Overcoming the mean grammar dragon
Grammar it’s not a black spitting fire dragon, believe me! If you live with the fear of looking at it, you will never discover its beauty. Well, maybe not the beauty that a flowing cascade or a white orchid have. But the one you discover step by step, like looking for clues while digging for treasures.
As a teacher of French in a primary school, I wondered many times how can I make this subject interesting and nice but without scaring my young children with an academic language like ‘’we are learning today about nouns and genders’’, or ‘’the adjective agreement’’, or ‘’the present tense’’. No.
I have decided that, if the grammar is a dragon for real, then we are knights in shiny armour and our brains are magic swords. But I have used a little trick also. Do you know the book of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, ‘’The little prince’’? In one of its chapters, there is this little prince asking the writer to draw him a sheep. As none of the drawings looked good enough for the little prince (one sheep was too old, another one was too ill), the pilot decided to draw a box with two little holes in it, saying: ‘’Your sheep is inside’’. Surprisingly, the boy can see the pretended animal which hides in this box and he is very happy with it.
So…I’ve put my grammar in a box. My lesson is not about nouns, but it's about animals. It’s when we discovered that some of them use ‘’un’’ and some of them use ‘’une’’ for the same ‘’a’’: a mouse, a turtle, a dog a cat. ‘’Why?’’ is the question, of course. It’s only now when the dragon shows us its naughty nose. But we are not scared, we’ve called the noun ‘’the magic 3’’ (things, places and people) and we are laughing at the feminine ‘’une table’’ or ‘’une chaise’’ or at the masculine ‘’un livre’’. Later, I have a story when we are learning about likes and dislikes and guess what? We discovered just while reading the story that ‘’the’’ in French can have up to four forms. We are not frightened, we already know about masculine and feminine nouns and it’s so simple to figure out that ‘’le’’ stands for masculine, ‘’la’’ for feminine and ‘’les’’ for plural (When it’s about nouns, in English ‘’s’’ is marking generally the plural as in French, after all. It’s true there are exceptions sometimes, but even math has exceptions…). The final ‘’the’’ is funny and it’s when the tricky word ‘’apostrophe’’ (You cheeky dragon!!) comes in my lesson, so very proud of himself. ‘’Please stop at the door, Your Highness, and explain yourself!’’. Aha! You can be either ‘’e’’ or ‘’a’’ (from ‘’le’’ or ‘’la’’), when the noun starts with a vowel or silent ‘’h’’ and you just replace them. He, he, you thought you can trick us? No way!
What about that ‘’describing world’’? Why don’t we design some clothes, from coloured paper and why not hung them up on our French washing line, writing their name on one side and their colour, on the other side? This sounds a bit better than adjective agreement, isn’t it? We realized that we are describing our clothes using…adjectives? Yes, indeed! Armour on, my little knights and get ready with your swords, this is French! How we laughed when we found out that French people say ‘’chair blue’’, ‘’table green’’ or ‘’cat black’’. Do you think the dragon was asleep? Not at all. Unlike English, the adjective matches with the noun and we are back at our masculine, feminine and plural. Not a problem, because we know now how to recognize these genders and it is just piece of cake to add the colour next to our nouns, describing them. Back to our washing line, let’s use these adjectives correctly!
Next, we moved the clothes in a French shop, practising the numbers up to 100 while buying dresses, ties, trousers or skirts. But we’ve learnt as well how to make a difference between the formal ‘’ S'il vous plaît’’ or the informal ‘’S’il te plait’’. We had to pay the correct amount of money we’ve been asked to pay, using our paper euros or our plastic cents. Why not adding a bit of colour to our dialogues, asking for that ‘’red dress’’ or ‘’pink t-shirt’’?
Possessive adjective? No, no, no! Let’s call it ‘’describing my family’’. Describing, I’ve said? Again that describing word. Adjective I think it’s the name. Last time when we’ve been talking about adjectives in French, we had great fun. We know too well now that these adjectives agree with the nouns. Hey, scary dragon! Are you still there? We are not feared of you anymore, so please come out to play. A puzzle: some pictures with mums and dads, brothers or sisters, uncles, aunties and grandparents. Let’s match the words in the envelopes on our tables with the correct picture: ‘’le père’’, ‘’la mère’’, ‘’les grands parents’’. But if we replace ‘’the’’ with ‘’my’’? Three forms: ‘’ma’’, ‘’mon’’ and ‘’mes’’? Step back, naughty dragon! The form with ‘’s’’ and the end is for plural, it’s simple. The one ending in a vowel it’s for feminine for sure (our teacher told us that generally the vowel at the end of the noun or the adjective is for feminine). Logically now the third form, ending in a consonant, it’s for masculine. ‘’Très bien, la classe!’’ We won another battle. For sure we will throw a party at the end of term, with some good croissants for such brave solders!
‘’You live in an imaginary world’’, you would say. My answer? You are perfectly right: I am a teacher and I can afford this luxury. Join me!
Florentina Popescu is a French teacher at J and C Academy in north-west London.