FREN 291
Making Sense of Language
Le Sens du Langage


MW 2:00-3:15
ICC 208B

Office hours: ICC 427 or REYNOLDS 145
by appointmen
t only

A significant amount of information pertaining to this course is sent via e-mail.
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It may be modified over the course of the semester. Always refer to the latest on-line version.

> Last updated on January 10, 2018<


     The way we use language is crucial to our existence: to our education, our relationships and our careers. As human beings, we are all "born linguists" in that we internalize very early the most fundamental rules of language use. Even without formal study, we know that a word can have more than one meaning; that context plays a great role in the way we interpret linguistic messages; that nonverbal communication is sometimes as important as spoken or written words.
     Yet, remaining at this "naive" stage prevents us from becoming fully aware of all the possibilities and problems that our language abilities involve. On the other hand, the formal study of linguistics does not always clarify how an understanding of morphology, syntax, semantics or pragmatics applies to our everyday experience as speakers
but also as receivers, consumers, readers, and interpreters—of language.
     The purpose of this course is to help you bridge this gap and comprehend what language is, what specific phenomena are involved in using it, why we should want to study these phenomena, and what such a precise understanding brings to everyday life as well as to academic work.
     In other words, we will explore the human linguistic condition, our dependence on language in our interaction with others, and in constructing the "world of common sense" in which we live. However, we must also consider that language does not exist in a vacuum and that, in fact, humans almost never express or convey meaning through language alone. For this reason, our work will take into account the various other signifying systems (codes) at work in common language use: gestures, space, images, music, etc.


  • provide an overview of what language exactly is, and how it functions, through careful inquiry into a selected corpus: "conversation" (i.e., synchronous, face-to-face, oral linguistic interaction) as an instance of communication; print advertising as an instance where various visual systems produce meaning, in addition to what is expressed linguistically, to form a complex text; contemporary popular songs and comics as instances of narrative, which help us further understand the process of reading in its linear and non-linear dimensions.
  • conduct an exploration of the fundamental concepts, domains  and methods of inquiry relevant to the study of language. Incidentally, we will work on building an accurate technical vocabulary, especially in the case of terms whose common usage sharply and sometimes critically differs from their scientific meaning (such as "accent," "dialect," "message," "grammar," "correctness," etc.)
  • debunk widespread misconceptions and myths about language which affect the way we communicate and perceive others as well as ourselves;
  • develop a rigorous scientific methodology for approaching language-related phenomena through various documents (textual, visual, auditory).

     At all times, our approach will be pragmatic: we will consider language in its manifested (rather than abstract) dimension, and for the most part regard meaning as dependent on the context of utterance, and therefore often involving signifying systems other than language (images, gestures, music, clothes, etc.).

     Therefore, we will work simultaneously with both theoretical literature and authentic documents to ascertain how knowledge in various domains—morphology, syntax, phonology, semantics, pragmatics, grammar, semiotics—contributes to a better understanding of our linguistic condition.

     In addition, by "interrogating" language samples yourself, you will develop a sense of methodology: learn how to define pertinent issues and problems, formulate relevant questions and devise cogent hypotheses in order to make sense of any data. This heuristic process is part of the content of the course just as much as factual knowledge-building.


  At the end of this course, students will

  • have been exposed to all basic concepts related to the language sciences;
  • have gained a general understanding of the various language sciences, how they differ from one another and what they study;
  • have developed a finer understanding how what language is, and how it functions, especially within human communication;
  • have acquired a strong methodological toolkit for analyzing a variety of documents in which language is one of the means of expression;
  • have improved their command of both spoken and written French.


1. An
oral presentation (approx. 15-20 minutes) of your analysis of a communicative sequence from Plus belle la vie, with a detailed outline submitted in writing as supporting document. This work has to be done in a group, although a single grade will be given. See instructions here (15%).

2. Two short papers (1500-2000 words each):
    a) a communicative self-portrait (20%) Read the instructions here. You will turn in first a detailed outline, then a first draft (which will be critiqued and turned back for corrections and revisions);
    b) an analysis of a print advertisement (15%) You may be asked to partially or completely rewrite this paper.
   See paper rules below.

3. Two Tests (analyses similar to those carried out in the course) (15% each).

5. Presence, preparedness and participation (20%).
This grade will reflect your presence in class, your apparent preparedness and your actual participation (spontaneous or induced) This may include brief quizzes on material that has been presented and/or discussed in class in a previous session.


