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Learn French like it’s 1904

What was it like to learn French as a child in 1904? Strange. That’s what.

conversation

La conversation des enfants, published in 1904 by a Monsieur P. DuCroquet, normally serves as a decorative prop in my house. But nearly 110 years ago it was the desk copy at Finch School (wherever that is). The book contains a series of lessons meant to teach children French. The first page has an alphabet…

abc

…then after that, it’s down the rabbit hole of the absurd. Each lesson has a model conversation lumped together in one paragraph, and then questions based on the conversation. Imagine the following:

Did you bring your book? Yes, Ma’am, I brought my book. Did you bring your notebook? No, Ma’am, I forgot my notebook and my quill pen. Bring me your book. Here is my book. Now, bring me your paper and pencil. Give me some cake and milk. Take some cake and chocolate to your mother. Bring her your book. Did you give chocolate to Marie? Yes, I gave chocolate and milk to Marie. I forgot my lunch, but I brought some candy.

[Avez-vous apporté votre livre? Oui, Madame, j’ai apporté mon livre. Avez-vous apporté votre cahier? Non, Madame, j’ai oublié mon cahier et ma plume. Apportez-moi votre livre. Voici mon livre. Maintenant, apportez-moi votre crayon et du papier. Donnez-moi du gâteau et du lait. Portez du gâteau et du chocolat à votre maman. Portez-lui votre livre. Avez-vous donné du chocolat à Marie? Oui, j’ai donné du chocolat et du lait à Marie. J’ai oublié mon lunch, mais j’ai apporté du [sic] bonbon.]

What. The. French?! Seriously. What’s with the gluttonous schoolmarm? Give me milk and cake little child! bwahaha!

And here are the questions that follow (I won’t bother translating them into English):

Avez-vous apporté votre livre? Avez-vous apporté du papier? Avez-vous caché mon livre? Avez-vous caché mon crayon? Savez-vous votre leçon? Savez-vous compter? Voulez-vous compter? Voulez-vous donner du gâteau à Henri? Voulez-vous porter mon livre à Madame? Avez-vous oublié votre cahier?

This all reminds me of Eugène Ionesco‘s absurdist play Exercices de conversation et de diction française pour étudiants américains in which children have conversations related to various principles of grammar. Here’s what Ionesco said about the origins of that play:

A friend, a French professor in the USA, had asked me to write some dialogues or monologues to illustrate the conditional “if” (si), or the imperfect subjunctive. I remembered the Assimil method that had not succeeded in helping me learn English. Perhaps with these dialogues and monologues, neither will Americans learn to speak French.

[Un ami, professeur de français aux USA, m’avait commandé d’écrire des dialogues ou des monologues pour illustrer le “si” conditionnel, ou l’imparfait du subjonctif. Je me suis souvenu de la méthode Assimil qui n’avait pas réussi à m’apprendre l’anglais. Peut-être qu’avec ces dialogues et ces monologues, les américains n’apprendront-ils pas, eux non plus, le français.]

A brief excerpt from Ionesco’s Exercices will show you that not much adaptation is required to turn old grammar books into theater of the absurd:

Philippe: Bonjour, messieurs; bonjour, mesdemoiselles. Vous ne répondez pas? On ne répond pas. Pourquoi ne répondez-vous pas? Répondez donc. Oh, il est trop tôt, les élèves ne sont pas encore là. Tiens, j’entends leurs pas dans le couloir. Ils arrivent. Ils sont là. Ouvrez la porte. Entrez. Fermez la porte. Avancez. Asseyez-vous. Silence. Je fais l’appel: Jean Marie.

Jean-Marie: Présent.

Philippe: Dites-moi, Jean-Marie, comment vous appelez-vous?

Jean-Marie: Je m’appelle Jean-Marie.

Philippe: C’est juste. Vous me comprenez. Vous êtes un garçon intelligent. Marie-Jeanne.

Marie-Jeanne: Présente.

Philippe: Dites-moi, Marie-Jeanne, comment vous appelez-vous?

Marie-Jeanne: Je m’appelle Jean-Marie.

