Why teach French sociolinguistics?

Author: David Nott


What is the place of linguistics and sociolinguistics in the undergraduate French programme? For 20 years, I taught a second-year undergraduate module (10 weeks, 2 hours/ week) on ‘The making of the modern French language’, chosen by about 20 students each year. The course was modified to take account of research, seminar discussions, students’ work, and feedback questionnaires. This description of the course is intended as an encouragement to colleagues teaching French to undergraduates to consider offering a course on similar (or different!) lines, or to consider including in an existing course some of the topics and/or approaches outlined here.

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Table of contents

Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections , 8-9 July 2008.


David Hornsby (2003) makes the case for undergraduate courses in descriptive linguistics. While recognising that such courses ‘make considerable demands on both lecturers and students’, Hornsby concludes that ‘while the effortrequired may be considerable, the rewards for both parties more that justify the investment’. Having devised and taught for 20 years a second-year module on ‘The making of the modern French language’, I fully support Hornsby’s conclusion. A total of over 300 Lancaster University undergraduates chose to take this course, bearing out Hornsby’s statement that ‘if modules are designed sympathetically, there are good reasons to expect healthy recruitment’. At Lancaster, some students had qualifications in Linguistics or English Language; all were taking a degree in French or in combination with other languages or with a wide range of other subjects.

Bridging the gap between research and teaching

In the past 20 years, considerable advances have been made in research in the UK into French linguistics and French sociolinguistics. The body of our knowledge has increased, as has awareness of the complexity and inter-relatedness of the phenomena under study. Meanwhile, most students enter undergraduate study with a very different ‘skills mix’ from earlier cohorts. Foreign language tutors are obliged to devote significant amounts of class time to elementary concepts of grammatical analysis, and the rudiments of linguistic terminology.

There is thus a yawning gap between the increasing sophistication of the research available to tutors, and the preparedness of most students to assimilate teaching which is informed by this research. If the tutor comes in at too high a level of conceptual and terminological sophistication, there is a risk that these new concepts will remain unassimilated and poorly understood.

Scope of the course

The key concept underlying the course described here is the interaction between variation and change: variation opens the door to change. Making students aware of some of the features of variation in French yesterday and today provides a basis for discussion and understanding of some of the key changes that have taken place in the French language: for example, codification can be seen as the attempted imposition of change in order to stamp out variation.

Each topic covered in the course had to justify its inclusion both on its intrinsic merits and for its capacity to illuminate the study of other topics on the course. French before 1500 was included only in order to set the scene for the first two weeks, and to highlight the complex process of transformation from Vulgar Latin to the Romance languages.

Comparisons with other languages were included as an element of several topics, as a means of broadening students’ perception and conception of phonology, the expression of meaning through grammar and lexis, and how the spoken and written systems of a language relate to each other.

Although the scope of the course, in terms of the topics covered, was appreciated by each year’s cohort, it proved increasingly difficult to provide more than token coverage of grammar, whether in the 16th century (week 2), or today (week 6). French outside France was dropped, to allow more depth for topics such as codification and regional variation within France. Problems of transcription (week 5) are perhaps tangential to the main thrust of the course, while the section on the media (week 4) needed to be re-designed. More needed to be done to integrate into the teaching, learning and assessment programme, audio and video recordings, for the media (week 4), phonology (week 5) and regional and social variation (week 8).

Structure of the course

In a second-year undergraduate course, some initial simplification of material is essential, in order to make students familiar with basic concepts. But the purpose of simplification is to provide the foundation for increasing complexity as the course progresses. At first, phenomena are studied (e.g. a sample of Rabelais’s French or a non-academic transcription of speech); gradually the focus becomes more on processes (e.g. the interaction of linguistic variation and change).

The close-knit nature of the schedule makes it essential for the tutor to make explicit, each week, which basic concepts are being explored, showing how the current topic builds on preceding topics, and flagging up related points to be dealt with in later weeks. The course is less linear than spiral: several basic concepts and issues are revisited and re-examined in the light of awareness gained from the study of other topics, building up a picture of how (socio)linguistic phenomena interact. For example:

  • interventionism: what is the justification for, and what have been the outcomes of, attempts to standardise the French language (week 2: 16th century; week 3: 17th century; week 10: today)?
  • vocabulary: the study of ‘vocabulary’ needs to be informed by awareness of linguistic change, codification, speech versus writing, register, etc.; words can be seen as the small change of a language, useful indicators of social and other changes (week 2: French, Latin and Italian words in the 16th century; week 7: how the vocabulary grows; week 9: non-standard vocabulary, including slang; week 10: the incoming tide of English words).  

The first two weeks of the course focus on the French language in the 16th century, a period when, as today, the status and the corpus of the language were undergoing significant changes, and were the subject of intense debate. A selective overview of some features of 16th-century French provides an introduction to several issues discussed later in the course in relation to the contemporary language (see Appendix 1b).

