PRINT February 1991


“French in Action”

Last year at Yale University a group of students filed a complaint with a sexual-harassment grievance board against a French-language teaching method, “French in Action,” claiming its sexism was preventing them from learning the language. The case was unique in that a course, rather than a person, was being charged with harassment.

“French in action” is a first-year French course based on total immersion in the language. French is the only language used in the classroom from the first day on. Students follow a stylish series of video presentations throughout the year, recounting the tongue-in-cheek adventures of Robert, an American, and his French girlfriend Mireille. Grammar and pronunciation are learned by repeating and reinventing the story line, which itself is part detective fiction, part New Wave, and part black comedy. Much of the pleasure of the tapes is a look that comes from French New Wave film—the work of Eric Rohmer in particular—and has a dated arty quality that calls attention to its own style.

The students filing the grievance complained that the camera focused far too often on women in skimpy T-shirts; that men were the action figures in the narrative, while women were either sexy objects of contemplation or fat and frumpy objects of ridicule. In the most contested episode of the video series, the female character Mireille is sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens reading a book when the pick-up artist Jean-Pierre comes along and tries to get her to talk by making comments about her skirt. She resists by refusing to say a word. A language course teaching woman’s silence?! Student Jacqueline Schafer, in her reaction to this and other scenes, wrote: “At times I felt I was enrolled in a class aimed at titillating and encouraging male students who might otherwise not be interested in learning French, while the women were expected to ignore and/or overcome their own discomfort with the images before them—women, in other words, were supposed to take care of themselves. Like the women Jean-Pierre harasses, I was expected to step aside.”

Many people believe that “French in Action” is the most successful language teaching method ever produced. The Annenberg Foundation and the Public Broadcasting System believed it when they endowed the course with funds for transforming the original slide presentations into a series of beautifully produced video cassettes with accompanying textbook and workbook. The video production, which employed advisers from the French ministry of culture and all kinds of intellectuals interested in French civilization, was several years in the making. The show aired on PBS to great acclaim, and the tapes have become everyone’s favorite brush-up before traveling to France—the language equivalent of the Jane Fonda method.

Pierre Capretz and Barry Lydgate, coauthors with Beatrice Abetti of “French in Action,” argued in a written response to the committee investigating the student complaint that Americans tend to be puritanical and that France is different—part of learning another language was learning about difference without judging it:

Because of historical and economic reasons that are now some two centuries old, the ways in which Americans view other cultures are analogous to the ways in which men have traditionally viewed women. . . . In an interdependent world, the best initial step toward reducing the imperialism of American culture is to make it encounter other cultures on their own terms (that is, perhaps, the chief merit of a foreign language requirement). In these encounters, the foreign culture must be allowed to represent itself.

“French in Action” has its own history of participation in the larger history of American domination, which Capretz and Lydgate only obliquely evoke here. The method began back in the 1940s, when Yale set itself the task of training G.I.s bound for Europe and had to teach them fast. The first people to benefit from Robert’s romance with Mireille were the American soldiers who occupied France in the years following World War II—and their French war brides. Until the 1970s, when Yale began accepting undergraduate women, the slide version of the method was taught to all-male classes. Robert Taylor, the main character, was a prep-school boy who goes over to France to study and meets the delicious Mireille. Nothing surprising about it: the method was written for the male population it served.

Yet the present debate over the “French in Action” method is an important event: for language teaching, for student activism, for feminism, for coeducation. An event in the world of representation. It is, to my mind, more significant than the much-publicized argument over the canon (horse-trading texts in an endless curriculum war), because it is about not what students are taught, but how they are taught, what they bring to the classroom, and how their identities are implicated in this teaching.

An earlier criticism of French 115, the slide precursor of “French in Action,” survives in the form of the report of a committee, chaired by the well-known deconstructionist critic Barbara Johnson in May 1982, in which it was argued, rather perversely, that it is the method’s closeness to advertising that makes it so sexist and so effective. Capretz and Lydgate assert that their course works because it “allows French culture to represent itself.” The Johnson report contended that the culture speaking in French 115 was not France itself, but the international culture of stereotypes and advertising techniques. In other words, stereotypes are themselves the international language that translates the national language students are learning, and this is what makes the method both effective and culturally skewed. The problem with this argument is that if the method’s success relies on its incorrectness, one cannot change it without canceling its effectiveness.