Philippe: Vous ne comprenez pas. C’est faux. Vous vous trompez. Attention, Marie-Jeanne: dites-moi comment vous appelez-vous?

Marie-Jeanne: Je m’appelle Marie-Jeanne.

Philippe: C’est mieux. Ne vous trompez plus. Cela suffit pour aujourd’hui. Levez-vous. Sortez. Allez manger.

(from vol. 5 of Gallimard’s Théâtre, Ionesco, 263-264; read loads of scholarly articles about Ionesco at Lingua Romana)

And now back to our book from 1904:

What time is it? It’s 12:30; it’s not yet time to go play. We must speak French; we must pay attention. Jeanne, are you paying attention? Yes, Ma’am, I have understood everything you said. Well, then, tell me, what did I say? You said we must pay attention. What day is it today? It’s Wednesday. Why didn’t your cousin come to school today? Because she’s sick. What’s wrong with her? She has a sore throat. How many days are there in a month? There are thirty or thirty-one days. In what month were you born? What day of the month is it?

[Quelle heure est-il? Il est midi et demi; il n’est pas encore l’heure d’aller jouer. Il faut parler français; il faut faire attention. Jeanne, faites-vous attention? Oui, Madame, j’ai compris tout ce que vous avez dit. Eh bien, dites-moi, qu’est-ce que j’ai dit? Vous avez dit qu’il faut faire attention. Quel jour est-ce aujourd’hui? C’est mercredi. Pourquoi votre cousine n’est-elle pas venue à l’école aujourd’hui? Parce qu’elle est malade. Qu’est-ce qu’elle a? Elle a mal à la gorge. Combien de jours y a-t-il dans un mois? Il y a trente ou trente et un jours. Dans quel mois êtes-vous née? Quel jour sommes-nous?]

That Jeanne better watch out. One slip-up and Madame will have her throat—speaking of which…why the obsession with Jeanne’s cousin? Is there more going on here? Is her “sore throat” a euphemism? Is there subtext to asking how many days are in a month right after the interrogation about the cousin’s mysterious absence? Has Madame noticed that the cousin is two weeks late? Is she mapping out her students’ menstrual cycles? I wouldn’t put it past her. She’s creepy that way.

French grammar 1904-style is twisted, but hey! in What The French?! we embrace the absurd. Consciously.

Let’s end our trip back in time with a pretty butterfly and nonsensical days-of-the-week poem:

lesjours

Dangerous Liaisons in Tweets

In eighteenth-century France, readers were devouring other people’s letters like we consume Twitter feeds. Real letters, fake letters—anything with a good story or some juicy gossip would probably end up getting passed around. Entire novels were written in letters, such as the one-hit wonder by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons dangereusesLaclos was an army engineer and captain of 500 men at l’île d’Aix in France. He helped build some forts, but months went by and….no attack, which was great because it gave him time to write a steamy novel about ex-lovers who toy with people’s lives (you know, the usual—corrupting the innocent, seeking revenge) and write about it in perfectly crafted letters. We also get to read the letters of their victims. And since there’s ultimately a moral to the story, Laclos gets to serve up depravity for the sake of virtue—a win-win formula for scandalous success. Supposedly, Laclos was going to restrict his second novel to wholesome family life, but he never got around to it.

The novel has been adapted for film probably a dozen times, as well as radio, TV, opera, ballet, and now…Tweets. It was only a matter of time. Each letter (all 175 of them) has been viciously squashed into 140 characters or less. And while the damage to Laclos’ beautiful prose might be unforgivable to the purist, there is a certain art to our literary cruelty.

This was a collaborative project I worked on with my students as an experimental substitute for reading quizzes. Since we here at “What The French?! ” want to encourage you to share your cool projects, we thought that a free iBook might be just the right thing to launch our blog.

The first 10 tweets are below. At the bottom of the page we will put links for the free pdf and iBook versions of Dangerous Tweets within the next week.

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DTcover

Get the iBook for free on the iTunes store or:

download the pdf (good resolution)

download the pdf (low res if you must, but it doesn’t look so great in low res)

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