First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics. © 1999 Nigel Armstrong.
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This volume joins several others in the CUP series devoted to increasing the expressive powers of undergraduate students of French. A notable predecessor is 'A guide to contemporary French usage', now sufficiently well known and regarded to have received a second edition, and to have achieved the equivalent of generic status by being widely referred to as 'Batchelor and Offord'. The more recent appearance of French for marketing (1997), Using French synonyms (1993), as well as further volumes in other modern languages, seems to show CUP's intention of building up a serious list concerned with the lexis issue.This latest addition recalls the 1998 Cambridge French-English Thesaurus (also reviewed in this volume of the Web Journal); like this book, Using French vocabulary has as its main organizing principle the grouping of words by semantic field. Within each field there is a graded progression through three levels; beyond the obvious strategy of grouping related words into lists so as to bring out differences of meaning both subtle and gross, there are exercises, designed to help the task of committing items to memory, such as word searches (slightly shocking in an undergraduate textbook), role plays and the devising of crossword clues. As the author states in her introduction (p. 1), 'Most standard vocabulary textbooks offer a single learning strategy: memorisation'. The present volume offers exercises that recall those found in the TESOL textbooks, reflecting of course the fact that French language teaching of this sort rather lags behind techniques developed for TESOL. The exercises mentioned above are only a small selection of those included in the present book: others are gap-filling, multiple choice tests, translation of idioms, and the formulation of definitions for crossword clues. The most striking aspect of this book is its concentration on everyday vocabulary. As the author remarks in her introduction (p. 3), 'students express frustration at their defective retention of concrete vocabulary and [...] seem to forget everyday words more readily than abstract [...]'. This problem is unsurprising in view of the fact that university students of French learn the language by and large through the performance of tasks that require abstract vocabulary, so that the French for 'fuse-box' or 'three-piece suite' is unlikely to be acquired until the year abroad, if then. Nor is this problem new; forty-five years ago Ritchie (cited in Knight and George (1966: 14) noted, after an encounter with a fresh student cohort: 'Large First Year Honours class: 30 bright people; nobody knew French for 'poker', 'starch', 'switch' or tea-pot'perhaps not high-class enough to be found in the Set Texts'. To remedy this, Knight and George (ibid.) have the following prescription: 'You must make good any such deficiency. [...] novels are the best things to go for: especially those of Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola, and more modern writers ranging from Jules Romain and Duhamel to Simenon'. They might have added that Zola may not be great literature, but the sheer bulk he represents (to mention only the twenty volumes of the Rougon-Macquart at 500-odd pages per volume) offers a very prolonged soak in a French lexical register not too far removed from the everyday, although now of course often rather outmoded. As the list provided by Knight and George implies, authors such as Simenon can make up for this deficiency. The difference between 1954 and now is of course that the A-level set texts that Ritchie referred to have become less numerous or absent altogether, so that a student can reach the university study of French without having read a book in the target language. Once at university, the student can avoid reading more than a handful of books in the language, at least in departments where the mutually reinforcing language-literature-linguistics courses have been largely superseded. The prescription of Knight and George involves an extensive and intensive reading programme to promote the absorption of vocabulary through the repeated encounter of vocabulary items of interest. This enterprise is now presumably beyond most modern-languages undergraduates; hence, or partly hence, the present book. Revealingly, the present author states (p. 1): 'the student's lexical exposure often remains limited to the vocabulary which 'crops up' in texts and recordings studied in class'. One wonders what the student is doing outside the class, unless 'lexical exposure' is being used in a technical sense here. The present book, in its inclusion of exercises that are relatively new to language-learning in higher education, as well as in its concentration on everyday lexis, has the appearance therefore of being addressed principally to the 'instrumental' learner of French who regards the learning task as a means to an end. This is a large subject, however. To concentrate on the volume's merits, the selection of what should go into a vocabulary book not aiming for dictionary-like inclusiveness is always problematic. The author justifies her selections by reference simply to her experience of language teaching at university level. Clearly, an exhaustive trawl is beyond the scope of this review, but even a skim-read reveals the inclusion of vocabulary items that reveal rather chastening gaps in one's knowledge of 'concrete' French. Perhaps what saves the face of the advanced learner (post-doctoral in this case) is the ability to use periphrasis to fill in the gaps. The book is organized in twenty thematic units, ranging from Leisure and Sport, through Law and Finance to Education and Science. As the blurb states, this modular structure means the book will adapt easily as a course text, and many of the exercises included will be exploitable as group work in class. One of the more traditional exercises included is the translation of French phrases or idioms into English, as stated above; included in Unit four are phrases such as un mois cave and une population hâve. Phrases such as these, which are literary or belong to the higher journalism and seem to lend their force from their disruption of everyday collocations, might perhaps have deserved a non-subject-specific section to themselves. A notably good feature of the word lists is the emboldening of the article before words of problematic gender. Style labels are also included, for some reason numbered '1' ('colloquial, slang': not the same thing) and '3' ('formal'). The author is of course aware that her book cannot be a substitute for the autonomous learning by the student of lexis from authentic sources, and the introduction contains ten pages of advice on how to do this, as well as a very extensive list of further reading. In conclusion, one may deplore the need for a book of this type, while welcoming the book itself, which on the whole is well conceived and produced. The principle behind the parable of the talents states that supplementary books of this type will further benefit the enthusiastic, highly motivated student, but will only circumscribe the less committed learner if used as a staple.