Expat Magazine

Anomalies of French Life: the Dictée

By Sedulia @Sedulia

If you have a child in a French school, you will soon discover the dreaded dictée. This is a dictation, fiercely corrected (stay in the margins or else!) and is meant to teach children how to write their language correctly. I venture to say that writing Spanish or German correctly from a dictation is much, much simpler: their spelling is regular and predictable. French and English (and Polish) are not easy for dyslexic children; it's been shown there's a difference in how fast they learn to read in more and less "opaque" languages.


[This is a repost from my blog in L.A.. No time today]

Dictee_by_houseoftext_flickrEnglish speakers often assume that English is unbelievably hard for foreigners to learn, because of our eccentric spelling which must, essentially, be memorized.  Hence the famous example of ghoti, pronounced "fish":

gh as in rough
o as in women
ti as nation

But French, je vous assure, is harder to spell. Why? Because of matching. An adjective or past participle must match the thing it describes, and all too often this causes it to be spelled differently.  In English, you just have to memorize each word, and ça y est, you don't have to think about it any more. In French, you have to think about these matches [concordances] all the time. If you are a woman saying you got up this morning, you have to spell "got up" differently than if you are a man (even though they're pronounced the same). 

You thought spelling bees were a big deal? In France, there is a national and international dictée [dictated spelling/writing test] where adults compete to write French correctly. It is rare for anyone to have a perfect score. You can try one yourself if you think your French is pretty good. For me it has always been a sobering experience.

Here is translation of the entry for the word gens [people] in a book titled Difficultés du français, by Jean-Pierre Colignon, the main correcteur for Le Monde.

gens n.m. or f. plur. The adjective that FOLLOWS gens is masculine:  des gens courageux. The adjective that immediately PRECEDES gens is feminine:  de vieilles gens, de bonnes gens.

If several adjectives in a row immediately PRECEDE gens directly, they all become masculine if the last one ends in a silent e in both masculine and feminine:  de faux honnêtes gens, tous ces heureux braves gens; but if the last of these adjectives has a masculine form that is different from the feminine, all the adjectives become feminine: certaines petites gens, de bonnes vieilles gens.

If the adjectives which precede gens are separated from it by other words, they become masculine: heureux les gens sans scrupules!; annoncés par une lettre de leur protecteur, ces bonnes gens sont venus me voir.

Predicate adjectives and participles (with a composed past tense) are ALWAYS masculine: ces gens sont idiots, ces vieilles gens sont naïfs.

With tous: one uses the masculine when tous immediately precedes gens and is followed by a qualification....

The entry goes on for another few paragraphs, but I think you get the idea.

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