At all levels of study in French at Stirling, our students have weekly oral and aural classes, in small groups, taught by our native Language Assistants, Brigitte Depret and Mathilde Mazau. Given the key role they play in our students’ progress through their studies, we thought it’d be good to start the year with their take on what it’s like to be a lectrice at Stirling. Here’s Brigitte’s view of things:
‘Since first being introduced into universities the lectrice or lecteur has become essential to students’ language learning. Despite the considerable versatility of the job in terms of responsibilities, most of us have teaching qualifications or a university degree. I had a previous teaching activity in France where I taught English. Now, my main activity consists in teaching my native language at university level, being a free-lance translator and in my rare spare time, writing a book. As teachers, through peer reviews and seminars, we are given the opportunity to improve or even maintain the quality of our teaching, to update, evolve and meet the increasingly varied demands of students.
The content and the level to which I teach can vary significantly. Firstly, at undergraduate level, I teach the technical or grammatical knowledge of the language, through the teaching of syntax, focusing on competence in writing or comprehension and production. I also teach oral/aural language classes at the same level. Here, the focus is on oral/aural competence. Occasionally, I offer specific language seminars where I teach or give talks to post-graduate students in the realm of translation studies. Finally, my role goes beyond teaching too. All teachers’ roles have an administrative side too. Before the start of a semester, my work includes putting together an exercise work pack here, several oral language work packs there. On a weekly basis, it includes preparations, corrections, marking, sampling, feed-back, invigilating, replying to emails, meetings and a couple of feedback and guidance hours when students can pop in if need be.
We cannot evoke our beautiful French language without mentioning its thorny grammar. Ah, French grammar! All our students have to get through it and the grammar remains a very technical and confusing part to especially our English native speakers who tend to have learned their own grammar intuitively. Through the first couple of years, in weekly seminars, our students will be taught and explained our daunting French grammar that is full or rules and exceptions, which will often times leave them scratching their heads. They will complete exercises where grammar is taught in context, so it is not just theory. The seminars aim at enhancing the students’ technical language skills so they can confidently apply what they have learned in writing their own piece.
To be able to teach French grammar, doesn’t only require a very accurate knowledge of my native language, but also the ability to walk in the students’ shoes so I can offer them clearer explanations. It does involve a lot of patience and creativity! Indeed, sometimes one explication won’t suffice and I will have to find strategies, tricks and more examples to ensure that they all have understood the point.
As far as the speaking skills are concerned, these are the hardest skills to work on as the success of the course strictly relies on the students’ implication and will to communicate. The differences in level (we have some bilingual students, false beginners, shy students…) and the fact that we welcomes more and more students whose native language is not English, make an oral language class, an interesting ‘dance’ where the participants sometimes try hard to follow the steps not to lose the rhythm. The various themes we work on with our students, range from cultural aspects (humour, politics, ecology, feminism, cinema, songs, comics) or linguistic aspects (colloquial French and slang).
It’s the personal choice of the lectrice to decide which material to choose to support our activities. It varies, but usually, these are press cuttings, videos links, extract of a book etc. They are put together in a work pack for the students’ use.
In a spoken language class, I often question my practice: ‘Am I speaking too fast? Did they get what I said? Should I repeat in English for those who are lost? Should I ask someone to rephrase my question?’ In fact, I think I question myself more than the students dare ask me to repeat! Don’t we all have this awkwardness when we don’t understand a sentence and feel very uneasy to ask ‘Vous pouvez répéter, s’il vous plaît?’
The fluency in the oral language is the most difficult skill to perfect as it regroups all the fine competences required to be able to communicate on a satisfactory level: listening, comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, syntax structure and last but not least, intonation and rhythm. This is a heavy load on the beginner’s brain. At the beginning I often ask my students to try repeating in a chorus. It works well. I feel like a conductor and they are my musicians, training together first, in a view to letting them play solo at a later stage.
It’s good to see the students gaining confidence, but sometimes the lectrices alone cannot perform miracles. This is what saddens me the most in my practice when I don’t see quick positive results. However, all is not lost! Students who have had the opportunity to study abroad in France or another French-language country are proud to come back and show us how their French has improved. Most importantly, the mastering of a language, really comes together when the students have no other choice than to speak French when they find themselves in total immersion.
This is why I truly believe the perfection of their oral practice is not all down to the teachers. We strongly encourage our students to expand their knowledge by reading, listening to radio shows, watching the news or movies in French outside of the classes, since we cannot spoon feed them at that level. The students have numerous tools at their disposal in this big era of the social and digital media. We have a Facebook page on which we post relevant pieces from the French press on a daily basis for the students to read.
Finally, one of the last things I wish to mention about this job I do absolutely love, is that I have had the chance to organise a few cultural or celebratory get together with my students. Beyond teaching, to connect with them outside of the class through my language, or when they email me news from France writing in a perfect French, to tell me about their experience and how nicely they have progressed, that in itself is enough to make my day and want me to keep teaching as long as I can.’