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

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Responsive teaching

Dylan Wiliam, the academic most associated with Assessment for Learning (AfL), aka formative assessment, has stated that these labels have not been the most helpful to teachers. He believes that they have been partly responsible for poor implementation of AfL and the fact that AfL has not led to the improved outcomes originally intended.

Wiliam wrote on Twitter in 2013:

“Example of really big mistake: calling formative assessment formative assessment rather than something like "responsive teaching".”

For the record he subsequently added:

“The point I was making—years ago now—is that it would have been much easier if we had called formative assessment "responsive teaching". However, I now realize that this wouldn't have helped since it would have given many people the idea that it was all about the teacher's role.”

I suspect he’s right about the appellation and its consequences. As a teacher I found it hard to get my head around the terms AfL and formative assess…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

The age factor in language learning

This post draws on a section from Chapter 5 of Jack C. Richards' splendid handbook Key Issues in Language Teaching (2015). I'm going to summarise what Richards writes about how age factors affect language learning, then add my own comments about how this might influence classroom teaching.

It's often said that children seem to learn languages so much more quickly and effectively than adults. Yet adults do have some advantages of their own, as we'll see.

In the 1970s it was theorised that children's success was down to the notion that there is a critical period for language learning (pre-puberty). Once learners pass this period changes in the brain make it harder to learn new languages. Many took this critical period hypothesis to mean that we should get children to start learning other languages at an earlier stage. (The claim is still picked up today by decision-makers arguing for the teaching of languages in primary schools.)

Unfortunately, large amounts of rese…

Dissecting a lesson: teaching an intermediate written text

This post is a beginner’s guide about how you might go about working with a written text with low-intermediate or intermediate students (Y10-11 in England). I must emphasise that this is not what you SHOULD do, just one approach based on my own experience and keeping in mind what we know about learning and language learning in particular. Experienced teachers may find it interesting to compare this sequence with what you do yourself.

You can adapt the sequence below to the class, context and your own preferred style. I’m going to assume that the text is chosen for relevance, interest and comprehensibility. The research suggests that the best texts are at the very least 90% understandable, i.e. you would need to gloss no more than 10% of the words or phrases. The text could be authentic, or more likely adapted authentic from a text book, or teacher written. It would likely be fairly short so you have time to exploit it intensively, recycling as much useful language as possible.

So here w…