For the full schedule of weekly topics, and guided reading, see Appendix 1c.

For a week-by-week list of highly recommended reading for tutor and students, study pack materials, focal points (basic concepts) and examples for the lectures, and seminar activities, see Appendix 2.

Delivering the course

All students enrolled on the course received, by email and/or through the VLE, a reading list, a list of essay questions, a set of notes on essay technique and a week-by-week schedule of topics and reading assignments, giving a clear and precise overview of what to expect.

Part of the first class is inevitably taken up with administration, after which the students can be asked, in turn, to state which languages they have studied, whether they have studied English Language or Linguistics, and then to say what they mainly hope to gain from the course. Here is the list I wrote on the board in the first class of the course in October 2006:

  • language change
  • past and present (x4)
  • why it is as it is
  • improving language skills (x3)
  • language comparison (x2)
  • pronunciation
  • slang, dialects
  • about language (x3)
  • TEFL (x3)
  • linguistics

In this way, the students can compare their own expectations with those of their classmates. This session also demonstrates that the tutor values what students have to contribute, and is prepared to be open about academic matters. The tutor can see which aims of the course seem to be supported by students’ expectations, and which aims are going to need some explanation and justification during the course; if certain students’ expectations seem unrealistic, the tutor can point out the limits of what can be achieved in the time available. These headlines can then be the starting-point for a brief and selective presentation by the tutor of the aims and intended outcomes of the course (for a longer list of aims etc., see Appendix 1a).

Methods of study

It is important to mention these in the introductory class. Students will be expected, before each week’s classes:

  • to read the materials in the study pack (for examples, see Appendix 2); these will be referred to at some point in class;
  • to read the listed extracts from the prescribed books (see Appendix 1c), as a source of facts and ideas, and to make notes from some of this reading; all notes should include a clear reference to author, title, year and page number, in case the reference is needed later for essay purposes. These extracts will not normally be referred to by the tutor in class, though students are welcome to raise questions arising from this reading;
  • to see the internet as a rich source of material, but one to be used with care, giving preference to articles from academic sources or newspaper websites.

These study, research and essay techniques will be transferable to other subjects.

Of the two one-hour sessions each week, the first is normally in ‘lecture mode’, and the second in ‘seminar mode’:

  • The lectures focus on a small number of key issues and examples, with the aim of stimulating thought about these issues (for examples, see Appendix 2). The message to students is: get the facts from the books and articles, come to lectures ready to think about issues, and come to seminars ready to talk about them. (Socio)linguistic terminology is introduced and explained in small doses, making clear that some understanding of terminology is an essential tool for following the course.
  • The seminars provide impromptu opportunities for students to ask questions and raise issues, and more structured opportunities to discuss in pairs texts, examples, issues and arguments, and then to present their findings and comments to the group as a whole (for examples, see Appendix 2).


The course described here was assessed by two pieces of written coursework and a written Project. Having two short assessed essays means that all students can receive two sets of feedback from the tutor before embarking on the Project. Having a Project as the main piece of assessed work, instead of a final examination paper, discourages rote-learning of quickly-forgotten facts and figures, and encourages students to take a scholarly approach to the business of showing what they have gained from the course. The Project gives scope for a wider and more adventurous approach to the topic; the ‘argument’ developed needs to be more complex, and the Bibliography longer. Students choose their three topics from a single list of 18 questions covering the full range of the teaching syllabus (see Appendix 1d); they may propose an alternative wording for a question, or even an entirely different question.

The course is designed to provide students with some general sociolinguistic concepts and examples they can apply in order to evaluate in which ways and to what extent the development and present-day varieties of the French language are typical of general trends and features, and which are specific to French. Essay questions are designed so that students can structure their response on this pattern.

Seminar presentations (assessed or non-assessed) are a vital part of the undergraduate course as a whole, promoting subject-specific and transferable skills, but in the case of the course described here, the importance of the tutor’s role in mediating a large number and wide range of new concepts, and the need to give students frequent opportunities to integrate this new knowledge into their personal experience of language and to compare their responses to those of other students, meant that various types of pairwork activity were more appropriate. Indeed, the reporting stage of pairwork activities can be seen as a form of non-assessed seminar presentation.


Guidance on essay-writing is provided in a two-page set of notes on Planning and writing essays (see Appendix 1f). Students are advised to take particular care over the structure, direction and conclusion of an essay, and to ensure that all quotations from and references to source material are fully acknowledged and clearly signalled in the text, with a full list of source material at the end (using a simplified version of the Harvard reference system for the social sciences).

