Je sais pas – Let’s ask Google!

Sometimes I’m a little late to the technology party.  Until yesterday when I had to reset my phone, I’d hardly used the voice tools on my phone.  And then yesterday I fell in love with Google Assistant. Though the whole idea of talking to an object feels odd to me, I am super excited about having a new assistant to do things for me. “Ok Google. Enter grades in the gradebook.”

In the summer I discovered that I could talk in French to my computer and ask Google questions by using the Search by Voice feature and that it would not only find the answer for me, but sometimes it would talk to me!


I thought what a great activity for questions and spent way more time than I should admit asking it silly questions.  Only it was summer and I had to wait around until last week to do anything with it.

The Techy Side

For this to work you have to change your language settings in Google Chrome.  My students have all different devices and the students who were using their phones had issues.  Some of them were saavy enough to figure out what to do on their device, but their solutions were all different.  “Change it in the app.”  “Change the keyboard settings.”  “Touch your nose three times and tap the home button twice then jump out of your seat.”  Too much work.  Just encourage students to use a computer.  I had them work with a partner or told them find someone with a computer.

First, search anything.  Literally.  You just need to get to the page with the language settings and that’s not on the first Google Search page.  Then click settings and change the language.

Finally click the little microphone.  Google will even tell you when to talk!  And it will visually show you what you are saying.  Try it out- it’s pretty cool.

The Lesson Side

I was going to do this on Monday, but decided that I wanted the students to have more structured practice with questions before I sent them out to big wide world of Google to ask questions that it might not recognize because of their accents or lack of structure, so I held off a day.  This ended up being the 400th billion activity we had done asking questions.

If you ask Google a question it will sometimes actually tell you the answer and sometimes it just pulls up a search page.  I don’t know how it determines whether it’s going to talk to you or not.  I wanted Google to respond to my students, so I spent some time finding some people that Google would talk about.  Some of my first choices didn’t merit spoken language, so they were out.  I always try to have a variety of people and nationalities (plus Céline Dion- always Céline Dion), but this got a bit limited because of the talking part.  I also wanted people with names that would be relatively easy for Novices to produce to reduce their chances of being misunderstood by Google.

I put up this slide of Emmanuel Macron and since none of the students knew who he was we asked Google.

Then, I walked students through changing their language and showed them this slide and told them to find out some information.

And then there were giggles and laughter and a whole bunch of fun as students asked questions.

Because Google writes out what it is hearing it’s quite ideal because it lets students see if they were understood.  Some of the students had to try a few times to get Google to understand- which is good.  They had to negotiate their own meaning with Google.  There was not an issue with Google picking up the voices of the other students.

I wasn’t sure how well this would work so I didn’t plan an elaborate activity, but next time I’ll have them write out their answers and then report out.  Next week students will be asking questions about a cultural reading and I think I might have them test out their questions by asking Google.

On a separate note, is there anyone out there who also thinks that Emmanuel Macron looks like the grown up version of Petit Nicolas?




Higher Level Thinking with Novices

When I was doing my student teaching (in English) our methods teacher said something like, “The complexity of your language is a reflection of your complexity of thought.”  While I can get behind this statement for a native language, this isn’t true for a second language.  I mean, I’m entirely capable of complex thought, but I certainly can’t express that in Spanish.  Depending on the topic I may be able to express a complex-ish thought in French.  And on any one day, I may or may not find complex thought expression in English a stretch.

This makes it easy to say oh, those novices, they can’t do any critical thinking.

Not True – Beyond DOK 1

Here is a simple activity, that I did not invent that asks students to think critically with very little language.  Let me start out with that in the first hours of French, I tell this completely ridiculous story about a crab who has its heart broken by a chain smoking rabbit and who is ultimately consoled by a snail.  It’s riveting.

This activity is actually what I think of as disguised input.  (I suppose some people would argue that the best comprehensible input is disguised, but for me it means that this is not an input activity per se.)  This activity is meant to give students the opportunity to hear the words chien, chat, lapin  several times in a meaningful context and it asks students to think critically without producing a lot of language.  They need to say impossible, possible, probable (with the French pronunciation-ish).

I put up the slide and then ask in the TL, “Rabbits eat carrots? Yes, that’s pretty logical.”  “Dogs eat hamburgers?” You’d be surprised by the answer to that one. “Dogs eat cats?! What?! Dogs eat cats! Nooooooooon.”   “Dogs speak French.”  “Snails eat lettuce.”

You get the idea.  We go through many, many possibilities.  You’ll notice that the second row is all cognates except fleur, which is like a half cognate.

Enter Google Forms

This year I’m taking this activity to the next level with a Google Form.  I asked students to read the statements and then answer and some of the statements were different than the ones I said outloud.  And then you know what we did?  We practiced numbers by talking about percentages of people who think it’s probable that dogs eat cats, etc.  Because there is never not a good time to use numbers in context.

I didn’t do this next step because we didn’t have time, but to extend the activity I could ask students to make their own sentences that (im)possible or probable.  Or I could ask them to move sentences and categorize them.

And then…

I make enough work for myself, so I love when I can re-use things I’ve already built.  The next activity involves the students using aime/adore/n’aime pas/déteste with the same slide.  Additionally, we re-tell the whole story by using aime/adore/n’aime pas déteste.  This year I added in parce que for the students and they made amazing sentences for such limited hours of French.

I’m not suggesting that my silly story and activity will leave students enlightened, but it does allow for them to think critically and respond to a complex question with simple language.