Getting "Inside" French
By Monica Luebke, WR Assistant Coordinator
critical thinking through writing in a foreign
language requires looking at culture from outside and inside.
In today’s ever-shrinking world, with its global economy and international markets, with the influence of unlimited communication and access to information, fluency in both speaking and writing a second language and familiarity with the culture of that language are precious assets. U of L's Department of Classical and Modern Languages offers students an opportunity to develop just such assets through various courses in a number of different languages. One such course is French Composition (French 322), which is offered every fall and spring semester and satisfies the WR Program’s writing requirement for upper division courses in the major. According to Pfeffer, chair of the Department of Classical and Modern Languages, the theories and practices of the WR Program support and enhance the goals of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language (ACTFL) as well as her own personal goals for the course.
Strategies for Using Writing
WR Program practices are based on the belief that writing is more than just a communication skill. Writing is a unique skill that can be used as a powerful learning tool (Emig 89). Among other things, writing can help students develop reading comprehension, enhance their ability to make connections and discover relationships between and among ideas, and improve their critical thinking skills (Emig 93-94). Studies suggest that the foreign language teacher can use three different strategies to enable students to use writing as a thinking tool:
Teachers should provide time for the frequent use of informal writing to develop fluency and stimulate conversation;
Teachers should develop assignments with a rhetorical context so students must grapple with considerations of audience and purpose;
Teachers should assign writing that requires attention to writing as a process so students can become more aware of their own writing process (Morocco and Soven 845).
Pfeffer uses all three of these strategies as she helps her students improve their writing abilities in French. This semester, for the first time, she regularly provides time for informal writing, or what she calls “unstructured composition,” through the use of email. Students spend one day per week in a computer lab where they write and send email messages in French. She uses informal writing to develop fluency or, as Pfeffer says, "get the language out through their fingers.” In addition, because the computer keyboard can be set to include French accent marks, writing in French becomes somewhat less complex and students are able to focus on producing more writing.
Pfeffer also provides assignments within a rhetorical context, which emphasizes the situation, purpose, and audience for the writing. In one assignment, students select an item from an actual French catalog and pretend they purchased an item that they found unsatisfactory. They must write a letter returning the item and explaining their reasons for doing so to the company. In another assignment, students imagine they have been invited to a function and must respond to an RSVP on the invitation. Students must decline the invitation and explain why they are unable to attend. In both assignments, and others like them, students are given or must develop a rhetorical context for their writing and must deal with complex issues of audience and purpose.
The Writing Process
A third strategy that Pfeffer uses is assigning writing that requires attention to the writing process. From the beginning of the semester, students write one composition per week on a topic of their choice, usually generated from discussion of assigned readings. Length requirements increase from at least one paragraph at the beginning of the semester to at least one page by mid-semester and finally reaching at least two pages by semester's end. Students turn in a draft of their compositions each week for revision suggestions from Pfeffer. They make necessary revisions before turning in a final draft for a grade. As a result, students are constantly involved in the writing process, generating and revising compositions on a weekly basis throughout the semester.
Acquisition of Culture
People acquire culture through a long process of education, according to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. While Bourdieu speaks of culture in terms of the society in which one lives, a simliar process of acculturation through education operates for the international cultures represented in foreign language classrooms. The difficulty inherent in the acquisition of culture in foreign language classrooms results from the necessary fact that most foreign language instruction takes place outside rather than inside of the home culture of the language. Foreign language teachers often find themselves teaching international culture as content in their courses. This often results in students knowing about a culture rather than knowing a culture. Knowing a culture implies that students have internalized aspects of that culture so that the knowledge becomes tacit. When cultural knowledge becomes tacit, students speak and write in ways that are appropriate to the culture without conscious attention to what they are doing, thus using language in ways that are more like a native speaker.
Culture through Reading and Writing
Pfeffer helps students acquire French culture without treating it as content--she does not teach culture explicitly. Instead, she assigns readings in French that often contain a cultural component. Readings include articles from magazine and newspaper articles, movie and press releases, and even selected pages from a French etiquette book dealing with such things as the appropriate way to close a letter. While the main purpose of the readings is to provide material for class discussion and topics for compositions, they also provide students the opportunity to become familiar with French culture without being asked to learn culture as content.
As part of her use of email, Pfeffer plans to have students correspond with an electronic pen pal in France. The advantages are obvious, and the speed of email enables a great deal of communication to occur quickly. In addition, communicating with a pen pal provides various opportunities for students to acquire French culture.
When asked about her students’ perception of the course, Pfeffer explains that she gets a positive response. She tells students up front that the course is going to take a great deal of time and effort, and it does. At the end of the semester, however, student evaluations show that students appreciate the improvement in their writing. In the end, her emphasis on WR Program goals, ACTFL goals, and her own personal goals for the course is rewarded.
Emig, Janet. “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” Landmark Essays in Writing Across the Curriculum. Ed. Charles Bazerman and David R. Russell. Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press, 1994. 89-96.
Morocco, Glenn, and Margot Soven. “Writing Across the Curriculum in the Foreign Language Class: Developing a New Pedagogy.” Hispana 73 (1990): 845-49.
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