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Reading Scientific French

by Edward M. Stack

JL RESSURE ia being felt increasingly in many colleges and universities

to provide abbreviated but highly eficient courses in French which will

enable scientific and technical students to gain a reading knowledge of journals and books in their specialized subjects. Most of these students
are impatient to get to their

practical reading, and feel that the social


and cultural material of the usual liberal arts course in French is extraneous

to their narrow purpose. I cannot sympathize with this view, but I feel that skillful teaching can temper it while also providing essentially the kind of course which will appeal to the pragmatism of the scientists. Given a semester's time (three hours a week) in which to teach a class

of scientific and technical students how to read the literature of their fields,

we can clearly accomplish this objective alone quite satisfactorily. Leaving aside all consideration of the desirability of so doing, of the necessity of omitting cultural and conversational material to a large extent and of the regrettable truncation of grammar which will be necessary in such a course
, ,

I would like to present some suggestions which I have tested and found

Assuming that the objective as outlined above has been agreed upon

materials must be selected and arranged-materials which adhere strictly to the purpose, for there is little time for digression in so short and speciallyaimed a course. Can we use a typical standard grammar? A regular review
grammar? No, not usually. Standard grammars are devised to teach (and

very properly so) colloquial patterns of speech, formal composition, and reading of highly diverse literature in the humanities. As a result these grammars contain many details which are essential to their objectives, but quite unnecessary to a reading knowledge of scientific or technical literature: e.g. the agreement of adjectives and past participles. Furthermore, in using a standard grammar the student develops a vocabulary

which is more social and domestic than scientific and technical. From this

ruthlessly pragmatic viewpoint which we have assumed it is a waste of valuable time to learn a vocabulary unrelated to the scientific and technical fields in which we propose to read. Why should these students learn the vocabulary of Jm plume de ma grand-mkre estjaune, when it would be easier




and more valuable to learn the equally elementary Uair atmosph&ique se

compose de plusieurs gaz at the outset?

The materials, then, must (1) adhere to the minimum essentials of grammar and syntax, (2) develop and use a vocabulary which is adapted
to scientific usage, (3) contain a graded presentation of readings and drills on this basic scientific vocabulary in context, and (4) provide reference
material for those students who have the intellectual curiosity to broaden

their knowledge.

The first main block of work is to present grammar painlessly. To do so, let us divide the work into two parts. One of these I shall call the Tumnadjeciive group system, and the other part is that inevitable rascal, the verb. Remembering that scientific and technical literature deals with things, and the manipulation of things which are tangible for the most part, it is clear that the designation of these objects is of prime importance. For this reason we deal first with the noun-adjective group) and anyway it is easier! Let us begin our studies with a lesson on nouns, including articles and the preposition de. The vocabulary includes many cognates and a few widely-used scientific terms such as la condition, un Element, un fait, une vapeur, une expirience (warning! False Friend!), des variations, etc. We learn that the last (des variations) may be translated three ways, depending some variations, or "of the variations." upon context: variations We then try them in different contexts to see which of the three meanings it has, for example, in "Nous avons observe des vana/ttms," and which in Je parle des variations" The value of context is thus made very clear in the very irst encounter with French. Likewise we have already become familiar with plurals (they end in -s or in the old equivalent, -x) and with
" " " " , "


After some drill on nouns, we add adjectives and prepositions; the nounadjective group is then assimilated into prepositional phrases: A Vocian pacifique, par un certain moyen, de la courte mithode, dtt poids alomique. The list of commonly used prepositions is distributed and should be memorized, for they will appear no matter what the subject-matter is. The normal position of adjectives is pointed out, and the main exceptions

(numbers, quantities, possessives, and normally preceding adjectives)

noted. Past Participles are slipped in under the guise of adjectives, thus
effecting a shortcut: des orbites allonges, de la probaf/iliU chercfUe, un 6chan~ tillon compost.

Next, adverbs of quantity and numbers are prefixed to the noun-adjective groups, and intensive drill fixes the vocabulary and structure: la plupaet des substances chimiques, quatre arrangements possibles, plusieuhs




polygones irrigvliers, and toutes les forces importantes, for example. Adverbs are then introduced to modify adjectives, beginning with the easy ones ending in -menl [ = ly]: quatre arrangements [tgalement] possibles, plusieurs

syslhmes [enli&remenl] diff&ents. Variations and expansions on the nounadjective group are continued until an adequate vocabulary and grasp of
structure has been gained. This is done very rapidly when the vocabulary
is scientific. Now it is time to attack the verb unit. We remember that scientific

journals deal with things in the third person mostly, and that while we find

nous as a subject occasionally, je, fut and tw/s are really rare in this type
of reading. This affords an avenue of simplification which we shall probably take. We learn to recognize the 3rd Person, present indicative forms of important irregular verbs (especially avoir, itre, atler, faire, mettre, prendre, tenir) and all regular verbs. Some important impersonal verbs become vocabulary items: il y a il s'agit de, il resle, il paratt, il faut, etc. Verbs in the present tense are then inserted between two familiar noun-adjective


(Le soleil) occupe (le centre) (du aystfeme solaire).

