FRE 161 is a first-year language practice course for students who have studied French up to the high school graduating level (Ontario Grade 13 or equivalent). It is a course which places "Emphasis [...] on the skills of comprehension [...] and self-instruction" (calendar description). The reading comprehension component of this course uses as its principal text Georges Simenon's novel Le Chien jaune -- a whodunnit featuring Detective Superintendent Maigret.
On the questionnaire which I have students fill out at the end of the year Le Chien jaune is inevitably rated the most popular component of the course, receiving the highest rating for interest and usefulness. Over a period of eleven weeks -- one chapter a week for almost the whole of the second term -- the characters of the story -- Maigret, Inspector Leroy, Emma, Doctor Michoux -- have become familiar acquaintances with distinctive characteristics and modes of behaviour. The activity of reading comprehension takes place then in the favourable setting of a high motivation to know what is going to happen next in a serialized story similar to one they might read or watch on television in their first language.
Not only do the students become familiar with the characters and setting of the story, they also come to recognize various thematic or typical items of vocabulary to do, for example, with poison, the café, the telephone. Maigret is always lighting his pipe; lights go on and are extinguished. These elements are linked with the function words and articulated in the grammatical structures common to French prose in general. Thus to a large extent, vocabulary and grammar -- the building blocks and structures of language competence -- are absorbed in context.
I use the TACT[*] database of Le Chien jaune to help reinforce this competence through the creation of teaching materials based on the textual occurrences of various items. By the end of chapter 4 we have read a number of references to poison and I can give the students the following list:
From this can be extracted the following vocabulary of expressions dealing with strychnine, poison, poisoning and the effects of poisoning:
and various connections can be made between members of the lexical family poison and verbs denoting the taking of poison:
Maigret smokes a pipe. On occasion he takes advantage of this to gain the advantage over his interlocutor. For example:
At the very beginning of the story M. Mostaguen, the worse for drink, is mysteriously shot while attempting to light a cigar.
From the first two chapters we can thus extract the following items:
to do with filling, lighting and smoking a pipe (or cigar) and using matches which may be extinguished (by the wind). Subsequent chapters allow us to build on this base; for example:
At the end of chapter 5, we now have a cumulative list of expressions including the names of other objects which can be lit or extinguished:
Chapters 6 to 11 yield, in variously constructed sentences:
and for the irregular verb (s')éteindre ('to put/go out') the forms:
An intermediate stage in arriving at these vocabulary and grammar lists (which don't necessarily have to be made explicit) consists in creating exercises where the students, working from lists of contexts such as the numbered sentences above, answer such questions as:
"Il allume son cigare."
"Il allumait son cigare."
"Il alluma son cigare."
"Il a allumé son cigare."
"Son cigare était allumé."
which lead them to give the names of things that can be lit, to use the derivative rallumer and to manipulate various forms of the verb éteindre.
The theme of poison is very closely and consciously associated with the story. That of lighting is part of the background and could be illustrated in a number of texts, not necessarily detective novels. Still other items, particularly grammatical ones, would be common to all texts. The following list of items from Le Chien jaune gives an idea of the range of possibilities:
A typical use of the database is in response to a student's question. For example, one student asked me to go over the difference between savoir and connaître. At the next class I was able to provide the contexts of 'the story so far' (45 examples for the first five chapters) and analytical material derived from them showing that the differences are almost entirely constructional:
Some co-occurrences of these words are particularly felicitous (emphasis added):
Comment ce chien jaune te connaît-il?... -- Je ne sais pas... (III, 52)
Quelqu'un connaissait la disparition de Jean Servières, savait que l'auto était ou serait abandonnée [...] Et ce quelqu'un n'ignorait pas que l'on découvrirait quelque part les empreintes [...] (IV, 67-68)
Le journaliste esquissa un geste d'ignorance. «Personne ne sait d'où il sort.» (I, 21)
I shall give two specific examples that illustrate the usefulness of TACT for revealing things about the text.
Chapter 9 is entitled "La boîte aux coquillages" -- the shell box, the box decorated with shells. In the TACT Index display for the word boîte(s) (fig. 1), the alignment of the occurrences of the keyword allows the eye to discover an excellent illustration of the use of the prepositions à and de following a word denoting a recipient (for containing / containing):
The list also allows one to comment on an ellipsis (boîte du journal = boîte aux lettres du journal) and on an idiomatic usage (boîte de nuit 'night club').
The red herring of the story is Léon, a stranger feared for his huge physique, his unkempt appearance and simply for being an outsider, a prime suspect in the eyes of just about everyone except of course Maigret and the cause, along with the symbolic, unknown yellow dog (who turns out to belong to Léon) of the fear which grips the population of Concarneau. The first evidence of the existence of Léon is the huge footprints found outside Michoux' villa; the colossus, the brute, the vagabond is then arrested by the police and brought into town by the police a prisoner (only to escape); only towards the end of the story is he humanized with a name. The TACT distribution display of the various designations reflects the progression from the unknown and threatening to the named and reassuring. In figure 2 I have combined the individual displays into one.
