Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dictee de la Baie

Does anyone else besides me remember the names of every French teacher they ever had? I recall each one: Madame Rhodes, Mademoiselle de Mauduit, Madame Lambert -- too many to list -- all the way through college.

And believe me, their names and voices and red-pen marks came rushing back to memory today as I climbed into the seat to compete in this year's Dictée de la Baie, more or less the French/francophone version of a spelling bee. There were 150 contestants from the Bay Area, ranging in age from 6 to over 60.

In the category Adult Francophiles, there were about 20-25 of us gathered in the schoolroom, fidgeting, joking nervously, jovially eyeing the competition. Lining up our papers and pencils.

Muriel, the dictant, began:

"Les vieilles femmes qui avaient eu la lourde responsabilité d’habiller la jeune fille pour son repos éternel avaient scrupuleusement respecté les coutumes mortuaires. Une icône de la vierge était placé sur sa poitrine, bien calée entre ses bras en croix. Au-dessus de sa tête, un petit miroir devait chasser les démons tentés de s’approcher du cadavre..."

...and on to the the end of a long passage. Then, sentence by sentence, she repeated the passage*, and we scribbled ferociously. One more time all the way through. But I could hardly bear to look at what I'd written: I knew I'd start second-guessing myself and thus had to rely mostly on first impulse. A quick review for egregious errors and I flipped it over. Done. Palms a little sweaty and the pencil worn down.

Then we swapped our dictées with our neighbors, corrected the dictée per the passage projected on the large screen at the front of the class. I thought I had done pretty well, but couldn't remember if I'd flubbed a few accents. Muriel gathered the corrected the dictées and announced the results.

First place, with 1 mistake: Polly.

I was both thrilled and supremely embarrassed. Can't explain it: I didn't anticipate that reaction because I didn't anticipate winning.

At the awards ceremony, I got a book, a certificate, and congratulatory cheek bisous from Corinne Pereira, the French Deputy Consul General.

But the biggest prize was rising to a personal challenge.

So, mes amis, on days when I think my foggy boomer-brain has turned to mush, I can at least pat myself on the back reassuringly and say, "Ah, but Polly, you sure do great accents aigus."

* passage by Romanian author Liliana Lazar, I found out afterwards.


Sent from My Slingshot said...

Go, Polly! Congratulations.

Betsy & Wick

Cathi said...

Bien joué, Polly!

Narrative Threads said...

Formidable! I am impressed. I had a few dictées in my college years and found them intimidating - but very valuable for finding errors.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Aw shucks, Merci y'all.

Now here's the rub: I noticed that on the web version of the text (which I found and cut and pasted for the blogpost) it says "Une icône de la vierge était placé..." whereas I wrote "placée," on my dictee, which I hope is correct. Otherwise I could be a false winner. Ugh.

Diary of Why said...

Wow, that sounds like so much fun! Right up my alley, for sure. If only they had something like that in my neck of the woods! (Is it obvious that I never got to be in a spelling bee as a kid?)

Félicitations, Polly!

Anonymous said...


KathyMac said...


I'm taking a French class currently, and I always make mistakes in my accords. :)

As for remembering French teacher names, Madame Paarlberg was my high school French teacher. I only recall one of my University French teachers, Madame Gros (although I think she was technically a Mademoiselle).

Priscilla M said...

L'inoubliabe Marie Baratte was my first French teacher. And for some oubliable (evidament) reason, the Consul General de France a Boston gave me a book too, many moons ago. I have the book - letters van Gough exchanged with his brother - but have no idea why I merited it.

Keep posting.

Carrie said...

HUZZAH, POLLY!!!! So funny, I love your reaction "thrilled and supremely embarrassed".

Congratulations, how did you celebrate?

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! I haven't done dictées in so long, I think I would have made more than one mistake!

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Carrie: Thanks - to celebrate, I came home and collapsed...

Merci encore to my middle school and high school teachers, Mme Rhodes, Mlle de Mauduit, Mme Lambert, M LaRoche, Mlle Charton, Mlle Vuong, Mme Howard, M Archibald, who were so demanding but who expected nothing but the best. And college professors who honed my written French! Eons ago..

AATF (the American Association of Teachers of French) deserves all the praise and all the support we can give it.

Stay tuned -- I think there is a Bernard Pivot-type audio dictee on line that anyone can do to keep their skills in shape. Will report back!

Autolycus said...

Well done! How I used to dread dictée - and so did my mother when she took up French evening classes late in life, and found herself puzzling over what sort of "Swiss ideas" anyone could have (Calvinism? A chocolate recipe?), only to find it should have been "s'est suicidé".

Amy said...

That's wonderful! I've enjoyed your blog for a while but decided to comment now to congratulate you!

I took German, not French, but I do remember those teachers and their catch-phrases. My favorite was Frau Banwart in high school. Now that I'm all grown up, she still supports my harp career and my adventures in French!

Sandra said...

"Une icône de la Vierge était placée" it should be indeed because "icône" is feminine.
Congratulations! As a French former teacher I know how tricky French spelling is... and how dreadful it is to have a pile of dictées to grade ;-)
I like your blog and always find interesting to get an American perspective on my home country. Keep up the good work.

Jainomo said...

Congrats on the victory! I'm currently studying le francais, et c'est tres facile faire des erreurs.
In fact, I'm pretty sure there was probably an error in that statement ;).

Maria O. Russell said...

Bravissima, Polly!

Margaret said...

Félicitations ! That sounds like fun! Sandra beat me to it, but I was going to say that I'm pretty sure you're right about that e. Good for you!

I'm brushing up on my rusty French these days too, and I'm amazed by my own progress, I will say proudly, without blushing...;-) Apparently those brain cells still do work a bit after all - who knew?

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