Monday, May 2, 2011

Geek's Corner (5)

I had planned to do a lot of indignant huffing and puffing in this post about the completely ridiculous state of French phonetics. But I'm still not completely recovered from last week's bronchitis, so I need to save my breath for more pressing activities, like climbing the stairs to the apartment. So the phonetic diatribe will have to wait.

Instead, I plan to stoop to one of every travel blogger's favorite devices, that of roundly mocking some aspect of one's host culture. Specifically, the ludicrously lax standards of the French standardized language tests. To provide some context, I note that the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, abbreviated as CEFR, was adopted in 2001 as the accepted standard for all countries and languages within the European Union. Thus, certification of attainment of, for instance, level C1, should mean the same, no matter what the language, and corresponds specifically to the following:

Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

Similar descriptions exist for each of the other five levels of proficiency, ranging from A1 to C2. The Spanish proficiency exams I took were at level B2 (intermediate) and C2 (complete mastery). Neither of those tests was a walk in the park - each had three sections: oral expression and comprehension, written expression and comprehension, and familiarity with grammar, syntax, and expressions specific to the language. To pass, one had not only to achieve a minimum overall score of 70%, the same minimum had to be attained in each of the three component parts.

What is demanded of one here en France, home of the 35-hour work-week, and fully pensioned retirement at the age of 60? Not a whole lot, apparently. The C1 exam (and that for C2 as well, as far as I can make out) consists of four parts, each worth 25 points. To pass the overall exam, one need attain a total score of only 50 points. Yes, there is also a minimum requirement for each individual component - one has to achieve at least 5 out of 25 points, that is, a score of 20%!

This seems frankly ludicrous to me. One could get a completely lame-assed score on one, possibly even two, part(s) of the whole exercise, and still scrape together an overall passing grade. In particular, it seems possible to pass with a knowledge of the language that is entirely passive, that is, based on only being able to understand the language, but without being able to speak or write adequately.

When one reads the evaluation criteria, one's horror only grows. Unlike the Spanish tests, which are graded centrally at the University of Salamanca, grading of the French exams is entrusted to the local center where the test was administered. So, if you happen to sit the exam at your local branch of the Alliance Francaise in San Francisco, your grading will be subject to the whim of the consul's wife, or whoever else they manage to round up to take part in the evaluation. Sure, there are written guidelines for the graders to follow, but these exhibit a disturbing obsession with word-counting (1 point deducted for being more than 10% away from the target word total, for quoting more than a specified percentage of words from the documents under discussion, that kind of thing).

The whole thing is a bit disappointing. And when you learn that the favorite pejorative designation among the French for their neighbors across the Pyrenees is "faineants" (literally "do-nothings"), you can only shake your head in disbelief at the arrogance of the French.

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