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Simon Coffey - “within the consciousness of living men”: Charting conceptions of French learning in England since 1945 and how disciplinary epistemologies have shaped its historiography


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Simon Coffey - “within the consciousness of living men”: Charting conceptions of French learning in England since 1945 and how disciplinary epistemologies have shaped its historiography

In this paper I first present a brief overview of the development of French as a discipline of study in England since the post-war period, in particular how French has been conceived for and by different groups of students. Then, in the second part of the paper, I consider how the historiography of French language and teaching has reflected different epistemological concerns.

 

During the initial post-war period, the study of modern languages remained highly differentiated across school types. While some introductory languages courses were offered for the majority attending mainstream secondary moderns, most national exams were sat by the minority of selected pupils attending grammar schools, reinforcing the conception of French as an integral element of a liberal education for the elite. The massification of schooling from the 1960s challenged this status quo and led to the “languages for all” mantra culminating in a compulsory national curriculum for languages in 1992. The uniformity of content, however, has not resolved the tensions between highly differentiated motivations stemming from sociocultural perceptions of the value of learning languages.

 

As a university discipline the need for validation against the deeply-rooted preference for classical languages led John Orr, in his 1933 inaugural lecture, to describe French as “the third classic”. This privileging of the textual canon, whether as literature or philology, was challenged in the post-war period, and invited to respond to a protest against compulsory philology, Denis Saurat, Director of the Institut Français in London and Professor of French at King’s, argued for a focus on current cultural developments, stating that “the basis of our university studies of French should be the concrete facts of France’s culture as they exist within the consciousness of living men” (p. 65).

 

It was in particular, the turn to ‘communication’ and the influence of new disciplines such as ‘applied linguistics’ that allowed a reorientation of language study as an inherently practical discipline that could investigate problems through a newly formulated toolkit of methodological procedures. Such methods yield ‘data’, whereas more established humanities disciplines such as literary analysis and textual historiography deal with ‘artefacts’. These differences are not simply procedural but affect the context of research, its temporality, material and discursive circulation, and the synergies that result in new knowledge production.

 

While remaining a niche field, the historiography of French language and teaching itself has been shaped by particular disciplinary perspectives. Although an inherently interdisciplinary field of enquiry, it is telling, for instance, that the history of French teaching has been researched within university language and/or history departments rather than in education faculties. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to examine the development of French learning in England since 1945, and how the history of French teaching has itself been researched. The epistemological and methodological frames cited, which include selection of sources and scales of periodisation, are inextricably linked to disciplinary constructions of French, such as the socio/linguistics of French, French as a school curriculum subject, ‘French studies’ as humanities discipline in university departments.

 

  • Coffey, Simon (2020, in press) Périodisation et bornes disciplinaires dans l’historiographie de l’enseignement du français en Angleterre. Langue Française.
  • Forsdick, Charles (2011) Why French Studies matters: Disciplinary identity and public understanding. In French Studies in and for the 21st Century. Edited by Philippe Lane and Michael Worton (pp 37-57). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
  • Wygant, Amy (2009) Modern studies: Historiography and directions. French Studies Bulletin 30/ 113: 75-78.
 

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