Please God, no more tense-changing exercises.

Well, I guess I might have laid on the hyperbole too thick – though I am frustrated.

Owing to the existence of such lovely things as revision and an oral exam coming up in just over a month and a half, I’ve found myself doing lots and lots of French work. This is due to the commonly accepted wisdom that if I don’t do 6 hours of work out of class (something like that), I am very definitely going to fail. This is also due to one of my French teachers believing that if she gives tired and overworked 18-year-olds a pack of exercises with 30-something pages in them, they are obviously going to be able to get them all finished. (Everyone else managed; I think I’m just lazy.)

Now, some of the French work I’m actually reasonably good at: I can knock out a 40-mark essay within a couple of hours and get an A or an A*. This is not because I’m some kind of freakishly endowed genius, it’s because the essay you have to write is ridiculously generalist (unlike the close analysis required for a Latin essay) and once you know the essay format and your cultural topic reasonably well, it becomes an exercise in regurgitation. I kind of like doing that because sometimes I get to sneak some actual proper analysis in amongst the 500-600 words, depending on the question.

There is also translation; by translation, I mean reams and reams of exercises. I don’t mind doing these because I can generally find or approximate the vocabulary, though it gets tedious after doing about 16 in a row (which is how they’re laid out in the exercise packs). I also need to do more because I sometimes forget the prepositions after certain verbs. Finally, I find working through vocabulary online on Quizlet quite therapeutic, though I don’t get much time to do it.

Last – and very definitely least on my list – are tense-changing exercises. Ugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why these can be useful, and I get the need to practise new tenses. I did these about a million times last year with something called Cloze grammar, which is a gap-filling exercise that is worth just under 10% of the written paper. I don’t mind practising tenses with individual sentences, to be honest.

I have two main issues with tense-changing exercises: they need to be appropriate for the age group and level of education of the students, and they need to remember the basic way that languages work.

I don’t know quite how to explain how tense-changing exercises can sometimes be inappropriate for the age and level of education of students, except with examples. For example, you probably wouldn’t give a class of 12-year-olds who had just met the passé composé (perfect tense) an extract from Stendhal or Zola and ask them to turn all instances of the passé antérieur (past historic) into the passé composé; hell, I didn’t properly get to grips with Le Rouge et le Noir until I was 18. Equally, asking a class of 18-year-olds who are doing French for their school leaving qualifications to put every verb they see in an extract from an article into the passé composé…well, I don’t know how other people feel about it, but since I learned it at 12 I’ve now been working with it for 6 years. That is a pretty long time to get to learn and understand a tense. I don’t think I need to do any more tense-changing exercises with it for a while.

The other thing is that most languages have different tenses, and use these different tenses in written and spoken forms, for a very good reason. Even English, which is notoriously sloppy with its sequence of tenses, still distinguishes between past, present and future (albeit not particularly clearly). In many languages, only the most basic introductory texts will be written in one tense only. This is because different tenses and moods tell you when in time something happened, and whether it really happened at all or whether it was just something you thought about.

Tense-changing exercises can lose that, which is inevitable. No single tense is able to express as much as a variety of them do, and without taking that into account a text can and will turn into gibberish. Grammatically correct gibberish, to be sure, but gibberish all the same.

So what to do now? My recommendation would be to use tense-changing exercises sparingly, in small chunks rather than big texts, and to tailor them to each student rather than trying to squeeze them all into the same box (which is easier when there are only about 4 students in the class). That way they can be used efficiently and effectively, instead of frustrating people who can’t get to grips with them and boring people who think they’re too simple.

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