Working notes on using textual analysis to teach French written language

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Working notes on using textual analysis to teach French written language.


These working notes examine some of the issues pertaining to the use of textual analysis in French and its application to a range of texts in different contexts whose common denominator, nonetheless, is the teaching and production of written French language.

Their aim is to clarify the term textual analysis, remark on contradictions and polarities which influence French language teaching and identify a number of challenges encountered when working with French texts while reflecting on my own teaching experience in Higher Education. Observations are based on practical examples and do not purport to provide theoretical or practical solutions to linguistic inquiries. On the contrary they attempt to examine critically a few teaching practices based on French texts and to engage an audience of French and non-French speakers in a more general discussion on language teaching to L2 learners in Higher Education.

A/ What is textual analysis?

  • Textual analysis is a key concept developed in media studies. It investigates the way texts are constructed in order to convey meaning and to what purpose. Such a study can reveal both intended and non-intended meanings and addresses texts and narratives in various forms, be they films, television and radio programmes, advertising, newspapers and other print based texts.

  • In literary studies, the term usually refers to practices of close reading, submitting the texts to additional scrutiny based on elements of literary theory and their multidisciplinary extensions.

  • In language teaching, textual analysis allows us to examine and assess lexical and grammatical patterns, cohesive devices and punctuation, linguistic registers and other stylistic and structural features with the aim of furthering the acquisition and production of a foreign language. In the case of language for specific purposes, genre analysis, which is closely related to textual analysis, also examines the rhetorical patterns applied in institutionalized communication.1

Content versus language, markets and the Internet: notes on language teaching

As part on the on-going discussion on textual analysis, I would like to flag a few points which may have an impact on how and why we use texts in language teaching:

  • The job specifications and categories used in Higher Education differentiate between two different types of courses and programmes creating a clear division between language and content courses. While the first category concerns the acquisition and consolidation of the linguistic and expressive structures of French as a foreign language, the second deals with literature, the arts, film, history, politics and other aspects of French society and culture. It is widely assumed that these teaching categories require a different set of competences and critical skills on the part of students and teaching staff alike. Furthering the divide, a vast percentage of staff involved in the language part of French programmes are native speakers, whereas, in many universities, native French speakers ‘ involvement declines noticeably in content–based courses, an observation which by no means seeks to denigrate teaching staff involved in content courses or deprecate their considerable linguistic expertise.

  • The polarisation featured in programme structures may adversely influence students’ perception of language study. It reinforces assumptions that language-based courses approach texts for practical linguistic purposes only and should not become a focus for teaching practices such as textual or genre analysis which, ostensibly, involve a higher degree of intellectual inquiry.

  • Textual analysis as part of media studies (but also in literary studies and language studies) may touch upon multifaceted or unexpected issues of production, economy and markets which constitute an integral part of the texts which it purports to examine.

  • Finally, blurring the equation with a host of new social, linguistic, cultural and economic parameters, virtual and viral narratives cross the already permeable boundaries between media studies, literature and language teaching, language and content. From texting to hypertexts, e-learning to twittering, virtual manuals to blogs and including social networks on-line and their rules of engagement, texts have moved to a new dimension. New genres whose features derive from the capabilities afforded by the new digital technologies challenge known concepts of textual analysis.2

B/ Textual analysis and teaching Written French: a few examples

Working with the news

  • Amongst other language-based tasks, press articles may be used for text commentary, essay writing based on a specific topic or rewriting exercises whereby the students will reorganize the information, according to a stated audience and argumentative purpose, adjusting relevant linguistic parameters such as register and structure to the task at hand. Such exercises rely for their completion on a combination of language skills and textual analysis, as well as academic skills such as essay writing methodology.

  • Textual analysis, as I stated before, means analysing how texts are constructed in order to convey meaning and to what purpose. In the case of press articles used in language teaching, however, this analysis should prioritize the linguistic context over a context of media studies.

  • The main purpose of newspapers, in a language class, is to keep the students up to date with current affairs with regard to the country whose language, culture and society they are studying. Indeed: ‘There is little point in students being experts in French if they are not also experts in France ‘.3 From a student’s point of view, the news is perceived essentially as a set of factual narratives relaying practical information such as who, when, where, what, why, how much and how many. In addition to acknowledging their informative value, students rarely cast doubt on the relevance of such texts as tools in the acquisition of language, providing a wealth of lexical, structural and grammatical data.

