Couple bring life to language study

A man with a noose around his neck hangs in the foyer of Rebecca and Jean-Paul Valette‘s Newton home.

It’s an iron sculpture called “The Last Laugh.” Rebecca gave it to Jean-Paul for their 15th wedding anniversary in 1974.

“We were in the throes of writing textbooks and the first one hadn’t even come out yet,” she said.

That Gallic gallows humor has served them well. Through their textbooks, the couple have taught several generations of Americans to speak French and Spanish.

Their high school French series “Discovering French, Nouveau!” is among the most popular in US high schools, and they’re working on the eighth edition of their college introductory program, “Contacts: Langue et culture françaises.”

The Valettes make a good team: He was raised in Paris; she taught French for 45 years, 38 of them at Boston College, earning internationally recognition for her language training techniques. “Someone once called her ‘The Dragon Lady’ because she was so tough,” said her husband.

Rebecca Valette decided to take the plunge into textbook writing after finding most language guides to be filled with dull, insipid drills.

But when she enlisted the help of some graduate students, they came up with phrases like “Paris is the capital of France.”

Her husband didn’t mince words: Boring, he told her.

“With 250 vocabulary words do you think you could do better?” Rebecca shot back.

Convinced that he could, Jean-Paul started writing stories himself when he got home from his job as an economist at Charles River Associates (now CRA International).

“We wanted to write stories with words that would be used in context, to put all of our exercises into meaningful situations and make a communicative book,” said Rebecca.

Their texts contain plausible scenarios, like that in the accompanying box about a boy who impresses his date by sneaking off with the family car.

As their work became more in demand, Jean-Paul left his job to write full time. Since his wife was teaching at Boston College, he assumed carpool duty for their three children — and picked up story pointers along the way. Eavesdropping on the kids’ conversations, he had a better sense of how to write for his target audience.

To prepare their books, the couple frequently travel to French-speaking regions, including Quebec, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Tahiti, and France itself. They steep themselves in daily life by spending time in cafes, riding public transit, and shopping at markets.

The writing process itself, though, can be a bit rocky. Sometimes they battle through four or five drafts before coming up with a text they both like.

“We learned to live with it but we used to upset the children because it was so noisy when we were working,” said Rebecca.

“With only one book being produced one person has to be the leader,” said Jean-Paul. “I do the first draft, so it’s my idea, but Rebecca has the experience of the classroom so she has to be critical.”

In the, early days, Jean-Paul would work in the basement and Rebecca on the second floor of their English Tudor in Chestnut Hill. They installed an intercom system, but eventually decided that writing to each other would keep the noise level down.

“I got out of my jail about 10 years ago. I finally saw the sunlight that I hadn’t seen in 30 years,” said Jean-Paul, who now writes in the kitchen.

The story of how the couple met sounds like it came out of one of their books. Rebecca, who majored in history at Mount Holyoke, spent her junior year in France studying the flute. Jean-Paul spotted her one evening outside a Paris cafe, and wangled an introduction.

Two days later he proposed.

“I told him I’d have to think about it,” said Rebecca. At the end of the school year she accepted.

While French is Jean-Paul’s first language, German is Rebecca’s. Her father, Gerhard Loose, left Germany when the Nazis took over, then returned to Europe at the end of the war. He was one of the “Ritchie Boys,” refugees trained in espionage and psychological warfare at Camp Ritchie in Maryland. Loose interrogated Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt, who took part in such key battles as the invasion of Poland and the capture of Kiev.

After the war, Loose taught German at the University of Colorado. Rebecca, though born in America, spent her early years speaking German. When she entered preschool, she had to make some adjustments.

“I remember one day I had a little pimple on my nose and the German word for pimple is ‘pickle.’ When I told [my classmates] I had a pickle on my nose it brought down the house,” she said.

Now retired from teaching, Valette left a legacy not only in the French Department at Boston College but also on the campus itself. She played a key role in creating the Memorial Labyrinth, dedicated to the 22 alumni killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It is a copy of a 13th-century labyrinth laid in stone on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France.

Today she devotes her time to promoting French nationwide, last year writing and editing the Federation of Alliances Françaises USA Education Handbook. The French government named her Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques. L’Ordre des Palmes Académiques was founded by Napoleon in 1808 to recognize accomplishments in scholarship.

The French have honored her husband as officier, but being outranked doesn’t faze him.

“We are a team and I have to believe that Rebecca is as good as I am,” he said with a laugh.

“I am a male Frenchman and I came here with baggage.”

Around the Towns: Journalist Frank-John Hadley of Newton is among 21 people and organizations receiving The Blues Foundation’s 2007 Keeping the Blues Alive Award . . . James E. Tashjian of Westborough was awarded the Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan Ecumenical Award by the Saint Thomas More Society of Worcester County at its 49th annual Red Mass. Tashjian is a managing partner in the law firm of Tashjian, Simsarian & Wickstrom LLP . . . Laurie McCabe, a third-grade teacher at the Fannie E. Proctor School in Northborough, has been nominated for the 2006 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching . . . Shrewsbury police have added four residents to the force: Brendan Donahue, Tyson Mohr, Stephen Humber, and Lawrence Napolitano. The group graduated from the Lowell Police Academy, with Napolitano and Donahue tops in their platoon in academics, according to Shrewsbury Lieutenant Alfred Pratt. To suggest a People item, e-mail Lebovits@globe.com.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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