TCD (Trinity College, Dublin) Corpus

Seán Devitt
School of Education
Trinity College, Dublin


Participants: 5
Type of Study: classroom
Location: France
Media type: audio
DOI: doi:10.21415/T5CC89

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Project Description

This project, designed and implemented by Seán Devitt, School of Education, Trinity College, Dublin, set out to track the development of the means of expressing temporality by children learning French as a second language in France. The subjects were five children, aged between eight and twelve, of three different nationalities Irish, Polish and Cambodian who were in primary school in Paris in the early part of 1982. The data presented here were gathered over a five-month period from March 31 to September 6 1982, during a sabbatical term and a summer holiday.

The five-month stay of the researcher and his family in France was funded by two grants, one from the National Board for Science and Technology (now Entreprise Ireland) and one from the Ministére des Affaires Étrangéres of the French Government, organized by the Service Culturel de l'Ambassade de France in Dublin. The French Government, through the Ministére de l'Education Nationale, provided further support by arranging for the researcher’s three children to attend school in Paris. The school picked by the Ministére for Marie and Ann was Ecole rue de la Plaine in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. [Their older brother, Séamus, was admitted to the nearby Lycée Héléne Boucher.] The Ministére also helped in locating the other three subjects in nearby schools.

The subjects

The two Irish subjects, Marie and Ann, were aged 11 and 8. They were the researcher's daughters, and had been to France twice prior to 1982 for holidays. On one of these occasions (July-August 1980) they had spent three of the five weeks of their holiday in a Centre Aéré, a type of holiday camp, which is described below. Neither had studied French at school and their exposure to French had been minimal apart from on these visits to France. Their stay in France was planned to be of five months duration. After that they were to return to Ireland.

On March 31 the family (parents and three children) arrived in Paris to find that the apartment they had booked was quite unsatisfactory. Ten days were spent in looking for proper accommodation. A small apartment was eventually located but did not become available until April 23. The intervening two weeks were spent with English-speaking friends in Hermonville, a village some 9 kilometers from Reims. Marie and Ann were allowed to attend the village school for one of these weeks; the other week coincided with the Easter holidays.

The language spoken at home was normally English. Contact with French was, therefore, confined mainly to the school in the first three months. However, further opportunities for contact were provided by television in the evenings and at weekends, by visits to friends, and by visits of friends to the apartment. There was one longer visit of three days (without their parents) to friends in Reims.

The third subject, PPM, was a twelve-year old Polish boy, an only child. His father had come to France in 1978 to find work as a plumber; PPM and his mother had remained in Poland. In October 1981 they came to Paris to visit the father for a few weeks. While they were there, martial law was declared in Poland and they were unable to return immediately. By September 1982 (the end of the research period) PPM seemed to have accepted that he would be staying in France; his mother had not. In Poland PPM would have been in the first year of secondary school.

PPM had absolutely no knowledge of French before coming to France. Neither had his mother. Since she presumed that she was to return to Poland at the first possible opportunity, she did not set about learning it. The family lived in an apartment in an inner suburb of Paris. The language spoken at home was invariably Polish. At the time of the recordings PPM had not made friends with French children. At weekends he would go to the Bois de Vincennes with his father to play ball. He had one Polish friend who had been in France since he was seven and spoke French fluently. Otherwise he had little contact outside of school with native French speakers. In school his contact with native French children also seemed limited.

The fourth and fifth subjects, PCF and CCM, were two Cambodian children, sister and brother. PCF was nine-years old, the youngest of ten children. Her brother, CCM was twelve. Some time in 1980 both had fled Cambodia with their parents and three other siblings. Before that they had attended school but under very difficult conditions, often having to spend a large part of the day working in the fields. The family spent some months in refugee camps in Thailand before arriving in France in January 1981. They stayed a few months with an older brother who had come to Paris some years previously and had married a French woman. The family then moved to their own apartment.

Neither child had had any contact with French before coming to France. While they were staying with their brother, he and his wife were an important source of support for learning French. At home the language spoken was generally Cambodian, with some Chinese. When their sister-in-law visited the home, or when they visited her home, she spoke French with them.

Schooling for the five subjects

From April 23, three weeks after their arrival, until the end of June Marie and Ann attended the local primary school in their area. Marie was in CM2, Ann in CE2. They received no special treatment in the form of a special class for foreigners, but were fully integrated into their classes from the first day. This was specifically requested when applying for permission for them to attend school in France.

In January 1982, three months after his arrival in France, PPM began to attend the local primary school, L'Ecole X in V. The school had a special language programme for foreigners like PPM, involving several hours of French tuition per day. As the children were felt to be able for it, they were permitted to attend lessons in other subjects, usually in a class of children a little younger than themselves. PPM was taking this programme at the time of the first recording in late May. He had just begun to attend Mathematics lessons in a mainstream class (CM1 for 10 year olds). He had been in France for seven or eight months at the time of the first recording.

In April 1981, three months after their arrival in France, PCF and CCM went to a school in Z, an inner suburb of Paris, where they followed a special programme in French for foreign children. In February 1982 they changed to Ecole B near their apartment. Here they were fully integrated into the school, PCF in CM1, CCM in CM2. Both had close French friends According to their teachers both children were very bright and were performing very well in class. They had been in France for a year and a half at the time of the first recording.

In France the school day lasts from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm, with a two-hour break for lunch and two other shorter breaks. Children are free to go home for lunch or to have it in the cantine. Marie, Ann, and the Polish boy stayed in school for lunch. The two Cambodian children went home. There was also the option of remaining in school from 4.30 to 6.00 for supervised study, preceded by a short break. Marie and Ann remained for the supervised study until 6.00.

In the second half of the five-month period, when schools were closed, the two Irish children were allowed to attend a Centre Aéré by the Mairie de Paris. [A Centre Aéré is a type of holiday camp that French municipal authorities organize during the summer months for children up to the age of 16. These centres are usually located in nearby forests and children are transported there and back by bus from various collection points. They are very carefully organized and supervised, providing a wide range of physical activities (football, horse-riding, swimming etc), activities to develop manual skills, (macramé, model making etc), nature walks etc. Children are assigned each day (in groups of about seven) to specially trained moniteurs/monitrices.] From the beginning of July to the end of August (with a break of ten days in the beginning of August) Marie and Ann went daily to a Centre Aéré. They had to be at the meeting point by 8.30 am each morning. Shortly afterwards they were taken by bus to the Centre Aéré. They returned late in the afternoon and were met by their parents between 6.00 and 6.15. They did not go to the Centre Aéré for the first ten days of August, because they were unhappy that their friends were not staying on for August and that they would have a different set of moniteurs.

PPM spent July in Paris, with only minimal contact with French speakers. He spent August with his parents on the Mediterranean. For CCM and PCF, the two months of the holidays were spent in Paris or with relatives in the suburbs. During the holidays their French friends were away and they had little or no contact with French speakers, except with their sister-in-law.

Frequency and timing of recordings

Because of the extended settling-in time while accommodation was being sought, it was over three weeks after arrival before the first recordings could be made with Marie and Ann. At first every possible opportunity was taken to record them in contact with native speakers. Once the rhythm of school-life was established certain constraints were imposed and recordings in the school could be made only at intervals of about a week. Recordings at home continued to be made as often as the opportunity presented itself. Once the holidays began (beginning of July) all recordings had to be made in the evenings at home, since Marie and Ann objected strenuously to the idea of recordings being made at the Centre Aéré.

In the cases of PPM, CCM and PCF recordings began in late May, since it was some time after the researcher's arrival before they were located as suitable subjects. The recordings were made in specially designated rooms in the schools on a set day every week, unless that day happened to be a holiday, when the recording for that week had to be dropped. Once the holidays began recordings took place in the homes of the subjects, but at longer intervals so as not to intrude too much on family life.

A number of Marie and Ann's recording sessions were totally unstructured. For example, they simply wore the radio-microphone in the canteen or in the playground. Others were carefully structured, with the children having a particular task to perform, such as filling out a family tree for someone else in a group, or preparing with friends for a class outing to a big store.

This wide range of settings for recordings (both those the children were aware of and those they were unaware of) might be expected to have provided a rich supply of linguistic output. It did not. Marie and Ann interacted very naturally in many of these settings with very little or no language. For example, Ann and her friend were filmed playing with dolls for over two hours during which very little was said. A game of elastique involving three or four children produced almost no language at all. On other occasions the structured interactions produced many instances of the same basic structures. For example, in the session filling out the family tree the question “Comment s'appelle...” kept recurring. In the preparation for the class outing to the big store, Marie was not inclined to intervene as the other children became totally taken up in the activity. These early recordings yielded very sparse data and have generally been disregarded.

For this reason it was decided to fall back on interview-type settings for most of the remaining recordings, since these seemed to produce much more data. In the case of PPM, CCM and PCF, this was the solution adopted from the beginning because of the limited access (about one hour per week). While school lasted native-speaker peers were used for the interviews that took place in specially designated rooms in the schools. The native speakers were given general indications to follow, such as to share information about how the previous weekend had been spent, or to find out how the subjects had come to France, or to have them compare their native countries with France.

These interviews with native speaker peers were more or less successful depending on the person involved. In some cases the native speakers (especially those of about nine years of age) simply "ran out of steam" and had nothing further to say. Alternatively they jumped from one topic to another. In general, however, the interview-type setting, in spite of its limitations, provided the subjects with the opportunity of using French in a wide variety of discourse types. On certain occasions, and especially during holiday time when native speaker peers were not available and recordings had to be made in the home, the researches conducted the interviews.

There are twelve recordings each of Marie and Ann on their own, and a further four where they were recorded together. Overall frequency was once every ten to twelve days. There are eight recordings of PPM, the first five at weekly intervals, and the remaining three at three to four week intervals. There are eight recordings of PCF, and two of CCM on their own, and a further two where they were recorded together. Frequency was similar to that of PPM. The date of each recording is coded through the three digits at the end of the file name. Thus, 615 means the 15th of June.


The research was facilitated in every possible way by the principals and teachers in the three schools concerned. Rooms were made available for recording, arrangements were made for the subjects to leave their classes, and French children were recruited to take part in the interviews. On occasion the teachers in rue de la Plaine allowed cameras and video-recorders into their classrooms for whole class recordings. I would like to thank the headmaster of Ecole de la Plaine, M. Watier, and to the teachers of Marie in CM2, M. Rubelli and Mme Dutot, and of Ann in CE2, Mlle. Schmidt, for the way they welcomed and looked after our children. To my wife Ann I owe an enormous debt of gratitude for her support and encouragement for the project right from the beginning. Without her constant encouragement it would never have reached this stage.

Above all, I must thank the children who took part in the project: the native children who so readily agreed to act as interviewers, but especially the five subjects who were prepared to participate so readily and so fully over the whole period of the project. Without them there would have been nothing. It is to them, Marie, Ann, PPM, CCM and PCF, that this body of data is dedicated in a very special way.