Dreaded Dictee : French Test Puts Accent on Perfection

Times Staff Writer

Once a day, children in France's elementary schools take the dictee-- several nerve-wracking, sometimes dreaded minutes in which they must write down exactly what their teacher dictates to them. It is as French as frog legs and Calvados and the Eiffel Tower, and nothing reveals all that is unique in the French educational system better than the dictee.

The dictee tests both spelling and grammar and, as usually graded, it demands near perfection. A few errors mean failure, even a zero. It sometimes seems that nothing is more important in French education.

"I remember a French teacher," a Belgian journalist said recently, "who told us that until we learned to put a comma in the right place, we would not understand mathematics."

Americans, of course, have spelling bees. But a spelling bee bears about as much resemblance to the dictee as chopped liver does to foie gras. A spelling bee is simply not as intricate or fearsome or significant.

Novelist Makes 7 1/2 Errors

Francoise Giroud, a novelist and journalist who was once minister of women's affairs in the French government, took part as a special guest recently in the televised finals of the national dictee contest. She made 7 1/2 errors (minor mistakes like a wrong accent count as half an error) in 15 complex sentences.

"I am ashamed," she said.

Bernard Pivot, the book critic and television show host who had read the dictee, tried to console her, insisting that anyone who had made fewer than 10 mistakes had triumphed.

"Anytime I make more than five errors on a dictee, " she said, "I am ashamed."

Few American writers would feel so ashamed about making errors in spelling or grammar. Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway spent a lifetime misspelling, filling his manuscripts with such glaring mistakes as optomistic, apoligize and volumne.

Fitzgerald Even Worse

"The last thing I remember about English in high school," he once wrote, "was a big controversy on whether it was already or all ready. How did it ever come out?"

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a worse speller.

The national dictee contest, organized by Pivot three years ago, generates enormous excitement in France. In 1987, there were 36,414 entrants in the contest. After a series of quarter- and semifinals, the field was narrowed to 122 finalists who sat aboard the river boat Gabarre and listened to Pivot dictate as they steamed along the Seine in Paris. Celebrities like Giroud, bicycle racing star Laurent Fignon, and Chanel model Ines de la Fressange also took the test. So did most of the French journalists covering the event.

Pivot, before he began to read, told the contestants: "This dictee is easier than last year's. But that does not mean it is angelic."

Not One Error

Seven million French, many with pencil and paper in hand, watched the dictation on television, and eight million tuned in several hours later to see the correct transcript of the dictee on the screen and to watch judges pronounce Juliette Goalabre, a 38-year-old government inspector of price controls from Caen, as the national winner. She did not make a single mistake.

Pivot, who edits the popular literary magazine Lire and is the host of a well-known talk show about books called "Apostrophes," once tried to explain the hold the dictee has on the French imagination. He found the French attachment powered by a nostalgia for "the happiness and torments of childhood," a need to play games, and "the love for our language."

"Despite the wounds that we inflict on it every day," Pivot wrote, "the language, the French language, remains in our eyes a precious good, a heritage to defend, a living body of unending astonishment whose vagaries, exceptions to the rules and inexhaustible richness never cease to amuse us."

Shrewd Test

The dictee has became a tool of teaching in France because spelling and grammar are so intertwined in the language. Words often sound alike but are spelled much differently depending on whether they are masculine or feminine, singular or plural, first, second or third person. On top of this, the various words of a sentence must agree with one another. A feminine noun, for example, requires adjectives with feminine endings and may even require a past participle to have a feminine ending as well. The dictee, in French eyes, seems to be a shrewd way of testing all these elements at once.

This helps turn the dictee into a puzzle. In the dictee for the national finals in 1986, for example, contestants could not figure out how to spell one adjective pronoun in the first sentence until discovering six lines later that the person talked about was a woman.

The most famous dictee in French history was written in 1868 by Prosper Merimee, the author of the story "Carmen" on which Georges Bizet based his opera. Merimee, a favorite of Emperor Napoleon III, prepared a dictee full of grammatical and spelling traps to amuse the emperor's court. But not everyone was amused.

Napoleon III made 45 mistakes. Alexandre Dumas, the playwright and son of the famous novelist, made 24. Empress Eugenie, who was of Spanish and Scottish descent, turned in a paper with 62 errors. But the empress had a hard time pleading her foreign birth as an excuse. The best score--only three mistakes--was turned in by Prince von Metternich, the ambassador from Austria.

A poster with this dictee, now known as Prosper Merimee's diabolic dictee, hangs on the walls of some French schools and offices.

French teachers read a dictee every day in elementary schools and perhaps once a week in junior high school. It is rarely used in senior high school. By that time, a student is expected to speak and write in correct French. French educators look on the dictee as a way of instilling proper spelling and grammar, enlarging vocabulary, providing models for good writing and making children feel that the written and spoken language are one.

Foreign educators, however, usually regard the dictee with suspicion, for it is heavily dependent on memorization and is a passive, non-creative exercise for the student. In fact, many of the wrongs that foreigners see in French education--memorization, lack of creativity, overemphasis on literary matters--are all embodied in the dictee.

300,000 Illiterates

Also, the dictee may seem so awesome and daunting an exercise to some pupils that they give up in the face of their continual failure to pass it. France has a schooled population that, in general, speaks French with great precision. Yet a government report in 1984 estimated that France may have 300,000 to 400,000 French-born, French-educated adult illiterates.

Although the French Academy proclaimed in 1694 that good spelling is "what distinguishes men of letters from the ignorant and from simple women," the dictee appears not to have entered French education until the early part of the 19th Century. During that century, education was transformed from the elitist system of pre-revolutionary times into a system that reached more of the general population.

The broadening of education was accompanied by a campaign to standardize grammar and spelling, perhaps to make sure that the language would not somehow be weakened as more and more French attended school. It was an era of new and fashionable grammar books and dictionaries.

The first reported use of the dictee was under Napoleon I, when applicants for university were asked to take such an examination to qualify. In 1832, a law was passed requiring all civil servants to have a proficiency in spelling. This evidently put pressure on the school system to come up with a way of ensuring that its graduates knew how to spell. By the 1840s, the dictee had entered the elementary schools and become part of the French way of life.

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