Having completed at least the "Advanced" sequence of Georgetown's French curriculum (FREN 101-102 or 111-112), and preferably, the Gateway (FREN 250 and/or 251) or, alternatively, having placed above the "Advanced" sequence on our placement test.

  In-class work involves mostly close reading and discussion of materials, for which you need to prepare carefully. "Preparing" involves several stages:

  • reading/viewing the assigned materials, making notes on the difficulties (in language or content matter) you encounter;
  • looking up some words and expressions in a monolingual dictionary (Robert, Larousse), so as to clarify the general meaning of the materials (always read/view over the materials afterwards);
  • looking up notions, names, events and other content items (on-line, in an encyclopedia or other reliable source);
  • write out questions to be brought up in class in order to elucidate whatever you cannot satisfactorily figure out on your own;
  • prepare some notes reflecting the results of your research in a rationally organized fashion: a summary, an outline, a cognitive map (model, diagram)...
  • each 75-minute class session should be matched by about 45 minutes of preparation before class, and another 45 minutes of follow-up work afterwards. Every evening, review what was done in class that day to verify that you understand it; if necessary, use books and on-line resources for clarification. Bring up unresolved items in class, or discuss them with your instructor during office hours.

     This work must be carried out entirely in French. Translation to/from English or another language should never be a part of it at any stage. The instructor will provide specific strategies on how to function in French without recourse to translation.

     Every student is expected to be present for every class. If an absence is anticipated for any reason, the instructor must be notified beforehand by e-mail or by phone (ext. 5852). In any case, students are responsible for finding out what was done or assigned while they were absent, and for turning in assignments on time.
     Every student is also expected to be prepared for every class,
that is, having something definite to say about the assigned materials (based on research and/or reflection), and/or questions to ask the intructor, and/or
issues to raise in class for discussion. Students are mostly responsible for conducting the readings and analyses.
     Finally, every student is expected to participate in every class, that is, speak up in response to prompts by the instructor or to other students' comments, and volunteer comments without being prompted
(see also the "Total Commitment Policy"). Manifest lack of adequate preparation will result in a reduction of the portion of the final grade allotted to "Presence, Preparedness and Participation."

Teaching methodology

  This course involves three different class formats:
• Lectures by the teacher on the themes listed below.
Taking notes efficiently is part of your work in this class, as your instructor will provide original insights not available from the text or any other source. If you are unsure about note-taking strategies, consult with the Writing Center. (
• Collective analysis and discussion of documents (texts, images, film excerpts) assigned as homework or presented in class;
• Student Oral Class Presentations (Exposés).

   In class, some of the work will be conducted in small groups; you will also have to prepare short individual analyses at home, from which you may have to deliver brief in-class presentations. These will not be graded as such, but your involvement will influence your participation grade.
    In order to study language phenomena in the most concrete way possible, we will spend much of our time working with documents where the various theories and models discussed in the reading selections are examplified. When examining documents, we will follow a methodical approach which is an important learning objective of the course. This involves three main stages to be completed in sequence: description of the corpus (what is it?), analysis of the linguistic and semiotic phenomena involved in producing and conveying a message (how does it work?), and tentative interpretation of the message (what does it mean?). In so doing , you will acquire a solid methodology for considering all available evidence, asking relevant questions, formulating a problem, devising hypotheses and proposing solutions and possible interpretations.

Attendance and Punctuality

   Every student is expected to be present for every class and arrive on time (repeated tardiness will be penalized). If an absence is anticipated, the instructor must be notified beforehand by e-mail or by phone (ext. 5852).
  An absence may be "excused" if it was caused by an unforeseen event or accident that made it impossible or extremely difficult for a student to attend class, and which can be documented. If you feel sick enough to miss class, then you should also seek medical attention and obtain a certificate from the health care provider who treated you. If you suffer from a chronic mental or physical condition that occasionally flares up to the point of incapacitating you, you need to be registered with the University health services in order to be granted accommodations.
   A student who was absent (justifiably or not) remains responsible for finding out what was done or assigned during the missed class(es), and for turning in assignments on time. Unjustified absences will result in a reduction of the portion of the final grade allotted to "Presence, Preparedness and Participation."

   A deadline indicates the absolute last day and time when assignments should be turned in. The cut-off time is the end of class on the day of the deadline, whether you bring in a hard copy of your paper or e-mail it. It is not advisable to start working on an assignment on the day it is due. Give yourself enough time to allow for unforeseen delays or problems (printer running out of ink, e-mail bugs, network access down, etc), which cannot be used as excuses for not meeting a deadline. Acceptable excuses are acts of God, system-wide server outages and documented medical emergencies.

Honor System
  All aspects of this class fall under Georgetown University's honor system. If you are not thoroughly familiar with its provisions, please review them at A point of particular concern is using source material appropriately and avoding plagiarism : "Plagiarism, in any of its forms, and whether intentional or unintentional, violates standards of academic integrity. Plagiarism is the act of passing off as one’s own the ideas or writings of another (…). While different academic disciplines have different modes for attributing credit, all recognize and value the contributions of individuals to the general corpus of knowledge and expertise. Students are responsible for educating themselves as to the proper mode of attributing credit in any course or field. (…)" Note that plagiarism can be said to have occurred without any affirmative showing that a student’s use of another’s work was intentional.

   For greater authenticity, we will only use materials originally produced for a French speaking public: Only purely administrative matters (such as this syllabus) will be handled in English. In all other circumstances, including discussion and critique of your work in class or during office hours, French will be used exclusively orally and in writing, by you and by the instructor. You will never be asked (with rare, very precise exceptions) to translate anything, nor are you expected to use translation ever as a means to accomplish your work in this class. NO BILINGUAL DICTIONARIES ARE ALLOWED IN CLASS. Use of a monolingual dictionary is strongly encouraged, however.

Attitude and Behavior
  This is a class held in a university classroom. It is not a meeting of a book club at a local library branch; it is not a game in a stadium or a workout at the gym; it is not a get together at someone's home or a pajama party in your dorm room; it is not a luau at the beach. Please dress and behave accordingly!
- No eating or snacking during class (drinking is OK).
- Cell phones, smartphones and other mobile communication devices must be turned off and stored away in a pocket or a bag (except for emergency situations, with prior notification to the instructor).
- No wearing of gym shorts, flip flops, exercise/sport gear, pajamas, lounge wear, grass skirts, etc.
- No chit-chat unrelated to class matters… unles perhaps it is in French!
- Use of computers is class is strictly limited to working on relevant tasks. Anyone caught using a computer in class for anything else (checking e-mail, Facebook status, stock prices, playing games) will be issued a warning the first time, and, the second time, banned from using a computer in class altogether for the rest of the term.


Writing / Paper Rules
     Specific objectives, principles and guidelines for each writing format will be discussed in class and in e-mail messages. Your papers will be marked up, and possibly given a provisional grade and handed back for rewriting. The rewritten paper will receive a higher grade only if significantly improved, and with a maximum of one letter-grade increase from the provisional grade (e.g., from B- to A-, or from C+ to B+). Any further rewrites will be graded according to the same principle. Note: an "F" on a first draft cannot yield a final grade higher than a "C". A coding system will help you identify and correct problems in your writing.

  • All writing assignments completed outside of class must be composed with a word-processing software and you should always keep a back-up copy. They must be submitted electronically as e-mail attachments to in <.doc>, <.docx> or <.rtf> format—when you save your document, make sure that the software (especially MS Word) does not automatically save it as anything else than a text document. Note that MS Word may save a Windows Media document with a <.doc> extension. Name the file beginning with "FR291", then your last name and a paper code as follows:
    -- Expo for the outline of your presentation (e.g. <FR291SmithExpo.doc>)
    -- AP0, AP1, AP2 for the three versions of the self-portrait (e.g. <FR291SmithAP1.doc>)
    -- Pub1, Pub2 for the analysis of the print ad, versions 1 and 2
    See the instructor if you are unsure about text formats, sending attachments, or if there is a reason why you wish to submit your work in printed rather than electronic format.
  • Every paper should bear the number of the course (FREN 291), the name of the author, the date and a draft number (1, 2, 3)
  • Revisions may result in a one-increment grade increase, e.g. from B- to A- if revisions are fully satisfactory. Note: an "F" on a first draft cannot yield a final grade higher than a "C."
  • Use plain fonts like Times Roman or Geneva, in size 12. Double-space your text, leaving 1-inch margins on all sides.
  • All standard French diacritical marks must be used: accents (é, è, ê, ë, ù, à, û, ï) cedillas on ç and Ç, guillemets (« ...»), superscripts (XVIe siècle).
  • Division into paragraphs must be consistent with the content, and the first line of each paragraph must be tabulated on the left.

   There is no textbook to purchase for this class. In addition to proprietary on-line course materials developed by Dr. Spielmann, excerpts from two books have been placed on BlackBoard.

    Note: Unless specifically indicated by the professor, there are no assigned readings for any particular class. However, the readings outlined below must be completed as quickly as possible to provide the necessary background to class activities, which mostly consist of document analysis and discussion. These readings are also helpful in completing homework assignments.

Jacques Lerot, Précis de linguistique générale. Paris, Minuit, 1993. This is a reference book that provides definitions and detailed explanations related to all aspects of the language sciences. Use the index to locate passages relevant to specific notions and issues discussed in class.

Marina Yaguello, Catalogue des idées reçues sur la langue. Paris, Seuil, coll. «Point Virgule», 1988. Organized in short, very readable chapters, this book exposes some of the most commonly-held misconceptions about language. «Entre la nature et la culture», p. 19-22; «Le Don des langues», p. 29-32; «Le Multiple dans l'unique», p. 33-38; «Avé l'assen», p. 39-42; «L'Arbre des langues», p. 53-61.«Au commencement était le verbe», p. 69-73; «Moi, j'ai jamais fait de grammaire», p. 75-79; «Ce n'est pas dans les dictionnaire!», p. 85-90.

Readings from books, downloadable from BlackBoard Materials available on line only

This course is articulated in three main parts, subdivided into smaller units.

0. Introduction (session 0)

What is communication?

Spielmann, Introduction à la communication.
Yaguello 1, «Le Sentiment de la langue», p. 11-14. Lerot, Ch. IV, 5 («Les disciplines linguistiques»), p. 98-107.

1. Communication (sessions 1-8)

A) Conversation for starters (sessions 1-2)
     Communication is often described as the primary function of human languages; yet, most if not all communication involves a number of different codes which can be purely linguistic (syntax, morphology, phonology), para-linguistic (prosody, pragmatic and communicative strategies), or non-linguistic, such as the use of distance, gestures, etc. In addition, images, colors, sounds, textures, even smells and tastes are used communication in non-linguistic codes.
     We will begin with the most common and mundane situation, "conversation," i.e. synchronous face-to-face verbal-dominant communication, that we will study through short filmed sequences involving French native speakers. You will learn how to analyze a language sample in context, in order to distinguish the various parameters that contribute to the creation, negociation and exchange of meaning. We will examine how such empirical data supports—or fails to supporttheoretical models of communication.
DANS LA PEAU DES FRANÇAIS. Videotaped dialogues between two young people - used in class as sample
PLUS BELLE LA VIE. Video (Season 1 streamed on Blackboard). France's favorite sitcom provides excellent samples of informal conversation between native speakers.
Spielmann, paramètres de la conversation
Lerot, Ch. II, 1 («La Communication verbale»), p. 30-37.; Ch. II, 7 («Les Bases de connaissance»), p. 49-53; Ch. II, 8 («Le Processus d'interprétation»), p. 53-58; Ch. II, 9 («La Convivialité des échanges»), p. 58-60. dans Lerot1.pdf

B) Code and system (session 3-4)
     In the course of studying verbal, face-to-face communication, we come across various codes: spoken language (speech), gestures and postures (kinesics), use of space (proxemics), styles of dress, social norms and others. A code is a system: a coherent set of elements (units) bound by certain relations, for a specific purpose (in this case, expressing and conveying meaning). Identifying and understanding what a system is and how it works allows us to understand and analyze precisely what goes on in the process of communication.

Spielmann, Le Système (text and models).
C) Linguistic signs as building blocks (session 5)
     Most modern theories of signification are derived from a linguistic model first established by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 20th century. Saussure's work focused on analyzing "linguistic signs," i.e. the minimal units of language considered as a system. It is indispensable to be familiar with this model, as well as of others which have been developed since (Peirce, Ogden and Richards, Hjelmslev) in order to better understand how linguistics seeks to break down the complex reality of language into relatively simple building blocks and mechanisms. The field of semiotics (the "science of signs") has extended these principles to all systems that can be used to express or convey meaning through images and sounds, and, to a lesser degree, textures, smells and tastes.
Spielmann, Théories du signe (text and models).
Lerot, Ch. III, 2 («Le Signe linguistique»), p. 67-69 dans Lerot1.pdf

  • ORAL PRESENTATIONS ON CONVERSATIONS FROM PLUS BELLE LA VIE on Wednesday, Feb 7 (session 7) and Monday, Feb 12 (session 8)
  • TEST 1 (Communication) on Wednesday, Feb 21 (session 9)
    See instructions at

2. How meaning gets made (sessions 10-14)

.A) How meaning gets made (I): indices, signs and symbols (session 10-12)
     There are many ways to generate and convey meaning without entirely resorting to linguistic units. In the first section of the class, we saw how distance, gestures, mimics and body attitudes contribute to meaningful conversations. In order to further our understanding, we will study how pictograms—simplified images that function as vehicles for meaning in specific situations—manage or fail to replace language.
Spielmann, La Signalisation routière (text and images). Les Pictogrammes (text and images).


) How meaning gets made (II): from (less than) words to sentences (session 13-14)
     A bunch of words (even a very large bunch of words) does not amount to a functional language. In fact, words by themselves can hardly be considered as functional elements, and linguists work with even smaller components (called morphemes) and study the way these can be strung together in order to form coherent sequences (called syntagms). At this point, we will therefore focus on the concept of syntagmatic (or additive: "a and b") relations and paradigmatic (or alternative: "a or b") relations between elements of a linguistic system, and learn how tho study the functionning of such relations between morphemes (known as syntax and morphology) in sentences.

Spielmann, Syntagme et paradigme (text and models).
Lerot, Ch. III, 3 («Le Morphème»), p. 69-74; Ch. IV, 1-3 («Les Relations entre unités»), p. 90-92 dans dans Lerot1.pdf Ch. IX, 8 («Morphèmes et morphes zéro»), p. 330; Ch. XI, 1 («La Phrase: définitions»), p. 375-377; Ch XI, 2 («Le Syntagme»), p. 377-380 dans Lerot2.pdf

3. Making pitches, telling stories (sessions 15-25)

A) Language in context: speech acts and enonciation
(session 15)
     The notion of 'sentence' refers to a particular structure, but not to its meaning (a perfect sentence can be perfectly meaningless!), nor to its (intended) function in actual communication. The branch of language sciences called pragmatics studies the relationship between linguistic forms and the situations in which they are produced: a time, a place and a subject's perspective. In this portion of the course, we will review the factors that determine what a message means pragmatically, i.e. its intended impact on the receiver.

Spielmann, L'Énonciation (text and models).
Lerot, Ch. II, 2 («L'Acte de parole»), p. 37-40, II, 3 («La Force illocutive»), p. 40-42; Ch. II, 4 («L'Ancrage référentiel»), p. 43-45; Ch. II, 5 («L'Univers du discours»), p. 46-47; Ch. II, 7:1 («Le Sens des énoncés»), p. 79-80, dans Lerot1.pdf Ch.V, 8 («La Détermination des référents»), p. 136-139, dans Lerot2.pdf



B) What is a text? (session 16)
     Texts are so prevalent in our everyday experience that we take them for granted. However, a text is not merely an aggregate of words or sentences: it is an entity defined by its form and its function(s).

Spielmann, Le Texte (text and models).

C) Ads—Texts with a clear purpose (sessions 17-18)
     Magazine ads combine word and image to deliver an unvarying message to the reader: "buy the product advertized therein." This stable feature allows us to focus on the process by which words and pictures can convey a message, and how ads are composed and read as texts according to fairly predictable rules. Because ads are often elliptical or allusive, however, they underscore the importance of assumption and implicit premises in the process of interpretation.

Spielmann, Le Texte publicitaire (text and pictures) - Sample of French magazine advertisements.

D) How narratives work (I): song lyrics (sessions 20-21-22-23)
Even outside of any context, words make sense, in opposition and in connection to other words; semantic analysis shows that beneath the common use of words lies hidden a complex web of meaning.
     A study of song lyricswhich make excellent examples of tightly composed micronarratives using a full array of strategies to tell a complete story with a few wordswill offer the opportunity to review the principles of text and narrative building, while exploring word networks known as semantic and lexical fields.

  • PAPER (Analysis of print advertisement) DUE ON March 28

E) How narratives work (II): comics (sessions 24-25)
Story-telling makes extensive use of certain linguistic phenomena (such as anaphora, reference, inference, etc.) which in fact are similar to those of visual communication. Comicsa particularly important art form in French-language culturesoffer a combination of language and imagery that allows us to better identify and understand how meaning is constructed in narratives.
  • TEST 2 ON April 30 (session 26) [this is not a final exam]