Students are urged to choose their essay title well in advance of the deadline, and in particular to choose the topic for their Project before choosing their second coursework essay. All students are asked to announce their choice of essay question, and to identify which other students have made the same choice; the tutor can then give advice specific to each question in small groups. Students should be urged to team up, not only for using Library material, but also for discussing together their ideas and reactions in response to material studied for the essay. Risks of plagiarism, copying or cheating? Face these head-on:

  • remind students that student-to-student discussion is part of the learning process, after which each student goes away and writes up an individually unique piece of work;
  • point out that essays, including the project, will be judged on the use students have made of source material, their understanding of the concepts involved, and their ability to frame and express an argument that leads up to a genuine conclusion based on the evidence presented.

The area where clear advice is most often needed concerns essay structure: how to plan an argument that can be followed from start to finish, so that a genuine conclusion arises clearly from the preceding discussion. I have found it useful to advise students to follow the sequence of events outlined in Appendix 1e. Writing an essay is a challenge for most students; if they are given clear and precise guidelines, they are more likely to feel confident enough to focus on, and become involved and interested in, the content of their essay, and write a piece that is truly individual, not formulaic or worse.


For the tutor, marking students’ essays solely on the basis of ‘impression’ is an unsatisfactory and unreliable procedure. At the other extreme, drawing up a list of points for each essay topic, and awarding marks for the number of ‘hits’ is rigid, time-consuming and arbitrary. How, then, to apply a fair and consistent marking scheme, while giving due recognition to students’ individuality?

The only approach I have felt comfortable with is a system of positive marking, whereby a ‘tick’ is given in the margin for every relevant point or sub-section of a point made. When all is going well, this means a tick for every line of 14 words. When all is not going so well (generalised background information, irrelevant material, repetition, etc) the absence of ticks then stands out, and usually calls for some marginal comment from the tutor. Only for factual errors is a cross (x) needed. The total number of ticks is then placed against a scale of percentage points (e.g. in a short essay, 30+ ticks may suggest a First, 20+ may suggest an Upper Second, etc.) and then this provisional mark is revised or confirmed by one’s overall impression of the essay. This system also means that many students see a lot of ticks on their work, which is always encouraging. (For a more detailed exposition of this approach to marking, see Nott 2008.)

Student feedback

I have always found feedback questionnaires useful, in a dual format:

  • a list of specific questions allowing for responses from 1 (very good) to 5 (unsatisfactory);
  • a small number of more open questions with spaces for a verbal response.

The quantitative responses consistently highlighted the importance to students of the tutor’s enthusiasm for the subject and of the availability of library books during preparation for essays. The qualitative responses consistently highlighted the tension between the wide coverage of the course (universally welcomed) and the consequent sense of pressure and pace from week to week (often reported).

Changes made over the years in response to student feedback included:

  • providing more multiple library copies of some of the most-used books;
  • reducing the amount of 16th century French history (ideas, politics, etc);
  • making a point of referring back to previous weeks’ topics;
  • being more explicit about the links between different parts of the course;
  • reducing the amount of French grammatical examples;
  • providing more examples of spoken French, including regional varieties;
  • reducing the amount of material in the study packs.

Selected extracts from students’ questionnaire responses:

‘Most liked’
The way in which many topics were covered which all linked together clearly and supported each other. (2002/03)
The variety of topics covered; we seemed to learn a lot in a short space of time; non-standard language and the Arabic/Chinese links. (2001/02)

‘New skills/knowledge’
Knowledge: a huge amount about the making of French, which I didn’t know before. Skills: helped improve essay writing skills. (2006/07)
The knowledge of the history of French has helped me to understand more the French language today which has helped me with my French language course. (2003/04)
To be less critical of other accents/dialects. (2002/03)

‘Do the parts integrate well?’
Yes – it’s good to see links later in the course to things covered early on in the course. (2003/04)

‘Other ways you could have been helped to learn’
A clearer outline of the specific points to be covered in each lecture. (2004/05)

‘Other comments’
The out of class support has been great. I’ve really appreciated it. (2005/06)
This course would benefit everyone studying French and should be a compulsory module. (2001/02)

It was particularly gratifying, in the last year that the course was offered (2006/07), to read this, from a student’s email: ‘I am now attempting to learn the phonetic alphabet to further my linguistic skills and to help me read dictionaries better. This motivation came from you and your course.’ And this, from another student: ‘I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for such an interesting course. I have found the knowledge gained useful not only in other modules but also outside of the university’.


Word Appendix 1 (doc, 62 KB)

Word Appendix 2 (doc, 128 KB)

Word Appendix 3 (docx, 25 KB)


Hornsby, D. (2003) Starting from scratch: French linguistics courses at Kent. In LLAS Occasional Papers. October 2003, 11-12. Southampton: Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies.

Nott, D. (2008) Marking students’ written work: principles and practice. In Good Practice Guide. Southampton: Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies. Available from: www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/2956.