  • The construction of press articles, however, deserves some consideration, if we are to use them as sources which will prompt the production of specific written language tasks. Firstly, when it comes to important national and international events, newspapers rely on bulletins provided by a few main press agencies (Reuters, AFP) and therefore tend to reproduce the same information, similarly worded. Secondly, the widespread dissemination of information on-line means that server/providers publish their own versions of the news (see ‘Yahoo actualités’, for example) on the Web. These usually take the form of short articles taken from on-line versions of newspapers and magazines as well as international press agencies, which channeled via links and hyperlinks, open up like Russian dolls to extend the information. Furthermore, these texts also constitute a linguistic minefield if emulated uncritically by the learner performing a written task. Absence of cohesive devices, overuse of punctuation, overreliance on a verbal register and a direct style (direct questions, quotes from personalities and witnesses) which are grammatically and stylistically less demanding than a substitute version in reported speech are some of the linguistic flaws of news articles, particularly on-line.

  • Besides, due to their ‘cut and paste’ structure, the style of these articles may also conflict significantly with the linguistic parameters which are expected of students, as they often lack textual organization, thematic progression or a critical argument. Students should therefore be made aware, through textual analysis, of these factors and examine the significance of the facts listed, the emphasis given to the information, the order and length of the article etc…. Thus they can move away from simply replicating the structural and linguistic characteristics of the texts in order to analyse their purpose. Such an approach will help the students find alternative connotations and meanings that will better suit their aims as learners in the performance of some of the tasks listed earlier.

Working with literary texts

  • In literary studies, textual analysis usually refers to close reading (commentaire de texte). In the case of novels, close reading examines the style of the author (lexical and grammatical patterns) and the development of the narrative or content (structure, chapters, themes…). Such an analysis, if we consider poetry for example, also involves aesthetic conventions and the specialized vocabulary that identifies and translates such conventions into meanings. Biographical information, a study of the socio-historical conditions surrounding the production of the text and related critical material all contribute to broadening the scope of the analysis. A number of questions and difficulties arise when working with literary texts in a context of language learning.

  • The usual format for literature classes is a lecture in French or English on a particular French author, period or literary movement, illustrated by specific texts. This formal acquisition of knowledge is consolidated by a seminar during which students will actively examine texts and additional material relating to the subject of the lecture. They will also answer questions in order to further their understanding of the topic and develop their critical abilities. Yet, if textual analysis applied to French texts is to retain its specificity, should the focus remain on language practices or, to put it crudely, should textual analysis basically entail a critical assessment of French ‘things’ in English?4

  • As a brief and incomplete case study, I will examine my experience of teaching seminars on Maupassant Pierre et Jean (1888), a short novel set in the author’s native Normandy, whose intrigue is organized around a legacy left by an old friend of the family and the consequences of a long forgotten adultery. This novel was originally published with an essay: Sur le Roman, in which Maupassant expounded views on literature related to contemporary literary movements such as Realism and Naturalism.

  • Having distributed a worksheet whose first part was a short list of questions on these literary movements, which had been documented during the lecture, group participation proved inadequate. Why? In courses which involve literature, important preliminary work is done outside the classroom. The assumption is that students should fulfil the specific reading requirements (original texts and critical material in both French and English) for their lectures and seminars. Lack of students’ participation and failure to produce language, spoken or written, is often therefore imputable to the same causes: the students have not read, or not understood the original texts. As a result, any critical or contextual information provided during the lecture or in the additional reading material becomes quite ineffectual.

