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Paris honors the handwritten word by setting up 1,700 desks for a public dictée

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Computers have replaced pen and paper in most U.S schools, but French kids are still taught to write in cursive. In an old-school pillar of French education, the dictee, or dictation, thrives. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: For one day this summer, Paris' iconic Champs-Elysees Avenue was transformed into a giant, open-air classroom. Traffic was blocked and 1,700 desks set up in front of the Arc de Triomphe for a popular event, a public dictee. Anyone who's studied French knows the importance of the ritual. A teacher reads out a passage, usually from French literature, and students have to write it out, battling phonetics, grammar, conjugations and spelling, not to mention accents and gender agreement. But that doesn't daunt Nadia Marinkovich (ph), who brought her husband and kids along.

NADIA MARINKOVICH: (Through interpreter) I thought it would be amazing to participate. It makes me think of my youth and school days, and I feel so nostalgic.

FREDERIC: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Husband Frederic (ph) is much less nostalgic. He says he was very bad at dictees, but he admits the exercise is important still.

FREDERIC: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "The French language is complicated," he says. "Dictees throughout your youth are the only way to master it. That's why they're such a part of our culture."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Fifty thousand people entered their names to sit for the three dictees. Five thousand were chosen to participate in three separate rounds. Participants range in age from 10 to 92. Eighty-year-old Amande (ph), who prefers not to give her last name, says she can't believe all the young people taking part.

AMANDE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I'm astonished," she says. "They're always on their smartphones and iPads. I didn't think young people could write or spell anymore."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: There are also a lot of non-native speakers taking part. British tourist Kate Kennedy (ph) is a spectator. She studied French at university.

KATE KENNEDY: So I know a little bit about that they have these kind of competitions, but I'd never seen it in reality. So in the U.K. these days, we don't really do dictation at school anymore. So this is quite interesting for me. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In the 19th century, dictee mania swept France. In 1857, Empress Eugenie commissioned a well-known author to craft a dictee with all the traps of French grammar to propose as an after-dinner game. It was said that Emperor Napoleon III made 75 mistakes on Prosper Merimee's infamous dictee, which is still given today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: During the 1980s, the French would gather around their TV sets every week to take the dictee of a popular literary show host.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Marc-Antoine Jamet is president of the Champs-Elysees Committee that organized the event.

MARC-ANTOINE JAMET: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We don't only want to be known as a frivolous shopping avenue," he says. "We wanted to confront some heavy grammar and syntax to show we're also about language and literature." Jamet says they also did it to unite French people of all backgrounds around their language. That seems to have worked, judging by the diversity of participants.

JAMET: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "And lastly," says Jamet, "we're going for a Guinness World Record - the most people assembled for dictation."

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BEARDSLEY: And they're off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The reader recites the passage at normal speed, then repeats it slowly, calling out the punctuation, which also counts. The winner of the second round of dictation with zero mistakes is Paris pizza deliverer Michel Yansonou (ph) from the West African nation of Benin. He says he likes to test his level in public dictees.

MICHEL YANSONOU: (Through interpreter) Growing up in Benin, I made a lot of mistakes on my dictees. But I had an aunt who was a teacher, and she put huge pressure on me to work harder and get better.

BEARDSLEY: Yansonou says his aunt is now gone, but he still thinks of her every time he sits for a dictee. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.