Beyond ESKER: Learning French in England

/ /

[1]In Chapter XI of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865), Mr Podsnap, the epitome of self-satisfied British insularity, is giving a dinner whose guests include a Frenchman. Conscious of this man’s misfortune in not being British, Podsnap tries to put him at his ease by giving him a language lesson – ‘Our English adverbs do not terminate in Mong’ – and correcting his pronunciation, ignoring the fact that the Frenchman manages a good deal better in his imperfect English than Podsnap himself could have done in French. Also among the company is a young man who causes a sensation by suddenly saying ‘ESKER’, but, when the Frenchman replies ‘Mais oui?  Est-ce que? Quoi donc?’, proves unable to say any more.

If the Frenchman were to attend a dinner-party in England now, he might be tempted to conclude that plus ça change. In 2004, the Labour government under Tony Blair decided to drop the requirement for all state school pupils to study a modern foreign language up to the age of sixteen, when they took the national General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations (GCSE), and instead to make such study optional after the age of fourteen. Predictably, the uptake at GCSE declined sharply, as it has continued to do ever since, with knock-on effects for languages at Advanced (A) Level (the examination route to university) and degree level.[2] In the case of French, with which I am concerned here, in 2003, just before the Blair reforms, 331,000 out of 5.7 million candidates took GCSE French, while 15,500 out of 750,000 took the subject at A Level. In 2023, the figures were 131,000 out of just over 5.5 million for GCSE, and 7,000 out of just over 860,000 for A Level.

What do GCSE and A Level French consist of? The first surprising fact is that, of the three major public examination boards in England (Wales and Scotland have their own systems), one ceased entirely to offer GCSEs or A Levels in any modern languages in 2016 (while retaining Latin!). The GCSE syllabuses offered by the other two include tests in reading, speaking, listening and writing. The same categories existed when I studied French at a state grammar school in the 1960s, working towards O (Ordinary) Level, the national examination for sixteen-year-olds which was replaced by the GCSE in 1988, but my course was much more formal and rigorous. Nobody felt the need to ‘market’ it; the introduction to another language, another way of seeing the world, was its own excitement. Teaching was textbook-based, with no language laboratory or interactive learning tools. We learned to translate to and from French, to read it confidently, and to write it for ourselves. The grammatical grounding was very thorough; the only new grammar I had to learn when I embarked on A Level was the subjunctive. The O Level written papers involved prose passages for translation to and from French; a French dictation; and something called an aural composition, in which a story was read to us in French, twice, after which we were required to produce our own version of it, with the help of an outline and some of the more difficult vocabulary.

GCSE French is grounded in the modern world and geared to young people’s interests, and is no doubt a far more lively and engaging course than the O Level was. Today’s young people will be far more fluent speakers of French than I and my schoolfellows were. We could have got beyond ESKER, but oral communication was not a priority and only one of my French teachers at school, as far as I recall, ever actually taught the occasional lesson in French. There was an oral examination, as there still is at GCSE, but, then as now, questions could be easily forecast, and answers prepared. On the other hand, the amount of writing required by GCSE is quite restricted, often based on pictures, sometimes needing only short phrases or sentences in response, encouraged by bullet point prompts. Free composition is limited to around 100 words of French. A largely transactional vocabulary will not equip its users to read demanding literature.

In keeping with that, the most striking difference between my French A Level and its modern counterpart is the amount of literature involved. Set texts don’t exist at GCSE any more than they did at O Level, understandably, as the priority has to be to acquire the language.  However, I find it dismaying that each of the current boards which still offer A Level – a two-year course, remember – prescribes only one literary text for study: in one case, Joseph Joffo’s Un sac de billes (1975), a World War II story about two Jewish boys and their families in occupied France, and in the other, Delphine de Vigan’s No et moi (2007), in which the decision of a family to take in a homeless girl leads to momentous consequences for all concerned.  Contrast this with what was required of me: in addition to continuing translation and oral work, I studied Molière’s L’Avare (1668), Racine’s Britannicus (1669), Beaumarchais’ Le Barbier de Séville (1773), a selection of Maupassant short stories, a selection of poems by Hugo, Leconte de Lisle, Gautier, and Verlaine, and Camus’ La Peste (1947). The final examination (one paper out of three) consisted of passages from the set texts to be assigned to context and commented upon, and essays (all answers were in English). We thus had a good introduction to all three major literary genres, and the beginnings of a sense of how the literature had developed chronologically. Enough had been done to ensure that those who did not go on to read French at university could, if they wished, pursue the subject for themselves and explore more of its literary and cultural heritage.

I, however, did continue to study French at university, at least in my first year, when I had to choose some subsidiary subjects in addition to the work for my degree in English. French was self-selecting, but I was unnerved to find that I was expected to take about half the course followed by those whose main subject was French. This consisted of conversation, composition and translation sessions, and an introduction to that French invention for killing off literary appreciation, the explication de texte (for details, see W. D. Howarth and C. L. Walton, Explications, 1971). The set texts were biased towards twentieth-century drama, featuring Giraudoux’ Amphytrion 38 (1929), Sartre’s Huis clos (1944)), Ionesco’s La Cantatrice chauve (1950), and Beckett’s En attendant Godot (1953). To counterbalance these, however, was Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann! I don’t recall reading any poetry, which must have formed the part of the course we didn’t have to take. The lectures on the drama were given in French (by a chain-smoking Frenchman), those on Proust in English. There was little time to read beyond these texts, given the amount of reading the English degree involved, but the foundations were laid of an enjoyment of French literature which continues to this day.

