Many thanks to my colleague Nicolas Gourbère at ‘2 Easy’ languages in Saint Etienne for the idea for this post. My starting point is a document which Nicolas often uses for fluency practice with intermediate level students, a rendition of the questionnaire which was put to the french writer Proust (of the madeleine) towards the end of his life. It has cropped up in various forms over the years, including on the long-running American tv programme ‘Inside the actor’s studio’. You can look at Nicolas’ version here – Proust questionnaire001.
Personally I find the questionnaire fascinating, but too long for me to want to use it ‘as is’. Here is what I propose to do with it.
I have cherry-picked the questions to keep just 23, plus one I added. They are in a grid which you can get here – Proust questionnaire grid. For me, these are to be cut up and used as cards. Give the cards to the students and ask them to look at them and give any reactions they might have. It will probably pay to think this stage through fairly thoroughly and think about what vocabulary the students will need to discuss various questions. You know your students, so if you need to pre-teach anything you’ll be ready.
- Questions to lead conversation – where do you think the questions come from (i.e. I didn’t just make them up) Yes, they came from a questionnaire. Do any of the questions seem familiar? Why? What sort of aim do you think the original questionnaire had? What sort of information is the questioner looking to obtain? Do any of the questions strike you as odd? Indiscreet? Inappropriate? (eg is it perhaps politically incorrect to ask about, for example, qualities one finds attractive in men and women separately? Or is that just normal?) When do you think the questionnaire dates from? etc. etc.
- Tell them that the questions were asked of the french writer Proust (died 1922) whose bio can be read here if you need it. His answers have been felt to be so interesting and insightful that the record of the questionnaire has stood the test of time. Ask the students to pick out questions to which they think the answers might have been particularly interesting. What might Proust have answered? What would they answer? Which answers do they expect to be the most interesting?
Read the document
Give out copies of the document with the questions, Proust’s answers, and spaces for your own. Take time to read through. What impression do we get of the man? If the questionnaire were asked today, what new questions might there be? (My invented one from earlier, about scientific research is one possible example).
- If the subject hasn’t come up before, do the students read interviews? Why/why not? Can they remember any which they have watched or read which they can relate to the group?
- Desert island discs for those who didn’t grow up with radio 4, this is a programme format which set out to be an in-depth interview after the type of the one we just read. Celebrity guests from varioius walks of life were, and are, invited to share their favourite music tracks. The central question is ; ‘If you were marooned on a desert island, and you could only have ten records, the Bible, Shakespeare, and one luxury, what would they be?’ It could be regarded as an up-dated version of the Proust questionnaire – what would the group’s desert island discs be? (If you’re interested, you can find podcasts of desert island discs by clicking here.)