Monday, February 22, 2021

French-language placement-test question

When I was a senior in high school, I got a 5 on the French AP test, i.e., the highest possible score.  I eventually decided to go to Georgetown University, but because GU was and still is an Ivy League wannabe institution, the School of Languages and Linguistics (a.k.a. "SLL" or "LingLang") had its own placement test to see what level of French I'd place into.  So on the appointed day, I sat in a room with over a hundred other students from all over the country (all over the world, really) and took the GU French-language placement test to see where, in the curriculum, I would end up as my starting point.

It was made clear to us, before the test, that French learners who weren't that advanced would have to go through the usual basic training, i.e., language labs and all that crap.  I made a face at this; the prospect of being relegated to language-lab work wasn't very pleasant, and I guess that that was a motivator to do well on the placement test.

Below is an example of a typical question on the multiple-choice test.  The test requires you to figure out, through context, what the appropriate answer is (i.e., what should go in the blank), but it also tests your spelling ability by offering you a range of choices, each with X number of blanks, one per letter.  French verbs change form for any number of reasons; in the past tense, they often have to agree with the person and number of the subject, although there are exceptions.  The question below is a tricky one:

Ils _____ au téléphone hier soir.
a. __ __       __ __ __ __ __ __ __
b. __ __        __ __ __ __         __ __ __ __ __
c. __ __         __ __ __ __         __ __ __ __ __ __
d. __ __ __ __ __ __ __

Let's examine why the above question is tricky.  First, if you know French, you may already have guessed that the correct verb is parler (to speak, to talk).  Further, you may have guessed that hier soir (yesterday evening, last evening) means the verb needs to be in the past tense.  That's an important clue.  Even further, you'll have noted the subject Ils (they), which is masculine plural, and which implies that the verb in question is not just parler but the reflexive se parler (to speak to oneself, to speak to each other):  at least two people are talking to each other.  You may also have learned that reflexive verbs are conjugated in the past tense with the auxiliary être (to be), and être verbs normally follow rules of participial agreement (masc./fem., sing./pl.).  BUT!  Here's the trick:  in the case of parler, the verb takes the dative (i.e., the indirect-object case), not the accusative ("I speak to him," not "I speak him"), and the dative case means no agreement!

Having taken all the above into consideration, you visualize in your mind what the answer choices are.  They look like this:

Ils _____ au téléphone hier soir.
a. se parlent
b. se sont parlé
c. se sont parlés
d. parlent

The answer can't be (a) because that's the present tense.  The answer can't be (c) because (c) shows participial agreement (note the extra "s" at the end of parlés to indicate the masculine plural), and we've already said that parler takes the dative, so there's no agreement.  The answer can't be (d) because, first, that's not a reflexive verb (there's no reflexive pronoun se there), and second, that's the present tense.  Therefore, the correct answer must be (b), se sont parlé.  It checks all the right boxes.

Tricky, tricky.

So, during the arduous placement test, I had to slog through a slew of questions like the one above, and much to my delight, I finished the test a half hour before anyone else did.  Not only that, but when I got my results back, I discovered that I had managed to place into junior-year-level French, which meant no language labs!  Part of me took the situation for granted:  back in high-school French class, I used to finish quizzes and tests twice or three times faster than the next person to finish.  It was a gift; it was a talent, and it gave me god-level status in the French classroom (if nowhere else).

But Georgetown isn't the kind of place where a somewhat-talented student can walk around with a swelled head for very long.  I soon discovered that junior-year-level French meant that classes were all 100% in French, and classes often had very talented students, some of whom were native speakers, and some of whom were Americans who happened to function in French at a very high level.  It was humbling to be sitting alongside people who were genuine beasts when it came to speaking, reading, and writing French, and to know that many of these students also spoke other languages just as fluently.  One thing I prize about the GU experience is that I had a chance to meet and work with some truly talented classmates.  Out in the real world, I've heard people blithely say, "Oh, yeah; I speak four languages"—and then I discover that their proficiency level is shit.  But when someone from Georgetown would say "I speak four languages," you could be sure that that person actually spoke all four languages fluently.  When someone claims to speak a foreign language, my standards are very high.

I don't have much occasion to use French here in South Korea.  I do read French-language news online, and I correspond with my French host family every now and then, but that's about the extent of my practice.  I really ought to do more; there is, in fact un quartier français (a French district) here in Seoul.  I've visited it once or twice, but now, with the mental burden of my scholastic debt gone, I ought to plan more trips out to Seorae Village, buy myself a baguette and some hot chocolate, and speaka zee Fraintch with the locals.


John Mac said...

Learning languages for me is a lot like math. I just don't seem to have any natural ability in that regard. I struggled mightily in the basic college-level Spanish and algebra courses. It just seems like my brain is not wired that way, but for others, it comes almost naturally. That's so unfair and accordingly, all such requirements should be dropped from the curriculum!

Check your privilege, Kevin!

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Now, I'm thinking I don't speak any language fluently.

By the way, does this gift for French apply to fields of learning outside languages? Quantum mechanics, for example?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...


This is me checking my privilege:

(sniffs armpit)


I wish. I've only ever been okay at math, and there are times I regret not having gone into the hard sciences, but no: the gift for French doesn't seem to have translated into a gift for anything else. It's not even a generalized "gift for languages," as I discovered while struggling to learn Korean.