Science & Litterature

Yesterday, we had to correct a french “spelling” exercise open to computer students in various schools, including the one I teach at. The text wasn’t fiendishly difficult, but held some difficulties I would rate as “consequent”. And I’m pretty sure I would have made a few mistakes myself.

The event was interesting for two main reasons : to see if people get worse at languages (as we hear pretty often), especially in scientific environments, and to see if french in general, and writing in particular still had any appeal for our students.

When I sat with my fellow correctors, something immediately appeared : we were very intent. There were arguments about the “right” way to spell this or decline that, and a pretty heated debate at that. Half of us were students from a “litterate” school, and half were teachers. People from both sides were equally engrossed with their point of view, which made waiting for the things to correct a lot funnier than I thought. That was a small first step in indicating that people in general still love writing, and writing well. We threw grammar rules at each other, and argued about what was a major mistake over a more benign one. All in all, pretty cool. And people were arguing nicely, to boot. To make sure there was as little a bias as possible, everything had to be corrected twice, by two different people.

I think we roughly handled 20 texts per corrector. We were around 30, so that’s 300 copies (20 * 30 / 2). That’s not half bad, is it? Most of them stood between 10 and 20 mistakes, which can be a little on the high side, but understandable given the pressure and the twisted words. The best student scored 3 mistakes, and I personally had someone close to 40.

I heard afterwards that there was a debate going on while we were doing our stuff, on the need for scientific students to keep practicing literary exercises. I heard it was kind of mild, as opposed to our raging arguments upstairs.

I’ve had the chance to feel at home with my scientific studies, which gave me time enough to eat through books like an enraged moth, and to have friends who were not at all hardcore scientists. It allowed everyone of our little group to be able to understand, and even to get involved in, everyone else’s studies. I guess my students are not worse at grammar or spelling than any other student, but they might have less opportunities to cultivate these skills. And since most written correspondence has been replaced by emails and such, people too often rely on the embedded orthographic corrector to bother…

But I don’t think this so-called decay is solely for scientific students. I receive mails from time to time that come from a very wide spectrum of people, both in terms of education and current occupation. True, I wince pretty often when I read those, but the funny thing is that up until now, I was pretty sure that the same people writing ink-and-paper letters wouldn’t have done the same mistakes. I’m glad I participated in that event, it made me even more confident on the topic. Given time to think, people still love and use well the french language.

Maybe it’s time for us to remove every spelling corrector in our software and to slow word processors enough to make users think before they type something? ;)

[UPDATE] Pour mes amis francophones, le plus beau florilège d’erreurs concernait le mot “coi”. La phrase etait quelque chose comme suit:
ils resteront tous cois devant votre dextérité

Orthographes constatées : coi (faute d’accord, pas grave) ; quoi (quoi???) ; coït (c’est vrai que c’est agréable) ; koa (alias LaGrenouille)


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