The student-centered complaint represents something completely new. First, it is a visual analysis. Second, it comes from a politicized student body—not from the theory-oriented literature faculty—and is grounded in the lived experience of women students, connecting that experience directly to their responses as viewer/participants. So the students filing complaints catalogued in detail each episode, description, role, or camera angle that made them feel excluded or poorly represented. The flavor of some of these reactions may have been prudish, expressing alarm at a “backless, low-cut dress,” “a thin shirt with no bra,” “shots . . . from the breast up,” but there was no hesitation at identifying with the women characters. Schafer writes, for example: “It was difficult to absorb what I was supposed to be learning in class because as a woman I have often been forced to cede my space in a public place to a man who was harassing me just as Jean-Pierre harasses women in the videos.”

The students’ challenge to the “French in Action” method owes much to the notion of the male gaze theorized by Laura Mulvey in a ground-breaking article first published in Screen in 1975 and now widely anthologized and taught in college film-theory courses: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.” Such a critique is effective because the complaint being lodged is not against “reality,” it is against the camera and the way the camera follows and objectifies the woman’s body. The gist of Mulvey’s argument is that the relationship between camera and female body is part of a long cinematic tradition that trades on women, as by extrapolation the female students claim the Capretz language method does. The only genuine response to such criticism would be to start again from zero, with a completely new understanding of the way that language learning compels the viewer to look and identify with speaking subjects.

The Yale French department, in reviewing the “French in Action” method in wake of the complaint, has not suggested such a radical revision. The committee instead addressed the way the method is used in the classroom—a pragmatic response, given the university’s vast investment of time and money in the program. Its most pointed opposition concerned a single word, “relax,” which students are invited to do at the beginning of the course. The Yale French department countered that students should rather be encouraged to be alert in French class: good language method, like good literary criticism, should be critical, vigilant, deconstructive.

Yet the fact remains, students have very little capacity for protest in the first months of language learning. Language class can be an infantilizing, frustrating experience, with the student at the mercy of the method. This is particularly true of immersion methods like “French in Action” that forbid students to use their native language. “Idiot” and “idiom” come from the same root: there are so many ready-made phrases in a beginning language class, so many idioms, that you submit and memorize them hoping to figure out the nuances later on. This is a situation implying considerable trust. When the Capretz method encourages students to “relax,” it may not be to deny their critical faculties so much as to allay their fears of learning a new language.

A task force at Yale, including French professor Lynne Huffer, has recently consulted with coauthor Abetti on a supplement to “French in Action” that introduces four new characters: one from Senegal, one from Guadeloupe, one from Quebec, and one from Louisiana. These speakers of nonmetropolitan French have come to France, in this new fiction, in order to learn about various pedagogical methods. “French in Action” is one of them. The characters, in other words, are stand-ins for the graduate students who are actually going to teach the method, and their scripts consist of various critical glosses on it. So for example, if in the primary text Mireille’s blond hair is being lauded,the supplementary script will point out that not all French-speaking women are blond. The new characters offer students both a counterideology and a linguistic model for developing their own critical capacity in French.

The complaints about “French in Action” are, at the least, provocative. Language learning is an encounter with otherness that is undeniably fraught with intellectual and moral implications. Yet we should not forget how empowering it is to learn to speak a second language. French, in particular, has been a woman’s language—and it has gotten a lot of American middle-class women away from their families, through the acceptable escape hatch of the junior year abroad. France has been a subversive region in American arts and letters, populated by women and minorities on the lam from home oppression. The famous line by Gertrude Stein furnishes another perspective on the “French in Action” debate: “It was not what France gave you but what it did not take away from you that was important.”

Alice Yaeger Kaplan teaches French literature at Duke University. She is working on a memoir about learning French.