Category Archives: French language

Why language skills are a priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This post, written by George Hodgson, originally appeared on the Creative Multilingualism blog on 11 January 2018. George Hodgson has been British Ambassador to Senegal and non-resident Ambassador to Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau since July 2015.

The first foreign language I really engaged with was Bengali. Most of the kids at my primary school in Tower Hamlets in East London were of Bangladeshi heritage. In the classroom, we sang Bengali songs. In the playground, we delighted in Bengali swear words. I’d be too embarrassed to own up to recalling the lyrics of a song about a frog, let alone the insults, but I will admit to still remembering how to count from one to ten.

At secondary school, I studied French, German and Latin up to GCSE. There was neither singing nor swearing. But we had great teachers, with a passion for languages and for sharing them – even with under-appreciative teenagers. I became more appreciative when, some years later, my rusty French was enough to strike up a conversation with an attractive French girl, now my wife.

As British Ambassador in Dakar, I speak more French on any given day than I do English. Without it, I just wouldn’t be as effective in my job. That, quite simply, is why language skills are a priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This blog, by my colleague Danny Pruce in Manila, offers a nice insight into studying Tagalog full-time at the FCO’s in-house language centre.

Here in Senegal, I’ve been impressed by the language skills of the young British volunteers that I’ve met, working with great organisations like the International Citizenship Service or Project Trust in local communities, and living with host families. Many of them learn Wolof: it’s far more widely spoken than French, and Senegal’s real lingua franca.

Equally impressive are the language skills of ordinary Senegalese people. For a majority in Senegal, multilingualism is a way of life. The same is not quite true in the United Kingdom.

That said, there are of course millions of people in the UK who are multilingual speakers of recognised minority languages like Welsh or Gaelic, or of languages that have come to the UK more recently, like Polish or Punjabi … or indeed Bengali. There are over a million bilingual pupils at school in Britain.

The British Council’s recent Languages for the future paper is well worth a read. It argues that ‘in a new era of cooperation with Europe and with the rest of the world, investment in upgrading the UK’s ability to understand and engage with people internationally is critical’. I couldn’t agree more.

Part of that investment is, of course, about supporting language learning in schools, universities and beyond. But it’s also about encouraging and enabling people to make the most of the linguistic talents that we already enjoy as a country. And looking at how schemes which aren’t ostensibly about languages – like the International Citizenship Service – can contribute.

Literature Masterclass: Time & Tense

Approaching a text in a foreign language for the first time can be both exciting and daunting at once. How do we begin to analyse the way the text works? What should we pay attention to in terms of linguistic features and the structure of the text?

One of the simplest but also most important aspects of a text we can analyse is the tense in which it is written. Tenses are something we are aware of from day one when we are learning a foreign language: indeed, as non-native speakers we are perhaps more aware of different tenses in a foreign language than we are in our mother tongues. But sometimes, when we are focussing intently on an unfamiliar grammatical system, it can be easy to lose sight of how that grammar can be used for literary effect.

In the presentation below, Dr Simon Kemp, Tutor in French at Somerville College, gives an introduction to Time and Tense in French literature. Focussing on a few extracts from texts on the A Level syllabus, he takes us through some of the various effects the use of different tenses can produce.

Language Competitions: French film and Spanish fiction!

We have just launched our annual competitions in French and Spanish. Details are below. If you have any questions please contact We look forward to reading your entries! Bonne chance! ¡mucha suerte!

Spanish Flash Fiction Competition

Did you know that the shortest story in Spanish is only seven words long? Here it is:
‘Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí’ (Augusto Monterroso, “El dinosaurio”).

Write a story in Spanish of not more than 100 words, and send it to by noon on Friday 30th March 2018 with your name, age and year group, and the name and address of your school. A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning entry in each category (Years 7-11 and 12-13), with runner-up prizes of £25. The judges will be looking for creativity and imagination as well as good Spanish! The winning entries will be published on our website.

French Film Competition

The Department of French at Oxford University is looking for budding film enthusiasts in Years 7-11 and 12-13 to embrace the world of French cinema. To enter the competition, students in each age group are asked to re-write the ending of a film in no more than 1500 words. You can work in English or French. We won’t give extra credit to entries written in French – this is an exercise in creativity, rather than a language test! – but we do encourage you to give writing in French a go if you’re tempted, and we won’t penalize entries in French for any spelling or grammar mistakes.

