A number of higher education institutions are now tackling the decline in their students’ French.
“I took the position of intern at a law firm”, “I would be grateful”… Yesterday, rare French mistakes, are now legion in copies, homework and cover letters. As recently revealed Le Figaro, the decline in students’ French affects even the best of them today. The magnitude of the phenomenon is such that several higher education institutions have addressed the problem directly by mandating language refresher courses, which have long been reserved for students from abroad.
“I had to wonder all the time”
To validate their degree, students enrolled in the Montpellier Business School undergraduate program since 2011 must obtain the now well-known Voltaire certificate. On its website, the business school states that “a high level of spelling has become a distinctive skill to highlight on a resume, in the same way as the TOEIC for the level of English”. From then on, in the first year, students prepare in ten stages for this exam to be taken at the interface of the Voltaire Project, and attend the weekly classes of Charlotte Reboud, responsible for the module. “I let the students work on the different rules studied in the form of games, dictations. I let them write emails. I make sure that the basic conjugations are well mastered. This ensures that everyone goes to the end of the ten levels,” explains the professor.
What do the main stakeholders think? For Johanna*, 23, a former International Business Administration student, mastering the language created complexes. “I didn’t understand anything about the past participle agreement. I had to wonder all the time. Writing an email took me hours. All this so that in the end I’m wrong. I keep making mistakes, but at least that’s settled,” she says. Hugo, of the same promotion, agrees. “By the end of the program I had made tremendous progress.” From grammar to spelling, through syntax, it is difficult for Charlotte Reboud to revise all the rules of French. With the decrease in the number of hours spent on her studies in national education programs, and with the development of short messages, she notes: “It is normal for the level to drop. We change the language, we shorten the words and we lose the habit of writing correctly.
From 30 to 12 mistakes
Not only private institutions assess their copy. At CY Cergy Paris University, students who wish to enter the first year of a Letters license are required to take a spelling and writing test on a current topic. The equalization of the results according to the typology of Nina Catach’s errors leads to their division into three levels. For at least one semester, all students, grouped by level, must complete the “language improvement” course taught by linguist Rokhsareh Heshmati.
“In eleven sessions of one and a half hours, it was impossible to oversee everything,” admits the teacher. Especially since everyone has their shortcomings. “Every two weeks I come back to the agreement of the past participle. But the lexicon, subject-verb agreement, and forms in -é, -er, -ez, -et also need to be worked on. Grammatical and lexical homophones are also seen with each lesson. On average, a student who makes 30 mistakes on the admission test ends the first semester with 12 mistakes. The latter, as future teachers, linguists or publishers, are therefore encouraged by Rokhsareh Heshmati to continue this education in the second semester.
Towards a common system for universities?
In 2013, the University of Paris Nanterre required all its freshmen to take an online course called “Mastering French Writing”. From then on, 7,000 young people had to do a number of exercises at home and check summaries with a view to a final exam. Support sessions were organized on campus for 500 of those who were in dire straits. Next year, always to stop the constant decline in the level of students’ French, the establishment should revise its system.
In this case, Paris Nanterre over the past year led the action aimed at developing a self-training platform and Écri+ certification, which is currently in the pilot phase. His goal? Train and certify command of the French language. Eighteen higher education institutions, including the University of Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne, the University of Toulouse – Jean Jaurès and the University of Rennes 2, are already partners.
†The first name has been changed.
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