Donnerstag, 11. Juni 2009

French textbook reviews

Brunetti, Mendor. Read, Speak, Write French. Bantam, 1963.

I don't think I've seen any language textbook that's arranged quite like this. It's divided into three sections: a grammar (with drills & practice exercises), conversations which are keyed to the grammar, and readings, usually 2-3 pages, adapted from various literary sources. The book is designed for self-study and includes a key to all the exercises, and the conversations and readings are presented with a parallel translation. In addition to vocabularies (including separate lists for the individual readings) and grammatical tables, the supplementary material at the end also includes some interesting lists of French proverbs and idioms.

The grammatical section is very condensed and moves rather quickly; the pace may be too swift for many learners, but for someone who has some basic knowledge of French, or who is willing to spend a lot of time at the beginning memorizing paradigms, it may be manageable. I bought this book mostly for the readings, so I haven't been using this section very much, but it seems to be clear enough and the concepts are introduced in a sensible order.

The "conversation" section consists of sets of questions and answers which might be only loosly described as conversations, as the content of most of them would normally not be uttered in any real-life interaction! An example (taken randomly from the book):
"Feraient-elles une bonne promenade si elles n'étaient pas trop fatiguées" ("Would they take a good walk if they were not too tired?")
However, at times the author seems to be aware of the slight absurdity of the textbook sentences, and there's a certain subtle humor to the text, as in the following exchange: "Non parlons-nous pas français maintenant?" "Non, nous ne parlons pas français , nous parlons chinois." ("Are we speaking French right now?" "No, we're not speaking French, we're speaking Chinese.")
Furthermore, because the conversations are organized around grammatical principles rather than themes or subjects, they provide little guidance for coping with situations such as introducing yourself, talking about the weather, going to the store, or any number of everyday occurrences. (There is a short "situational" vocabulary at the back, covering such topics as "food," "family" and "professions," but a list of nouns is not quite the same as seeing the words used in context.)
That said, although the dialogues may not be immediately useful for communicative purposes, as one might expect, the language is idiomatic and makes use of complex constructions, and the sentences are above all useful for practicing transforming questions into statements, substituting pronouns for nouns, changing positives into negatives, and so forth. As in English, the rules governing French word order are fairly complex, and skill in making these kinds of transformations is invaluable.

The readings are quite fun. They are short, fast-paced, and frequently humorous, and contain complex vocabulary and sentence structures while avoiding the long descriptive passages in which a new reader in a foreign language often bogs down. Most of the stories are not by French authors, surprisingly (the second selection is a story by O. Henry), which is rather unfortunate, as it misses an opportunity to provide a glimpse into French culture.

For the $2 I spent on this at the used book store, it was definitely worth buying even if only for the readings & practice exercises. It would probably work well as a succinct grammatical reference and reader used in tandem with a more recent, communicative and audio-based text such as "Teach Yourself" or a similar series.

William S. Hendrix & Walter Meiden. Beginning French: A Cultural Approach. 3rd ed. 1961.

Another excellent textbook from the 60s. It uses a loosely "natural method" (reading-based) approach, starting with a map of France and discussion of the countries in Europe, and building up to readings about life in France. One possible disadvantage is that actual conversational skills are somewhat delayed; the student who is not interested in the geography of France will find the first few chapters rather frustrating. There are a couple of places where vocabulary is introduced too quickly (as in the section on fashion, which covers a number of fairly technical vocabulary items as well as basic clothing terms). In general, however, it is well organized and successful.

Although it is intended for classroom instruction, the format is also quite suitable for self-study, as the core of the book is the reading selections that open each chapter.

Grammar points are not covered in the individual chapters; instead, the student is referred to specific paragraphs in the substantial grammatical appendix, which can make it very easy to simply skip over this information without looking it up. Likewise, there is a review section after each group of five chapters which includes vocabulary for the unit and additional exercises (usuall English->French) for each chapter. This organization scheme is somewhat irritating when covering the material for the first time, as it makes it necessary to constantly flip back and forth. However, for review purposes it is ideal; having the grammatical information all in one place is convenient, and this section could easily be used as a reference separately from the rest of the book.

