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Dreaded Dictee : French Test Puts Accent on Perfection

December 21, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — 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.

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