Skip to main content

Why is teaching French partitives so hard?

While writing a couple of PowerPoints recently for frenchteacher, I was reminded about how tricky it is to teach, and for pupils to acquire, partitive articles in French (du, de la and des).

Firstly, here is a a pretty good description of how they work from the site frenchtoday.com;

"The French partitive articles express a notion of quantity: a vague one, a non-specific one.
These articles are often used after the verbs vouloir (Je voudrais du vin) or avoir (J’ai des chats) and with food. It’s the notion of “some” in English, but we don’t always use the word “some”. Often, we use nothing at all. In French, you need to “accompany” your word with something.
  1. Je voudrais de l’eau, s’il vous plaît. (some water, maybe a glass, or maybe a bottle…)
  2. Le professeur a de la patience. (patience ; you are not saying how much patience the teacher has, just that he/she has some)
  3. Voici du gâteau. (some of it, not the whole cake)
To describe an unspecified plural quantity, use des (both feminine and masculine)
. This tells you there is more than one item, but again, it’s a vague plural quantity (could be 2, could be 10,000 or more)… This des usually applies to whole items, that you could count, but decided not to.
  1. J’ai des Euros. (more than one, but I am not telling exactly how many).
  2. Je vais acheter des pommes. (I’m going to buy apples. In English, we’d probably won’t use an article there. Maybe some, but not necessarily. In French, you need to use “des”).
  3. Elle a des amies formidables (she has (some) great friends)."
Now, the main difficulty with getting students to use these accurately is the transfer effect (or interference effect, if you prefer) of English, when it's the L1. Even I, as a long term fairly fluent and very accurate speaker of French, occasionally hesitate between partitive and definite articles. The issue is, of course, that in English we often omit to use an article at all, so learners have to work out the underlying meaning of the utterance. One minor example of this is the fact that with feminine nouns French uses two words, not just one, e.g. il a de la patience. This at first view seems implausible to a native English speaker.

Further problems arise when students have to use negatives (when in English we use either any or nothing, e.g. "I don't have any apples" or "I don't have apples" - je n'ai pas de pommes) or specific quantities , e.g. "a bottle of milk" (une bouteille de lait). Not to mention the problem with nouns beginning with vowels or non-aspirate h's (J'ai de l'argent,  je n'ai pas d'argent or pas d'histoires!).

So compare:

I drank some wine with my dinner (easy - use the partitive du).
I drank wine with my dinner (pretty easy, because you know you could insert the word "some" if you wanted to).
I love wine (definite article le because there is an underlying notion of a general opinion about, in this case, "all wine").
I always drink wine with my dinner. (French natives report most often this would be du, but there is some doubt - subtlety of meaning may come into play).
Drink wine! (Bois le vin or Bois du vin?)

Now, given the difficulties involved for novice learners, how might we best help them get these right?

Well, firstly in the long run they will get a good feel for them after lots and lots of listening and reading input. This may be the only way they really acquire them properly.

In the shorter term, when you teach them more explicitly, here are my own suggestions which represent a sort of attack on all fronts.

1. Present them frequently in meaningful input ("flood the input", as they sometimes say). This exploits implicit (natural) learning processes or inductive learning (picking up the grammar rule through examples). This would be my number one priority.
2. Explain how they are translated into English (as in the above example from frenchtoday.com).
3. Teach them separately from other articles, introducing them later than indefinite and definite articles (e.g. in Y8 in England and wales) so as to avoid sowing confusion. This means carefully selecting what you will teach in your scheme of work, delaying teaching situations such as shopping or going to the cafe. (This reveals a potential problem with task-based syllabuses if you feel that selecting and grading of grammar is important.)
4. Take advantage of positive transfer from English by saying that for "any" use de and for "of" say de. This will help pupils get the point that a bottle OF milk is une bouteille de lait).
5. Teach and practise set chunks like Pas de problème, un litre de lait and J'ai de l'argent)
6. When creating vocabulary lists or knowledge organisers, show longer chunks rather than isolated words when appropriate. This lets students see the articles in meaningful contexts.
7. Practise them repeatedly using a range activities, e.g. transcription, translation, gap-fill. But don't create too much confusion in the early stages by asking for choices between different types of articles - only the very smartest pupils will cope with this.
8. When creating presentations separate out masculine, feminine and plural and highlight the words in writing ("enhancing the input").
9. When explaining the difference between du and de la, say that du is really like de le in disguise and compare it with au in relation to an imaginary à le.

So all in all, there is more to teaching partitives than meets the eye. But careful planning for teaching them will almost certainly assist acquisition to some extent.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Preparing for GCSE speaking: building a repertoire

As your Y11 classes start their final year of GCSE, one potential danger of moving from Controlled Assessment to terminal assessment of speaking is to believe that in this new regime there will be little place for the rote learning or memorisation of language. While it is true that the amount of learning by heart is likely to go down and that greater use of unrehearsed (spontaneous) should be encouraged, there are undoubtedly some good techniques to help your pupils perform well on the day.

I clearly recall, when I marked speaking tests for AQA 15-20 years ago, that schools whose candidates performed the best were often those who had prepared their students with ready-made short paragraphs of language. Candidates who didn't sound particularly like "natural linguists" (e.g. displaying poor accents) nevertheless got high marks. As far as an examiner is concerned is doesn't matter if every single candidate says that last weekend they went to the cinema, saw a James Bond…

Worried about the new GCSEs?

Twitter and MFL Facebook groups are replete with posts expressing concerns about the new GCSEs and, in particular, the difficulty of the exam, grades and tiers. I can only comment from a distance since I am no longer in the classroom, but I have been through a number of sea changes in assessment over the years so may have something useful to say.

Firstly, as far as general difficulty of papers is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the new assessment is harder (not necessarily in terms of grades though). This is particularly evident in the writing tasks and speaking test. Although it will still be possible to work in some memorised material in these parts of the exam, there is no doubt that weaker candidates will have more problems coping with the greater requirement for unrehearsed language. Past experience working with average to very able students tells me some, even those with reasonable attainment, will flounder on the written questions in the heat of the moment. Others will…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from pixabay.com to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:





Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…