Director’s commentary

Babies and brains

Babies are amazing, as this comic points out. They sit there, eating and sleeping and making a mess of themselves, and without any special instruction or methods (or textbooks, I might add) they somehow just know that language is a thing, they find the patterns in the noises they hear coming out of adult mouths (patterns which the adults are often unaware of) and within a few years, they’re able to perform soaring feats of syntax, morphology, and semantics.

baby grammar

Believe it or not, those weird symbols all mean things, and the things they mean are going on in your brain right now.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to learn more languages that way? The classical school of grammar didn’t think so. They held that the best way to know a language was to memorize, organize, and memorize some more. The chaotic way that babies just take all the input and figure out the tangle must not have sat well with the Romans or the wanna-be Romans of later European history, because they went in almost the exact opposite direction of language learning.


I don’t know how to ask that question in Latin.

Sometime in the 1960s or 70s, though, the field of language teaching, fueled by the free spirit of the times, distanced itself from rote memorization and began developing other methods. Many of them were a return in the direction of the baby method, but since that way doesn’t need books (or teachers), the teachers had themselves figuring more prominently in the new methods, while still treating their students like babies. Methods like Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and the Inductive Method put learners in contact with the language (and may even ask them to use it) before telling them how it works.

As I see it, the main problem with this approach is that you and I are no longer babies. The pros outweigh the cons, I believe: sure, you can’t brilliantly learn an entire language with native proficiency in just a few years, but you also already have a language, and you can dress and feed yourself, too, I hope. Already having a language can be a bit problematic for a learner, though. It means that when you think about a different language, you’re doing so in your native one. You can be tempted to make assumptions (usually incorrect) about how the language you want to learn works. And instead of a clean slate, you kind of have a clutter going on in your head. No offense.

One more beef with these baby-like methods, especially CLT: they’re forced to work with bad ratios in a classroom. One teacher is likely to have 30 students, which is much less attention per student than all but the most unfortunate babies get. That means that students are often interacting with each other (or told to, anyway) in the target language, when none of them really know how it works. They’re spitting errors at each other right and left, and they don’t even know it. This can lead to reinforcement of those errors, which follow learners all the way to advanced study or embarrassment in another country. The metaphor I was going to use (like a room full of babies trying to learn language with limited adult input) is, unfortunately, a real thing. A study comparing crowded Romanian orphanages and biological families showed that “Children who were institutionalized and children in foster care for a brief time showed substantial language delays, with some of these children not yet producing intelligible words.”

baby language

“Look, this is going nowhere. We’re just not communicating.”

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ll be honest and tell you that I’d really like people to buy What The French?! This rant about language teaching methods and babies comes from me studying the field of language teaching and being frustrated by both sides of the spectrum: the stodgy Romans obsessed with charts and the wild-child hippies of language learning today. When my distinguished colleague and I wrote What The French?!, we tried to find a middle ground. We never hide the mechanics of grammar from you, because you’re not a baby. But the main strength of the book is that, after explaining the grammar in non-linguist terms, we show how it plays out in the language itself with example sentences. You can use an understanding of how the parts of language fit together to be more confident in your own use of those parts. And to make sure you can produce the structures, there are always interactive quizzes at the end of a chapter in What The French?!

I think it’s a pretty good book if you’re trying to learn French for the first time in a room full of non-babies, catch up in a grammar class that’s going way too fast, or brush up after not using the language for a while. But I co-wrote the thing, so I have to say that (and I’m not allowed to review it on the online store. Could you do that? That would be great).

Illustrating frustration

Hi, my name is Andrew, and I draw a cartoon every day over at I’m also a co-author of What The French?! (which is now officially for sale. Just putting that out there.) When we were first beginning the writing process, we decided to include illustrations, and since I was already on board, it seemed to make sense to have me draw my awkward stick people instead of looking for someone else and having to pay them money (which, I won’t lie, is something we didn’t have). And by way of justifying it, my co-author said it matched the aesthetic of the book– they do kind of look like the sort of scribbles a frustrated student might make in the margins of a textbook while halfway listening to a cassette tape of Pierre talking about his morning routine.

quiet version

Just look at those empty, soulless eyes.

And that’s really the reason we wrote this book. We’ve been in the bored, frustrated student’s seat, and we’ve been in the teacher’s seat, too, trying to teach French in a way that makes sense and isn’t boring or insulting to the students’ intelligence. A survey we did of some commonly-used French textbooks from the last 40 years showed that they’re pretty much all the same, including in some respects that frustrate nearly everyone.

For example: let’s say you want to get a feel for the big picture of how verbs work. In a normal textbook, you pretty much can’t. It’s scattered all over the place, sometimes without introduction or hiding under names like “En vacances!” Really helpful.

So much of our experience as students and teachers has been frustration that the title could really only be the incredulous cry of What The French?! And when it was time to draw the front cover, it was my job to put all that confusion and disbelief and anger into the face and posture of a stick figure. It took a few tries:

This one looks like there was something really surprising in the book.

This one looks like there was something really surprising in the book.

I tried two different sets of eyebrows, which kind of disturbs me to look at.

I tried two different sets of eyebrows, which kind of disturbs me to look at.

Aside from not having the words of the title, this one just looks like a guy running from a bear or a house fire or something. He's not angry enough.

Aside from not having the words of the title, this one just looks like a guy running from a bear or a house fire or something. He’s not angry enough.

Finally, though, we settled on this one. I think this guy has just the right amount of amazement with the absurdity of his predicament, shaking a fist at the book or the sky or the universe, crying out in the frustration of wanting to know how French works.




google analytics code: