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Dreaded school test shows love of French language alive and well in poorer communities

By Alison Hird

In March this year La Dictée Geante (giant dictation) broke the world record when more than 1,400 people took part in the largest ever group dictation in the French football stadium near Paris. Co-founded by writer Rachid Santaki, he and his team run dictations in working-class towns all over the country, turning this dreaded school exercise into a celebratory activity. RFI reports from a gathering in Ile St Denis where people from all generations and walks of life are united by the love for French language.

"It’s about bringing people together, having fun around spelling and the French language, " says Rachid Santaki, a writer of thrillers set in the area of St Denis just north of Paris. "No matter what your age, social class, ethnic origins, no matter where you’re from."

This is his 177th dictation. He clearly relishes the exercise as he paces up and down the aisles on a sunny Saturday afternoon, paper in hand, reading an extract from Victor Hugo's Les Misérables while row upon row of people, heads down, try to get their spelling and conjugation right.

"It can be a traumatising exercise," he continues, "but at the end of the day everyone leaves here with a smile.

"I often talk about the pleasure of reading, of writing, and that means having fun, we take the drama out of it, turn the experience upside down."

Mélodie, Jessica, Maurine doing their first dictation as young adults ©RFI/HIRD

"We all appreciate French literature," says Mélodie who's come along with a couple of girlfriends. "And spelling is now very important for us because most people are writing as they can hear now and we’re losing our spelling. I was studying literature but now as we’re on facebook, twitter and everything we’re writing short terms so it’s a nice occasion for us to challenge ourselves and check that we still have the spelling right.

"To be honest with you our friends are very surprised they’re like 'oh really you’re going to the spelling today'? But we're happy to be here, to see if we can still, like, up to it!"

"I’m doing it to check my level in French literature in general, to see if I make a lot of spelling mistakes or not," says Cherouana Assia, here with her two children. "I do make a few mistakes over circumflex or aigu accents but it gives me a boost to come here."

Born in Algeria, she says she's always loved the language and wants to pass that on to her kids.

"You know why this dictation exists? It’s to encourage people to read, that’s why I bring my kids. Look at my son, he’s in the first year of primary and doesn’t know how to read and write yet but he’s having fun. My daughter, she’s nine, and she’s very excited to be here."

Dictations are an important way of improving French grammar and spelling. MYCHELE DANIAU / AFP

There are prizes for different age groups. 11 year olds Maud "dictations are cool" and Yazid "my dad made me work at French" both receive a tablet for winning the collège category.

"The French language is what unites us, I mean without a common language there can be no bridge between us," says Santiki, thrilled that the 250 or so participants here today reflect the neighbourhood's rich ethnic mix. "French unites us no matter what our differences are."

St Denis is one of France's poorest towns and with unemployment above the national average of nine percent, Santiki admits having a good command of French grammar and spelling is important for getting on in life.

"Mastering French is a way of getting a job, having power, meeting people. It’s allowed me to write books, to become someone. So it’s very important, daring to speak out is very important, in fact it’s vital."

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