Monday, August 26

I reflect on my experience with the French educational system and go to another fantastic lecture on gastronomy.

Joel suggested a nice restaurant on the right bank Wednesday night called Le Trumilou for our class dinner. Deo has made the reservation. It's not clear how many of the students are actually interested and will attend, but I expect all my friends will be there and I look forward to it. Actual sit-down inside at tables with linens and silverware and fancy stuff like that, no food on sidewalks and beer in plastic cups staggering down alleys involved, so that will be an interesting change of pace. It's not an expensive restaurant, but the food is supposed to be good, and the menu on the web site looks fantastic.

Raquel and Deo loved Bruges and think that Andrea and Jeremy and I should go there for a day trip. It's only 2 hours away by train. Deo says it's lovely and has lots of great chocolates and beers, so what's not to like? So that's another thing we can do if we feel like it.

Needed lots of supplies. The total at Carrefour came to 23,84€. Counted out exact change without even pausing - a 20€ bill and a small mountain of coins of many different denominations. Then hovered nervously while the cashier counted it out, expecting to be embarrassed by a mistake as usual. It was correct, and I even got a little SMILE and a WINK of wry approval from the cashier, who of course knows perfectly well that I'm a stupid American. (I mean, just look at me, I don't even need to open my mouth.) I was so PROUD!

Got our tests back in class this morning. I got 4.5/10 on the oral comprehension, not good at all but more than the 0/10 I expected going in to the test. I got 6.5/10 on the rédaction (essay), not bad, but should have been better because I made too many stupid mistakes about little things I know very well already (like I spelled "université" with a "y" at the end like in English - how stupid is that?) And I made too many mistakes using imparfait instead of passé composé and vice-versa, something that I still don't understand well enough. So my total grade on the test was 11/20. Not satisfactory for someone who remembers habitually getting the equivalent of 20/20 on math tests back in school a couple of hundred years ago.

Here's an explanation of French grades that I found on the net:

Grades in France are awarded on a scale of 1-20, but the tradition 
is such that grades higher than 16 are seldom awarded. The passing 
grade for a single subject is usually 10/20, although grades of 8 
and 9 indicate satisfactory performance. A student is considered to 
have passed the year when the combined weighted average of all his 
or her grades for that year comes to at least 10.1

Interpretation of the French 0-20 scale in terms of American 
grading standards: 

16-20: Très bien (very high honors): A+
14-15.9: Bien (high honors): A
12-13.9: Assez Bien (with honors): B
10-11.9: Passable (pass): C
8-9.9: Is regarded as a passing grade if the entire year was 
passed. There is no French equivalent for the U.S. grade D.
0-7: Ajourné (failed): F

So according to his scale, my grade of 11/20 was a "C", passing but not very good.

The prof was upset with our essays and told us we did very poorly as a group, not good enough for most of us to advance to the next level after this class. She's honest but brutal with us. The next level is B2 (advanced), and in my case I must agree with her - I don't think I would be quite ready for that level either. Perhaps after another year of study back in my school in Chicago I will get there and can say with confidence that I'm at an "advanced" level. I especially have to work on oral comprehension - I'm not even at level B1 in that area, way behind my classmates. Remember strengths and weaknesses back in 6th grade my old(est) friends? Yeah, it hasn't changed. My "weakness" back then was spelling. Let's hear it for computers and spell-checkers! Now I just need a computer implant between my ears and my brain to help me understand this impossible language. It wouldn't have to translate to English - I don't need that. Just separate out the words from each other a little bit, please. Maybe that would be a fun programming project for when I get back to Chicago. I need another hobby in my retirement, right? But someone would have to help me design the hardware.

Tip: If you ever feel like you're getting a bit too overconfident and your ego is getting painfully inflated, just come over here and take a French class at the Sorbonne. They'll cure your problem tout de suite. They've been doing it for 800 years and have gotten very good at it. Almost perfect. I give them 19/20.

I remember reading before coming over here that in this class there would be "continuous evaluation" and I wondered exactly what that meant. Well, I've found out, with a vengeance! It really is continuous, every day, nearly all of it negative and discouraging.

I started this course at a high beginner or low intermediate level. I'm ending it at a high(er) intermediate level. Great progress, in my opinion. I learned more here in a week than I did in a whole year of classes back home. Still have a way to go to get to "advanced", but I think of that as a very distinct possibility today. 8 weeks ago it was only a dream. So I'm totally satisfied.

I'm definitely not the best student in the class. In particular, Ekaterina, Raquel, and Joel are all quite good, better than me I think. I'm in the middle somewhere. And our strengths and weaknesses definitely vary quite a bit. And how hard did I work? I worked reasonably hard, but others worked harder. Hey, I had to make time for drinking excessively, didn't I? How could I come home from a summer in Paris without having done that? Unthinkable!

And if I'd spent half the time on FB and used it for studying, I'd most certainly be farther along! No question! But it wouldn't have been as much fun, and I have no regrets on that front.