Out of print, but easily found online through used book sellers.

R. de Roussy de Sales. Easy French Reader. McGraw-Hill, 2004 (1970). ISBN 9780071428484. $11

A progressive reader intended for beginning students. It is divided into three sections: a story about an American and a Parisian and their respective cultures; readings in French history; and adapted stories by French writers. Includes a vocabulary in the back and occasional glosses in the margins.

This really is an ideal reader for absolute beginners -- I was able to pick it up and understand most of the readings in the first section with only a very basic knowledge of French grammar (a personal pronouns, the verbs 'to be' and 'to have' and so forth). It's fairly repetitive and provides enough information to learn a lot of words from context. The second and third sections are more difficult, but quite manageable, good for a slightly more experienced reader to expand his comprehension and reinforce vocabulary.

The content is simple -- as is somewhat inevitable for this audience -- but not simplistic or condescending, and the stories manage to be interesting given the context.

Highly recommended as a supplement to any course of study. I only wish there was an audio version to accompany this.

Christopher and Theodore Kendris. French Now. Level 1 (with audio CDs and answer key). Barron's, 2007. ISBN 9780764179587. $30

This book is simply terrible. It promises to be a beginning high school/college level textbook suitable for both classroom and self-study, which I hoped meant that it was fairly comprehensive, but...unfortunately, in this case, you get what you pay for: a poorly conceived, amateurish book which does not, as far as I can see, meet the needs of any of its potential audiences. The audio is decent, and it has the huge advantage that it is spoken quite slowly, which helped me get a sense of how French sounds are elided together. The rest of the book, however, has so many problems that it's difficult to know where to begin.

The dialogues are artificial, condescending, and completely implausible, and they seem to have been written by an adult who had very misguided ideas about what is important to teenagers. For example, there's a dialogue at the restaurant where a young man asks about various types of food (an apple, a sandwich), but does not want any of them. When the garçon asks him if he would like some chocolate, he says yes, to which the waiter replies that they don't have any.

In addition to the implausible dialogues, the authors' English is frequently unidiomatic, which gives a poor impression of their competence. Although translationese can be found in some very good textbooks and under certain circumstances may serve a useful pedagogical purpose, here it seems symptomatic of more pervasive issues with the book. At one point, for example, the student is prompted "Mrs. Dumont gives the child a candy," with the intention that they will then produce the French "un bonbon." This may be acceptable French, but in English "candy" is a collective noun; we must either use the plural or say "a piece of candy." Recognizing that French expresses certain ideas differently than English is a valuable insight which is crucial to acquiring a language rather than treating it as a code to be translated word by word, and the authors miss an opportunity to use an example like this to illustrate the point. Treating the student as a mature, intelligent individual who is capable of figuring out complex ideas would go far towards remedying this problem.

Finally, even half-way through the book, the language remains exasperatingly simplistic, and it's not because the book focuses on the basics and is rich in examples and meaningful practice exercises: there's simply little content for a lot of bulk. The passé composé is introduces quite late, the imparfait and subjunctive not at all, as far as I could tell. This book might be suitable as an introduction for a student who has no experience at all learning languages, but for the student with any experience at all who is interested in seriously learning the language, I cannot recommend this. (Barron's also has similar books for Spanish and Italian, it seems -- based on my experience with this one, I will be steering clear of them and sticking with Teach Yourself or some such course in the future.)

William Eric Morrison and Jean Ch. Gauthier. A French Grammar. American Book Company, 1935 (c. 1923)

An old and quite obscure textbook, and therefore probably not of great relevance to the prospective learner. But since I have it I figured I might as well review it along with everything else.

The author's preface describes their approach very well:
"This book combines the Natural with the Grammar method of teaching French....The rules are stated in Englich, but the classroom exercises are in French, and for the most part oral. Furthermore, all headings are in French, as well as the conversational grammatical summary, Sommaire Grammatical, provided in each lesson. French words and expressions are so constantly repeated in these headings, exercises, and summaries, that the student gradually and naturally acquires a facility in using them in his conversation. The grammar rules are taught by a combination of the inductive and deductive methods. The construction to be explained is indicated in a heading; then its use is shown in examples; and finally the rule itself is stated."

