THE FRENCH REVIEW
Published by the American Association of Teachers of French
Volume 89, No. 1, October 2015
Brickman, Celia. A Short Course in Reading French. New York: Columbia UP, 2013.
ISBN 978-0-231-15676-9. Pp. xxviii + 233. $35.
The publication of this textbook is timely: Edward Stack’s Reading French is now out of print, and Karl Sandberg’s classic French for Reading has become dated in the nearly 50 years since its publication. There are a number of other options for students looking for a reading knowledge of French, but none are as user-friendly and intelligent as A Short Course in Reading French. It is important to emphasize what this textbook is not: it is not a phrasebook; it does not introduce basic “survival vocabulary”; and it provides no guidance on how to write or speak French. Its audience is students and scholars who need a basic reading knowledge of French in order to pursue research or for an advanced degree. Brickman has taken Stack’s winning combination—a clear and systematic introduction to the basics of French grammar, practical translation advice, and well-designed exercises—and updated it. The readings are well chosen: Proust’s madeleine passage provides a nice literary counterpart to Descartes’s Méditations, for example. Unlike Stack and Sandberg, however, Brickman includes readings from Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Gabrielle Roy, among others, that reflect the diversity of the French-speaking world. The textbook takes a no-nonsense approach to its subject, walking students through strategies for making sense of French texts and alerting them to common pitfalls (“Ne… Que Means Only,” a section header warns). Experienced French instructors may question some of Brickman’s choices, however. Her advice that students write out verb paradigms, for example, may not prove to be helpful to many students. My own experience is that copying material out of a textbook is often a passive, mechanical activity: the student does not need to pay attention, and therefore the information is not “encoded.” A much better strategy is to write individual subject-verb pairs on flash cards, with their translation on the opposite side. The student can then quiz himself/herself by mixing up the cards—this technique relies upon one of the most basic principles of learning: active recall strengthens memory. Some of the grammatical explanations, moreover, are misleading. It is not helpful to use “I lived there for ten years” as an example of how a French imperfect might be translated as an English simple past, since it is difficult to see how “I lived there for ten years” could be translated into French as anything but “J’y ai vécu (or‘j’y vécus’) pendant dix ans” (what matters is not the length of time, but rather our attitude toward the action as completed). Finally, it would be helpful to include some texts of the sort that graduate students are likely to encounter in their research: literature and critical theory are interesting and entertaining, but a scholarly treatment of the sociology of sport or medieval lay piety might be a more representative “real-life example.” These are quibbles, however, and students and teachers alike will find much to like in this fresh and affordable textbook.
Catholic University of America Peter W. Shoemaker
REVIEWS FROM AMAZON.COM:
If you’re like me you’re looking at this book because there is an exam in your future—maybe your very near future. I began this book with all the anxious energy of having to pass a PhD proficiency exam. I would’ve torn through the pages except for the word of pedagogy the author was kind enough to share at the start: work slowly, she admonished, let speed build organically, she said. That bit of sage advice was what I needed to get myself to stop and take breath. So, Instead of rushing, tumbling, skipping over the surface, I began working my way slowly, deeply—and then—joyously, through the book. What happened next was what I think you call… learning.
Another bit of strategic frustration built into the book was also just as critical. No answer key! At first that took me aback. How was I, outside of a classroom, going to know whether I was getting any of it right? My first thought was to email the author for the key, but then I gave the book a chance. The author explained that if I had an answer key I would give in to the temptation of jumping to it every time I hit a knotty problem. And… she was totally right. I would have. In fact, I’ve done that. Not having a key was the best thing! I puzzled through every “what, how come?” moment. And, honestly, it made me marvel at the safe-cracker skill of the calibration of questions and translation exercises. All those knots were hard enough that I had to work at them, but none that weren’t supplied with all the necessary tools. As each gave way, linguistic mechanism by mechanism, I thought again, that’s right, this is what you call… learning.
There is one kind of confidence that comes from the gratification of mechanically matching an answer key, and there seems to be another that comes from understanding the living language itself. You become, slowly, but increasingly sure of your translations because, as you patiently engage it, it yields its inner workings to you. You know you are right, because, you are starting to know French. There are so many fat volumes that just lay on the desk pinned down by a bloated taxonomy of linguistic data—There’s one such introduction to French literally collecting dust in my bedroom right now—The primer Celia Brickman has produced is nimble elegance, and it’s always on hand in my satchel. It seemed to understand what I needed—and what I didn’t—in order to understand the language, and therefore felt more like a fluent partner than a ruler-straight matron.
I wanted to write a review, not just because last week I strolled in and out of my French proficiency brimming, almost humming, but because something else happened along the way to my exam: I actually learned French and I learned to love French. If you think this review is already too glowing and uncritical, I can do you one better. Honestly, the first thing I did after the proficiency test? Well, I celebrated and relaxed for an hour. Then… I went to Starbucks and read French philosophy. Voila!
I am under no pretense that everyone will have a uniform response to this book. As with any thing, you get what you give it. You have to take it seriously, there’s no getting around the hard work of learning a new language. But, with any truly good thing, it makes you want to give what it asks for. It convinces you that it’s worth it, and gains your trust that reward will follow. Grammar books get as boring as grammar books when all they care about are the technicalities. To be sure, this book is precise, and unfolds its arrangement in a model of efficiency and calculated accessibility. However, you get the sense the author is not interested in dissecting orthography and morphology as much as mediating an encounter with French itself. I’m sure many books get the syntax and the semantics of French right, but this one, well—it captures some of the sparkle too.
This book is truly one of a kind. In a world where true language acquisition, and where notions of internalizing the nuances of language have rather receded to the backside amongst both scholastic ideals and lay presumptions, we finally find a book that reveals the real power of intellectual prowess and integrity.
Celia Brickman does with this book what almost every aspiring author of language learning desires: make the reader more able and functional with the particular language that she is studying but also inspired by the entire experience. Learning comes alive in this fine book. In fact, many of the language learning apps out there can learn a good deal from this text. Plunging hard and deliberately into this text will reap tremendous rewards.
Celia is a top rate scholar of French, and what she does for the English reader wanting to learn to read French, is absolutely wonderful. For the middle schooler to the retired herdsman wanting to learn to read French - buy this one! It’s a good read, and full of depth and intentionality. It works both as a workbook and a reference text. It’s fun! French modern history will make more sense. French cuisine will say a great deal more than "bon appetite."