  • Would a change of emphasis i.e: priority given to assuaging linguistic fears and textual lacunae as well as ensuring that students actually master the original text be more effective in the case of a critical analysis of literary texts? In this case, themed group study, consisting of the presentation of a particular chapter (a tactic admittedly facilitated by the limited size of the novel) examining the role of money in the allocated pages proved effective. First, the students ‘tendency to treat textual analysis as a subjective exercise which means expressing personal feelings and value judgments on the characters and the development of a novel was lessened as the group had to focus on a specific theme. The exercise fostered a general understanding of the original text and provided additional lexical resources as well as much needed linguistic confidence. Furthermore, it contributed to a contextualized appraisal of the narrative information which initiated a critical process. As part of their presentation, students subsequently unpacked language, registers and meanings and touched upon social classes, sexuality, marriage and bourgeois morality. Naturalism etc…

Teaching Written French ‘for specific purposes’

  • Certain types of texts are studied for their practical and vocational worth. In the case of students whose modular degrees include important language units, for example students in International Management or Marketing, texts studied should help them acquire specific linguistic skills which conform to certain professional standards and work situations.5 Activities such as letter writing, CV writing, reports or presentations require an awareness of stylistic diversity and written conventions. Beyond these practical concerns and the reproduction of certain language structures which apply to specific professional situations, texts do not systematically become a focus for intellectual inquiry.

  • Yet, it is important that the students understand the communicative purposes served by such texts. Written conventions, how you use language in a particular recurrent social situation, also tell us about the meanings of a particular society, French culture and social dynamics.6 Indeed, in their production of written language, students need to be aware of a range of social and psychological contexts that extend well beyond the mechanical reproduction of particular lexical and grammatical structures. Why should a woman not send her ‘sentiments distingués’ to a man for example? Why does ‘l’expression de ma parfaite considération’ at the end of a letter not augur terribly well for future business relations. Why do you not start a letter with ‘je’?. Why do you sign ‘Yours faithfully’ in English whereas routinely, in French, you need to beg you interlocutor to be so gracious as to accept the expression of your most distinguished feelings or something to that effect?

  • Genre analysis bridges the gap between textual analysis and language for business, providing interesting lines of enquiry into language for ‘specific purposes’. V. B. M. Pinto dos Santos’s article: ‘Genre Analysis of Business Letters of Negotiation’ is such an example of an analysis of institutionalised communication.7 In this study, 117 commercial letters in English exchanged by fax between a Brazilian company and two European companies were analysed in terms of shared communicative purposes and rhetorical features. The stages of the negotiation are discussed with examples of the most frequent linguistic signals which characterize them, in situations such as apologizing, offering something in return, evaluating, drawing attention to something or applying pressure tactics (various degrees).

Conclusion: ‘Le cul entre deux chaises’ or the language teacher’s dilemma…

Linguistic structures only ever function within a contextual and social framework and, by extension: ‘the task of a language tutor is as much to teach students language as to draw their attention to the operations of culture and society’.8 The correct approach to teaching a language to non–native speakers, it seems, should be ‘eclectic and integrative’9 and examine the features of written language as instruments of communication and expression as well as a source of insight into wider cultural and social processes.

Isabelle Baron, University of Bath, November 2009 

1 See for example V.J.Bhatia’s ‘Applied Genre Analysis: a Multi-Perspective Model in Iberica , No 4 (2002), 3-19.

2 See M.J. Luzon Marco, ‘A Genre Analysis of Corporate Home Pages’ in LSP & Professional Communication, Vol.2, No 1 (April 2002), 41, for an example of ‘textual’ analysis of a new corporate genre originating in the new technologies.

3 Dennis Ager, ‘Discourse Variety: Whence, Why and Wherefore’ in Discourse Variety in Contemporary French, J.A Coleman & R. Crawshaw eds. (London: AFLS and CILT, 1994), p.251.

4 Robert Crawshaw and Karin Tusting, Exploring French Text Analysis. Interpretations of French Identity (London: Routledge, 2000), for example, provides insightful and detailed textual analysis of several French texts, examining linguistic and cultural aspects, in English.

5 J.A Coleman & R. Crawshaw , ‘Evolving Contexts for the Teaching of Discourse Variety: an Overview’ in Discourse Variety in Contemporary French, Coleman & Crawshaw eds, pp.9-10

6 See Marco, ‘A Genre Analysis of Corporate Home Pages’, passim.

7 V.B.M.Pinto dos Santos, ‘Genre Analysis of Business Letters of Negotiation’ in English for Specific Purposes, Vol. 21, no 2 (2002), 167-99.

8 Crawshaw and Tusting, Exploring French Text Analysis: Interpretations of French Identity, pp. xi-xiii.

9 Ibid.

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