I picked this up for less than a dollar at a Goodwill store when I was first starting to think about learning French (mind you, for that price I would have even purchased a grammar of Vietnamese or Swahili -- because you never know when the urge might strike). This was the first French book I used, and (as should be clear by now) the authors' method works well with my learning style. However...

Because of the age of the book, the content of the readings often seems odd in the extreme, bearing testiment to the period it was written:
J'ai reçu une lettre d'un ami dans laquelle il me donne des renseignements sur la situation des ouvriers en France....Les ouvriers reçoivent des salaires plus élevés qu'avant la guerre.
I received a letter from a friend in which he gives me information about the situation of the working-man in France....The working-man receives a higher salary than before the war.
[yes, "ouvrier," as far as I can tell, has just as much of a Socialist overtone in French as the English translation does]
Dans la dernière guerre, beaucoup d'hommes ont reçu des blessures, dont ils portent encore le trace. Il y a des visages sans nez et des yeux qui ont oublié la lumierè du jour et la couleur des cieux.
During the last war, many men received wounds of which they still bear the traces. There are faces without noses and eyes which have forgotten the light of day and the color of the heavens.
Or this example from a section on rules of politeness, which is straight out of another era:
Si vois désirez faire la conaissance de vos nouveaux voisons, vous irez chez aux et vous y déposerez une carte. Si ces personnes désirent faire votre conaissance, elle cois enverront un petit mot pour vous indiquer leur jour de reception.
If you wish to make the acquaintance of some of your new neighbors, you will go to their houses and leave a card. If these people wish to make your acquaintance, they will send a short message to indicate which day they receive [visitors].
Some general notes on the layout and content:
The book is absolutely packed with information, but definitely moved too quickly for me. By lesson 20 they have introduced the present, past indefinite, future, conditional, imperfect, and past definite verb forms, which I found a little too much. If they had provided extensive drills in recognizing and producing the various forms (as would be the case in a Latin book, for example), it would have helped. The other problem with this is that the explanations of how to conjugate different types of verbs were intended to be systematic, but so abbreviated that they were often less than completely clear -- particularly, I think, for someone still struggling with the phonetics of French. I would also have liked a more extensive explanation of when the various tenses are used, but they were introduced so quickly I had trouble telling what form was being used in a given situation, much less why.

Strengths: Very good explanations of the different syntactic transformations (and in French this is crucial). They also include all sorts of information on idiomatic constructions or notable usages of words being taught. For example, when teaching the comparative and superlative, they not only tell you how to create them from the positive form of the adjective, but also how to say "greater than/less than," the usage of comparatives with numbers, when to use "de" instead of "que," other uses of "plus" and so forth. Furthermore, it has a very useful index of grammatical constructions and usages as well as the usual appendices with verb tables and vocabulary. I've been keeping it around so I can look up half-remembered constructions as needed.


Raziel Archa hat gesagt…

Ooo! Danke. You seem to have the same problems as I do with finding a good French textbook. I've gotten into the habit of buying used, college level textbooks that have online audio content. They're a little better, but all seem to have the same layout. In all of your searching, have you found a french textbook that doesn't breakdown chapters into 3-4 lessons? I find this layout to be very annoying.

Brenda hat gesagt…

Weeell...I should note here that I'm someone who tends to learn best by working through at least a couple of different textbooks, combined with lots of reading. Everyone's needs are different though. I like nice thorough grammatical explanations, which often means older textbooks are better. (Don't get me started on the difficulties of finding a Russian textbook which meets my criteria...)

I like Hendrix & Meiden if you can get your hands on a copy and don't mind the lack of audio. I don't have a copy on hand but if I recall the chapters are fairly self-contained. If you want audio "Teach Yourself" or the "For Dummies" books are usually a good starting place.

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