Later these combinations of noun-adjective groups and verb units become more complicated:
(Dans I'algfebre) ih s'aoit db (la resolution) (des questions) (relatives aux
quantities) (en genera!).

Finally we introduce such things as predicate adjectives and d-pkrases used

as attributes:

(L'observation) (d'un syatfeme) (A haute temp6rature) est difficile (d effectmr).

All of the examples given during the grammatical presentation of nounadjective groups and of verb units should be taken wholly from the reading texts to be used later. In this way the basic readings will proceed easily over familiar structures and vocabulary.

Verbs have been simplified by reducing them to the third person. Tenses are similarly simplified by pointing out to the students that there are only
three possible times: past, present, or future. The present tense has been studied, and the students can recognize verbs in this tense. When an unfamiliar form is encountered, the only problem is then to decide whether it

is future or past, and translate accordingly in a general and serviceable way.

A trick I have found successful is based on the 'eumination* of the

future. By this I mean that the unknown form should be tested first to

see whether it is in the future (or conditional) tense; if not

it is assumed to




be a past form and is so translated. Upon encountering an unknown formlet us say parlera-the student tests for the future by looking for the r before the ending. In parleRa the R is there, and therefore the tense is future (if the ending is -A) or conditional (if the ending is -AIT). If future, translate "WILL speak," or if conditional, translate "WOULD speak." If, as in the form parla, the test for the future fails because there is no R before the ending, the student knows that it is not a future or conditional verb; he knew it wasn't present when he looked at it therefore it must be a past tense: "he spoke." This rule applies to the auxiliary verbs too. Past Participles are still translated as they were in our previous adjective drill, so that no special
, , , ,

study of compound tenses is necessary: it auRa/ parU "he WILL have/

spoken". The R before the ending of aura tells the tense; this reminds us though, that the students should learn the future stems of important irregular verbs as a means of recognizing the sense. One caveat must be entered regarding the elimination of the Future: in
, ,

verbs with two R's in the infinitive, both r's must be in the verb to validate

the R-Before-the-ending-is-Future rule: prepaReR entReR, e.g. All unknown verbs are thus tested beginning with the Present (by recognition); then if this fails, look for the FutuR\ otherwise call it past. The results are admittedly rough but the subtleties of the imperfect and other past tenses can be developed after some practice with the quite serviceable three general times. The translation of infinitives after prepositions is introduced next: sans enlrer pour agir, aprts avoir ohservi. Verb negation is then developed and the alternate negative terms (jamais, rien personne, etc.) learned as vocabulary. Ne ... gue requires special study and is very important. I find that the best solution is this:

if the verb is preceded by ne, we expect to find pas (Jamais etc.) imme,

diately after the verb. If we do not look further along the sentence to find que or qu', which we translate as "only" and leave the verb positive:
, ,

constatS QU'une seule difference, We have established ONLY a single difference

jVous N'avons

se as

Reflexive verbs can be simplified in scientific reading as follows: translate is", and treat the inflected verb as a past participle:

La terre SE compose de . . . The earth IS composED of . . . Un rayon lumineux SE Ttfltehit ... A light ray IS refleetED . . .

If the tense of the inflected verb is future or past change the translation

of seto will be or "was":



Un rayon lumineux SE refitckiita ... A light, ray WILL BE refleetED . . .



Subordinate clauses are easily assimilated after a small vocabulary of relative pronouns is learned and with that we are ready to take the next


So far we have concentrated on reading small groups of words and then isolated sentences. We can now embark upon readings having continuity,
starting with short graded readings containing structure and vocabulary which the students have already learned. Readings can later be increased
in difficulty and in remoteness of subject-matter until the last three or four

when actual journal articles should be used. It is helpful during the first readings to allow the students to enclose noun-adjective groups in parentheses marking their books or mimeographed sheets. This serves to concentrate attention upon the objects being defined and discussed and it throws the verbs into relief. It further

weeks of class,

trains the students to read words in sense-making groups rather than as

isolated puzzles. Thus we take the fullest possible advantage of context
for translation.

