French in Comparison: An online tool for language instruction

What can learners of French discover from different time periods, geographic varieties, and codes of the language? FBF 2017 grantees Mairi McLaughlin and Benjamin Fagard have created an online tool to test these questions in the language classroom. We sat down with McLaughlin to learn more about their project, “French in Comparison: The Comparative Approach from Historical Linguistics and Language Pedagogy.”

February 27, 2020
Participants in the Berkeley "French in Comparison" workshop
Participants in the Berkeley "French in Comparison" workshop

Berkeley professor Mairi McLaughlin specializes in the history of the French language at the level of syntax. Her extensive travels to conferences with other linguists across the world led her to meet Benjamin Fagard and Laure Sarda, researchers at Lattice, the renowned CNRS linguistics laboratory based at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (PSL2) and Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris. Leveraging their complementary expertise, the trio created an informal network that would culminate in a cutting-edge France-Berkeley collaboration.

The collaborators organized a three-day workshop at UC Berkeley on how comparative linguistic analysis can be used to improve second language acquisition. The project mainly examined linguistic variation, both within French (across geographic locations, time periods, and spoken vs. written varieties) and between French and other Romance languages. Based on their findings, the team developed an interactive platform that allows advanced learners of French to work on error and variation in actual usage.

The first online tool focuses on a syntactic construction called dislocation: “when French speakers say ‘moi je pense’ (‘me, I think’) instead of ‘je pense’ (‘I think’),” McLaughlin explains. Piloted at UC Berkeley in Fall 2019, the beta tool uses a corpus of spoken and written French across different regions, text types, and historical periods to allow learners to observe varied uses of dislocation and learn from errors made by native speakers. The second tool, which has a broader application and is being developed for French and Spanish, is a gap-filling exercise. “For example, an instructor can copy and paste a text, and the tool will hide all prepositions. The student can insert a preposition and be able to compare it to the original,” explains McLaughlin. This allows instructors to save time when creating assignments, while tracking student performance to better cater the class to their needs. This tool will be beta-tested at Berkeley in Spring 2020. 

What made “French In Comparison” a success, McLaughlin emphasizes, was the diverse team, made up of engineers, linguists, and language instructors. They also put together a public workshop hosted by graduate students, and worked with different centers across campus. The FBF seed grant proved fruitful, allowing Sarda to secure additional funding to carry the project forward. McLaughlin expects it to continue for several years as the team finishes beta-testing and promotes the product. 

“Be open to possibilities,” McLaughlin encourages prospective France-Berkeley collaborators. “The FBF will push you to develop conversations and get interested in areas that otherwise would not be important to you.”