As can be seen from many of the above examples, the Chien jaune database has only been tagged for chapter and page. A more analytical version might contain tags for 'text level' such as title vs. text proper, narrative vs. dialogue, etc. In the case of Le Chien jaune, the distinction between narrative and dialogue is not very useful as the vocabulary and grammar of both are the same and unmarked, neither markedly literary nor markedly colloquial. This is one reason why the text works well at the advanced high school or first year university levels.
There are nevertheless a few places in the text where a text level discriminator is necessary, whether provided by a tag in the database or by the language instructor. These sequences could be labelled 'newspaper headline', 'newspaper article', 'telegram', 'notes', 'letter' and 'legal language'. The newspaper headlines and article can be characterized as using sensational language. The telegram and Maigret's notes use elliptical syntax. The syntax of Leroy's notes and Léon's letter is normal and they are formal in style. Louise's card is written in uneducated, phonetic French. Maigret uses official language in arresting Michoux and Madame Michoux.
«La peur règne à Concarneau.»
«Un drame chaque jour.»
«Disparition de notre collaborateur Jean Servières.»
«Des taches de sang dans sa voiture.»
«À qui le tour?» (III, 43)
«Le siège avant est maculé de sang. Une glace est brisée et tout laisse supposer qu'il y a eu lutte.
«Trois jours: trois drames! On conçoit que la terreur commence à régner à Concarneau dont les habitants se demandent avec angoisse qui sera la nouvelle victime.» (III, 45)
«Sûreté Générale à commissaire Maigret, Concarneau.
«Jean Goyard, dit Servières, dont avez envoyé signalement, arrêté ce lundi soir huit heures hôtel Bellevue, rue Lepic, à Paris, au moment où s'installait chambre 15. A avoué être arrivé de Brest par train de six heures. Proteste innocence et demande être interrogé sur le fond en présence avocat. Attendons instructions.» (VII, 123)
«Ernest Michoux (dit: le Docteur). -- [...] Le père est mort. La mère est intrigante. A essayé, avec son fils, d'exploiter un lotissement à Juan-les-Pins. Échec complet. A recommencé à Concarneau. Monté société anonyme, grâce au nom du défunt mari. N'a pas fait d'apport de capitaux. Essaie d'obtenir actuellement que les frais de viabilité du lotissement soient payés par la commune et le département. (III, 53)
«1. -- AFFAIRE MOSTAGUEN: la balle qui a atteint le négociant en vins était certainement destinée à un autre. Comme on ne pouvait prévoir que quelqu'un s'arrêterait sur le seuil, on devait avoir donné à cet endroit un rendez-vous à la vraie victime, qui n'est pas venue, ou qui est venue trop tard. (III, 55)
«Tu feré mieu de venir isi que de resté dan ton sale trou ou i pleu tout le tant. Et on gagnes bien. On mange tan qu'ont veu. Je tembrasse. LOUISE.» (IX, 144)
«C'est dit, c'est signé: j'ai mon bateau. Il s'appellera: «La Belle-Emma.» Le curé de Quimper m'a promis de le baptiser la semaine prochaine, avec l'eau bénite, les grains de blé, le sel et tout, et il y aura du vrai champagne, parce que je veux que ce soit une fête dont on parle longtemps dans le pays. [...]
«Je me ferai photographier dessus et je t'enverrai la photo. Je t'embrasse comme je t'aime en attendant que tu sois la femme chérie de ton
«LÉON.» (IX, 144-145)
-- [...] Par contre, je puis signer maintenant un mandat d'arrêt contre le docteur Ernest Michoux pour tentative d'assassinat et blessures sur la personne de M. Mostaguen et pour empoisonnement volontaire de son ami Le Pommeret. Voici un autre mandat contre Mme Michoux pour agression nocturne... (XI, 178)
Another, less obvious case where the instructor needs to make explicit distinctions is in the pragmatic, or situational, use of forms of address. Here the database is particularly useful in gathering together the various occurrences. Maigret's full title is "le commissaire Maigret". The contexts of commissaire yield the following forms and types (emphasis added).
In context 1 the full formal title is used for purposes of identification in the third person in a newspaper article. In contexts 2 and 3 the full title is used in the third person in an oral situation where the person referred to is present (2) or theoretically so (3). In 4 and 5 Maigret identifies himself on the telephone in the conventional third person; 5 is elliptical («Allô... [C'est] Le Phare de Brest?... [Ici, le] Commissaire Maigret... [Je voudrais parler au] directeur, s'il vous plaît!...»). In context 6, also elliptical, Maigret is being identified in the second person («[Vous êtes le] commissaire Maigret?»). 7 shows Maigret (identity established) being addressed in the second person by the unmarked form commissaire (a more formal address would be «monsieur le commissaire»). In 8 Maigret's identity is known to the speaker, who is establishing contact with him on the telephone using the conventional, and elliptical, third person form of address («[C'est] le commissaire?»). In 9 and 10 Maigret, known simply as "le commissaire", is being referred to in the third person by the narrator (9) and one of the characters (10).
For the moment the use of the TACT database of Le Chien jaune is limited to course instructors -- in actual practice, to those instructors who are interested enough to do so -- and, also on a voluntary basis, to a few students. The present interface of TACT is perhaps better suited to research and the preparation of teaching material than to language-learning. For the preparation of contextual language instruction material however I consider it an indispensable ally.