To what extent was my learning this summer due to my work or to this strict traditional French educational system? The answer is a definite "both". They pushed me hard, and that motivated me to push back hard and try harder. Without the push, I wouldn't have bothered. I know because that's what happened last year in my class in Chicago. No homework, grades, or tests? Why bother studying? The class ends up being a social event and something to get me out of the house every once in a while, but not a serious education. And this was not the fault of my wonderful prof Élodie, but rather the system. I'd be very interested to talk to her and hear her thoughts on all of this (she no longer works at the school), in French of course, with glasses of good French wine to loosen the tongue a bit, but I'll probably never have the chance.

For a completely contrary point of view, see this article in the Guardian. I actually have some sympathy for his argument. I'm a grownup and can accept this kind of criticism without having it beat me down. But little kids? You've got to wonder.

I have sympathy for our "jeunes jolies", that gaggle of 19 or whatever year old girls in our class, especially standing up in front of class giving their exposés. How awful that must be at that tender age. At least I had fun with mine. With them you could smell the terror. The 30-something students did much better, especially Ekaterina.

I thought we were done with dictées but we had another one today. Presumably the other 3 movements will be tomorrow, Wednesday, and Thursday. So I have one more chance to try for zero errors. I rate my chances at maybe 5%. They're surprisingly difficult given that we have the full corrected text to study before the last dictation that's actually graded.

The vocabulary and conversation theme for this last week is food. Hurray! Something actually interesting after "la mode" last week.

Last test tomorrow, so there's lots of studying to do this afternoon and tonight, plus grammar homework.

Today's lecture was FANTASTIQUE. « Entre terroirs et mondialisation: la gastronomie française en mutation », by the same lecturer who gave the talk on gastronomy last week that I liked so much. All about terroirs and pays and appellations and wine and cheese and oh my I was just drooling. So much fun. Great lecturer. Doesn't speak at all slowly but very clearly. And it's lots easier to understand these guys when you're actually very interested in what they have to say. Funny how that works, isn't it?

I need to go out now for just a few minutes to walk down the mouf to pick up a nice Bordeaux he showed. Should be good. A 1945 Château Lafite Rothschild. Only 22,000 euros. Just kidding. You guys were asking how much good wines cost here in France. I finally have the answer!

This lecturer likes to interact a bit with the audience and not just talk at us. He showed and talked about a nice bottle of Sauternes and asked if anyone knew what cheese would go well with it. I said "roquefort" and he said "très bien, oui, roquefort". I was SO PROUD. I know I'm overusing that phrase, but really, I was SO PROUD. This is all grace à my visit to Ô Chateau the first week I was here.

Saw Ekaterina and her husband at the lecture and waved hello. It's funny, but I never see anyone else at these lectures from our class. I know Joel goes to the earlier ones that are hard for me to understand. His oral comprehension is better than mine for sure. Don't know about the other students, whether they've bothered to go at all. If they didn't, they missed out on a great experience.

A friend linked to this interesting YouTube video on problems counting in French.

The speaker got it right except for one minor thing. He says that the French language does not have a word for 70, and that's true here, it's "soixante-dix", "sixty-ten". But they do have a word for 70 in the French-speaking parts of Belgium and Switzerland, it's "septante". But nowhere do they have a word for 80, it's always "quatre-vingt" (four twenties), and, of course, 90 is "quatre-vingt-dix" (four twenties and ten).

And he was spot-on about how the French reverse commas and periods. E.g., when we'd write "18,153.234", they would write "18.153,234" or even more often with a space "18 153,234". And phone numbers are always grouped by 2 digits, e.g,. "53 81 95 71 13" (cinquante-trois quatre-vingt-un quatre-vingt-quinze soixante et onze treize).

And yes, this is all hard to get used to. In the stores when the clerk announces the total you must pay, it's very difficult to understand because they speak the numbers so fast. I'm getting a little bit better at this but it's still very hard. Fortunately you can nearly always just look at the cash register or a receipt to see the total.

I clicked a link to another interesting video by the same lecturer about the French grading system, which I can now vouch for first hand. All grades are out of 20 theoretical maximum points. 10/20 is considered "OK, not horrible, not great", 12/20 is pretty good. 16/20 is fantastic. And so on. (I got 11/20 on the test we got back a few minutes ago - not happy about it but I'll take it.) But what's interesting is that NOBODY ever gets 20/20. Even if you turn in a perfect paper, some little thing will be found wrong so that the actual maximum score is 19/20. This is because the French do not believe that perfection is achievable. And everyone understands this, so in practice, 19/20 is considered a "perfect score, the highest possible".

So all in all a good pair of lectures by an Englishman about the French. Because he neglected to mention Belgium and Switzerland, I give him a grade of ... can you guess? ... 19/20.

It's trite but true that for us Americans, visiting Europe is such a series of shocks as we discover how very old many things are, and not just the physical things. I also found his comment about the custom of grading on a scale of 0-20 dating back to medieval times very interesting.