in all cases. Otherwise they differ quite markedly in their scope and/or targeted readership and/or method.

A Vos Marques is for beginners, near-beginners and those whose French is rusty, taking them to well beyond GCSE level in a lively and entertaining way, with particular emphasis on oral proficiency. The "storyline" is somewhat implausible (not that it really matters), centring on the spectacular linguistic progress of Annie, who starts from scratch, but by the end of the course, is "happily chattering away in French" (to quote the preface), thanks to the inexhaustible patience of her four Francophone friends.

All the material was piloted with students at Dundee University, and the authors suggest that each of the 15 chapters represents a week's work, assuming four weekly contact hours.

There is a large amount of grammar and vocabulary (carefully graded, with regular revision exercises and a useful grammar guide as an appendix). The learning curve is therefore steep, as is implied by the title, and some users might prefer to spread the material over a longer period of time.

The theme of each chapter usually ties in appropriately with the grammatical area(s) presented - the partitive article goes with shopping, the imperative with giving directions, adjectives with describing people, prepositions with describing places, and so on.

Though some of the varied and imaginative oral and written exercises are usable on a self-access basis (answers provided in the student's book), A Vos Marques is basically for classroom use. Many of the activities are designed for pair work and the presence of a tutor is presupposed, for example, to aid comprehension of the recorded dialogues that are the main feature of the cassette (transcripts in the student's book).

A tutor will presumably also be needed to explain which of the vocabulary items are colloquial and which are not - there is little explicit comment by the authors on register differences (except for questions and, very briefly, negatives), and here and there one finds trendy "youthspeak" items such as super bien habillé side by side with rather old-fashioned turns of phrase such as ces chaussures-ci . The accompanying teachers' book is excellent - full of suggestions for using and building on the activities in the student's book. Thoughtfully, copyright has been waived on many of the supplementary exercises, indeed tutors are positively encouraged to make photocopies of them.

Savoir-Faire is also intended primarily for classroom use, and it again features a group of friends whose discussions give continuity. However, it targets students with post-A-level competence - first-year honours undergraduates in particular. So its nearest rival is probably the popular (and recently re-edited) coursebook Le Francais en Facult é. However, Savoir-Faire emphasises oral French as much as written and ingeniously integrates a traditional thematic approach with (and this is where the title is relevant) practice in transferable skills such as debating, being interviewed, conducting a survey - and yes, reading a text. It is good to see the latter issue addressed: tackling a written document - particularly in a foreign language - can be quite daunting for students.

Translation and interpreting are not neglected either, though for the purposes of Savoir-Faire , they are in essence one transferable skill among others. And there is extensive coverage of grammar.

Accommodating all this within a single student's book gives Savoir-Faire a structure that seems complex at first sight, but is, in fact, rational and consistent enough. There are ten chapters in all, each with its own theme, ranging from social exclusion through women's rights to the internet.

Typically a chapter starts with a section called écouté , consisting of an oral exposé (referred to by the curious term "micro-campus"), interview or radio discussion. Comprehension, grammar and vocabulary exercises arise from the micro-campus and are followed by a practical introduction to one of the transferable skills ( découverte ). Then comes a written, theme-related document ( lecture ) and a further oral text ( écoute ). Both with exercises, of course. After a self-contained grammaire section comes stratégies (further practice on the relevant transferable skill), a third écoute section, and finally savoir-faire : suggestions for extended skills-related projects.

Accents are mainly standard metropolitan French, though a speaker from Quebec puts in the occasional appearance and there is a (none-too-topical) interview with a rather discredited European Unioén politician from Luxembourg. (Other dated references occur occasionally, notably one to "Alain Juppé, l'actuel premier ministre".) The layout is attractive and eyecatching without being cluttered, and a good grammar index and glossary are provided. The teacher's book contains extensive commentaries on the student material. Suggestions for further work are provided, as are solutions to the exercises and transcripts of the recordings.

Champs-Elysées , now in its 19th year, is also for the more advanced learner, but is otherwise quite a different animal, being explicitly designed for self-tuition, and having as its primary aim the development of listening skills: if desired, one can "hone" one's French (as the blurb puts it) while driving or walking the dog.

Each month, for five or 11 months according to the type of package chosen, the subscriber receives a cassette or a compact disc together with a booklet containing full transcripts of the spoken material and extensive notes on vocabulary, idiom and background (mainly in English, but with a number of quotations in French). Learners can make greater or lesser use of the booklets, depending on their level of competence.

If supplementary practice of a more productive kind is required, sheets of ingenious exercises, together with solutions, are available. Booklets and cassettes or CDs are excellently produced and clearly signposted. There is no doubt that anyone working through them systematically will acquire a large amount of up-to-date vocabulary and idiom, and will eventually be in a position to tackle real-life radio and television programmes. I was sufficiently impressed to take out a subscription to the companion German version (Italian and Spanish are also available).

The French edition contains little variety of language, essentially alternating between expository broadcasting and polite conversational styles - almost always in "standard educated Parisian" (of a thoroughly authentic kind, it must be stressed). The focus is on metropolitan France, to the exclusion of the wider Francophone world.

Moreover, the content tends to be of the glossy "lifestyle" kind (tourism, gastronomy, song, cinema, the arts...). Admittedly there is always a review of current political developments, historical items are offered and attention is paid to environmental issues, but judging from the five months' material submitted for review (in which three of the longest interviews were with a prominent monarchist, the author of an etiquette manual and the president of the Miss France committee), there is little provision for anyone seriously interested in, say, social problems, economics, business or science.

A broader intellectual range would make Champs-Elysées less like a spoken version of the Figaro magazine, and correspondingly more suitable for higher-education market. Nevertheless, there is much potential linguistic and cultural benefit here for undergraduates.

Rodney Ball is senior lecturer in French, University of Southampton.

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