The History of Medfrench

This computer-assisted language-learning package was first devised in 1988-1991 as an MSDOS-based programme by Alan Hindley and Brian J. Levy in the Department of French at the University of Hull, in collaboration with Computing Services at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. Medfrench works on the principle of cognate language teaching, i.e. it teaches the student, by means of a text to be read – together with appropriate help options – how to read a natural language on the basis of another, related, or cognate, language. In this instance, the programme teaches Old French (“ancien français”) through the medium of modern French, with which the student is already expected to be familiar. The text to be read is displayed on the screen, and the student is provided with a dictionary, a grammar, and a commentary which, unlike books, are always open at just the right place.

In order to help students acquire a reading knowledge of Old French using the modern French language as a basis, the programme presents a selected sequence of seven texts, or text-extracts, in increasing order of complexity, and illustrating the variety of medieval literary genres in the 12th and 13th centuries. These are: a lyric Pastourelle by Thibaut de Champagne; the comic fabliau Du vilain asnier; a portrait of the courtly hero from Jehan Renart’s Lai de l’ombre; a description of the fairy-queen heroine from Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval; an excerpt from the moralising tale Le Chevalier au Barisel; two sections from the parodic “chantefable” Aucassin et Nicolette; and an episode from the Arthurian prose romance of the Queste del saint Graal. As a stimulus to further reading, some bibliographical information is also provided.

Given the rapid developments in computing technology since the Medfrench program first appeared, it has now been updated for use as a web-based resource by Katherine Fenton (a former lecturer in electronic publishing at the University of Northumbria) and Rosalind Brown-Grant in the Department of French at the University of Leeds. Whilst the navigational tools of the original program have thus changed almost beyond recognition, the range of information and help which it offers on vocabulary, grammar, syntax, orthography and dialectal variants, as well as on extra literary, cultural and socio-historical material, is still exceptionally rich. Moreover, although the package is designed to work best as part of a taught programme of study of the Old French language, it can also now be used as a tool for independent study since a full set of exercises has been included for each text in the aim of drawing the student’s attention to the key linguistic features which it presents.