Now let us imagine a student in 2024, having read one French novel for A Level, applying to read for a degree in French. Forty-five British universities currently offer such degrees, either single or joint honours, with a total of 660 available courses. I have looked at the syllabuses for fifteen universities (excluding Scotland, which has its own system), both long-established and relatively recent, in different parts of the country. This is, admittedly, a random sampling. Nonetheless, a clear pattern emerges: the emphasis is on language study, historical, cultural, political and social developments, and popular culture, especially film, while literature is relegated to a very minor role. Universities can cater for those with no previous knowledge of French by providing a crash course in the basics, but it seems they can no longer assume a high level of linguistic proficiency even in those who have taken the subject at A Level.

In order to compare like with like initially, the first of the fifteen universities I researched was my own alma mater. I was shocked by what I discovered. In the first year of a four-year course (the third year being spent abroad), a compulsory unit requires study of selected (but unspecified) fiction, poetry and drama, while an optional ‘cultural studies’ unit focuses on Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1620) and Maupassant’s short story ‘Boule de suif’ (1880). In the second year, there is an optional unit called ‘Temptations of the Tragic: Love and Death in French Literature’, requiring study of Phèdre (1677), Mérimée’s novella Carmen (1845), and Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1868). None of the six fourth-year units (all optional) involves the study of any literary texts, although it would be possible, in theory, to write a dissertation on a literary subject.  An undergraduate who avoided the literary options in the first and second years could therefore obtain first class honours from this institution – a highly regarded foundation, whose modern language degree courses were ranked sixth in the United Kingdom in 2021 – having read, since the age of sixteen, one short novel (at A Level) plus a smattering of texts in all genres in the first undergraduate year. Someone who took all the options involving literature would have studied an additional five texts, none of them from the twentieth or twenty-first centuries.

Of the fourteen other universities, I found that few offered any literature in the first year, concentrating on bringing all students’ language proficiency up to scratch. Most literature courses thereafter were optional; some universities appeared to offer none at all. (By contrast, the number of language-based options is considerable, ranging across applied linguistics, translation theory, French for business, study of non-literary texts, and much else.) One particularly enterprising institution offered some medieval French literature: otherwise, the earliest author to be found anywhere was Montaigne. After that, seventeenth-century drama, and prose fiction from the nineteenth century onwards, were dominant. Poetry was represented only by Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Apollinaire.

The syllabuses were overwhelmingly thematically structured, leaving students with little awareness of chronological development. Typical topics included: the representation of Paris in literature; fictions of childhood; the debate over colonialism; the intersection of literature with politics (Revolution, the shaping of republican ideals, France under the Occupation); theatre of the absurd; travel writing; science fiction; gender and sexuality issues. As noted earlier, there has been a general shift away from traditional literary study towards cultural studies, media– especially film; all my sample universities had courses in French cinema – and social history. Feminism, post-colonialism, multi-culturalism and the exponential growth of Francophone writing by authors outside France itself have all had a major influence on the programmes. And everything, of course, is underpropped by theory.

To be fair, universities have a difficult balancing act to perform. With staff/student ratios at a record high, and successive waves of budget cuts, humanities departments generally have been the first to lose out when it comes to funding, since they are not perceived to generate income from research grants in the way that science departments do. They don’t offer value for money (to the university, that is). The nature of university education itself has changed. Until 1998, there were so few undergraduates (about 8% of eighteen-year-olds in my generation went to university) that they received state grants and were educated free; now, when they are more numerous (37.5% of eighteen-year-olds in 2022), they are paying customers whose tastes must be catered for. Courses have to reflect cultural diversity; nobody is going to want a French degree which ignores everything that has happened since the beginning of this century, or fails to keep pace with the growth of digital and other technologies. But literature reflects social change and cultural diversity as much as anything else – some would say, better than anything else – and surely the balance of language to literature in the universities I looked at is badly out of kilter.  Of those universities which include literature at all, some offer more than my old university currently does, but the students still emerge with a miscellaneous and random knowledge. If they are lucky, they will know something of Molière, Racine and Corneille, Maupassant, Flaubert and Zola, and Camus – but at no university from my sample could they have studied all these writers as part of their degree. In my sample, Proust appeared only once, when the Combray section of Du côté de chez Swann was prescribed in the module on childhood. The glaring omission, as already indicated, is poetry. There is also a risk that texts may be appropriated for extra-literary purposes, to illustrate a theme, rather than being explored for their intrinsic qualities.

Perhaps we need to revisit the question: what do we learn French (or any other language) for? Just to be able to communicate? But language is so much more than a functional instrument of communication. Where, if not at school and university, will young people have the time and opportunity to be introduced to one of the great literatures of the west? Who, if not their teachers, will do the introducing? Yet today’s students are tomorrow’s teachers, and already many of those teachers are themselves the products of literature-lite school and university courses.  Translations can never replace the ability to read texts in the original. For non-French speakers to become inward with French literature requires, it seems, a greater amount of determination and willpower than ever before.



[1] This essay is an offshoot, written from a British perspective, of the pieces on French literature which I have published in LM and, before that, in The Hopkins Review. I am very grateful to David Yezzi and Ryan Wilson for their editorial encouragement.

[2] I am leaving out of account the other major route to university entry, the International Baccalaureate, which does require study of a foreign language. This is largely taken by independent schools, which also habitually enter pupils for languages at GCSE.