The first readings should deal with a subject well-known to all members

of the class. Such a selection will enable them to get into the useful habit of deducing vocabulary from the context, rather than interrupting their

train of thought at every unknown word for a trip to the vocabulary. If

the subject is familiar, the probability of meanings being accurately deduced is greatly increased. Here is a sample graded reading used early
in a course for reading scientific French:1
LA LUMflERE La lumifere se propage en ligne droite avcc une vitesee de 300.000 kilomfetres par secoade. Un rayon lumineux qui tombe eur un miroir se r fl chit dans une direction unique. Grice & cette r&lection le miroir donne 1'image des objects places devant lui. Un rayon lumineux change de direction lorsqu'il passe d'un milieu dans un milieu different. On dit qu'il se rtfracte, C'est & cause de la refraction qu'un

baton plough dans I'eau paratt bris6.

This is a selection reproduced from an actual elementary science text used in French schools (reproduced by permission of the publishers).
Note that it deals with a matter of common knowledge (at least for stu-

dents in science); that it is composed of noun-adjective groups and other structures studied; that the vocabulary is repetitive thus aiding the learning

process. It allows for exploration of certain French conventions such as

the use of the point as a number separator instead of a decimal point; a good physics student will know the conversion factor to change the kilometers into feet and will probably pull out a slide rule to see if the figures

1 Edward M

Stack, Reading Scientific French (Austin: University Co-op, 1954).




here are correct. Thus interest is stimulated, and the adventure of ex-

ploring familiar ground in a new language begins to look like fun! Some students will even learn English in the process. ( Never heard of 'propagate'

or Milieu'!")

and to require that they (1) present every idea contained in the original, (2) omit nothing and add nothing (.3) change no verb tenses (except with depuis), and (4) sound as if they were written originally in English, containing no stilted or peculiar phrasing. Have each student copy a sentence of his translation onto the blackboard, and give a careful critique based upon the above principles. They will then know exactly what is required, and can better avoid awk,

It will be well to insist on written translations,



literal" translations.

In my own material there are selections in the "graded" section ranging

over a wide variety of subjects such as VAir, Les Mathfynatigms, # Cakul

des probabiliUs (chances of winning at poker?), Le Syst&me solaire, La Navigation sous-marine, etc. All are adapted from actual French texts or scholarly articles. After the class has translated a number of these, they may proceed to selections directly taken from books and journals without benefit of "grading" or adaptation. This being the actual goal of these specialized students, all that remains to be done is to give them practice and criticism. In my own material I have included selections in Biology, Physics, Botany, Genetics, Medicine, Geology, Zoology, Chemistry, Oceanography,

and others, which we all read and translate together regardless of the
individual interests. Our objective is to gain familiarity with different styles of writing, and to bolster our general vocabulary. The physics students will delight in showing off their technical knowledge to the rest of the class when we are reading Le Paramagnttisme micUaire, and the geolo-

gist will have hie turn with Le Granit. Interest is sustained by variety, and
everybody learns something. During the last three or four weeks of the semester the students may be given the job of finding out which French journals and books there are in the library pertaining to their specific fields. Each student may then be assigned portions of one of these works for independent reading-a few paragraphs of translation and an English r<&um6 of several pages. The translations can be checked individually in ten minutes or so by having the student read his translation while the professor follows the French text.
The class may continue to read selections in common, or revert to individual
consultations at this time.

The simplifications outlined are possible and successful because of the

peculiar nature of the scientific and technical literature to be read. Its




vocabulary contains many cognates and it is practically limited to thirdperson verbs in simple time-relationships. The subject-matter is free of flights of fancy, unpredictable situations, irrelevant or purely decorative

material-all so common to fictional literature. These factors all combine

to make possible the kind of course desired by the students, and at the same time it is clear that the professor will be confronted with a challenge and an opportunity. Brief digressions may be used to sow the seeds of cultural and philosophical appreciation in the minds of these students.
As scientific and technical majors are often hungry for ideas outside their

field of specialization a purely practical reading course in French can be a broadening experience. The fascination of observing the mind of genius

dynamically at work can be experienced by a student reading one of

Pascal's Pensees for the first time; the amazement at seeing science-fiction come to life in Jules Verne (tied in with the reading of the selection on La Navigation sous-marine in the material I have assembled, for example);

the transition from science to philosophy in Voltaire's Micromtgas, indicating the inseparable link between the two, etc. If such digressions are cleverly presented, the professor will have opened up new and unsuspected vistas to highly gifted student-s whose education is often mistakenly left
narrow and onesided.
University of Texas