The judges are looking for plausible yet imaginative new endings, picking up the story from the point specified (see below). There are no restrictions as to the form the entry might take: screen-play, play-script, prose, prose with illustrations. We’d also love to see filmed entries (e.g. on YouTube): feel free to experiment!

For the 2018 competition we have chosen the following films for each age bracket:

  • Years 7-11: Une vie de chat (2010, dir. Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol)
  • Years 12-13: Des Hommes et des dieux (2010, dir. Xavier Beauvois)

A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning student in each age group, with runner-up prizes of £25.

Your re-writing must pick up where the film leaves off, from the following points:

  • Une vie de chat: from 49:20, when Nico says: ‘Allez, accroche-toi bien Zoë’.
  • Des Hommes et des dieux: from 1:38:50, where Christian says ‘J’ai longtemps repensé à ce moment-là…’

Here are the trailers, to give you a taster:



  • DO keep to the word limit (1500 words)! Going over will lead to disqualification.
  • DO use your imagination, and present your re-writing in any format you like – essay, screenplay, short film, storyboard, etc…. There is nothing stopping you from watching the ‘real’ ending and then modifying it as you see fit. Indeed, you might find this helpful. We’re looking for creative, entertaining and inventive new endings, which address as fully and plausibly as possible the strands of the story that are left unresolved at the end-points we’ve specified above.
  • DO send in (through your teacher) individually named submissions. If you work in a group, the entry must still be sent under one name only: this is just to ensure as much as possible parity and fairness between entries, and to avoid any distinction between smaller and larger groups. There is a limit of 10 entries per school per age group.
  • DO make sure you give your teacher enough time to approve and forward your submission!
  • DON’T worry about which language you write in – and if you write in French (which we encourage, if you would like to), remember we do not penalise grammatical errors or spelling mistakes.
  • DON’T forget to include a filled-in cover-sheet, signed by your teacher. Without this, your entry will not be judged.
  • DON’T worry if you’re at the lower end of your age-range (especially Years 7 and 8). We particularly encourage entries from younger students, and we’ll take your age into account when judging your entry.

Where can I or my school/college get hold of the films?

The DVDs are readily and affordably available via Amazon ( or The films may also be available through legal streaming services (e.g. Amazon Prime, Google Play, or Blinkbox).

How do I send in my entry?

We’d like all your school’s entries to be submitted via your teacher please. Ask your teacher to attach your entries to an email, along with a cover sheet, which you can download here, and send it to by noon on 31st March 2018. NB, to avoid missing the deadline, we suggest that you aim to give your teacher your entry and completed cover sheet by 24th March at the latest.

Good luck!

Bons mots: le tuba et le trombone

posted by Simon Kemp

It’s always interesting (well, I think so, anyway), to see how languages decide to divide up  the world.

French, for instance, decided that there were two kinds of long wet things flowing through the landscape. They were either un fleuve (if they end up flowing into the sea) or une rivière (if they end up flowing into a bigger river).  English never really saw the difference, and used river for both.

On the other hand, English decided that it would use the word flower for a pretty thing with petals, except if there happened to be lots of them together on a tree, in which case it would need the special word blossom. For French speakers, however, une fleur is une fleur, whether it’s alone in a flower-bed or one of hundreds on a cherry tree.

It’s interesting, too, to see how French and English go about using the same word for two quite different things. They rarely do it in the same way. In English, a key is a thing you use to open a door, and also a thing you press on a computer. In French, you open a door with une clé (or une clef), but computers (and pianos) have une touche. It’s always nice to come across the rare occasions where the two languages are in tune, like with un bélier which is French for a ram, in the sense of male sheep and also in the sense of battering ram.

Best of all, though, is when you discover that French uses the same word for two different things, and, as an English speaker, it had never even occurred to you that those two things had anything in common.

I have two examples for you, which are, oddly enough, both brass instruments. Le tuba and le trombone are indeed the French words for a tuba and a trombone, but do you know what else they are?

Un tuba is also the normal French word for…

a snorkel.

While un trombone also means…

a paper-clip.

Now that you see them, it makes perfect sense, and it only seems a shame that English speakers never thought to call snorkels tubas and paper-clips trombones.

Can you think of any other examples?

Best of Blog: la limousine et la baïonnette

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’

The Limousin is a region of France to the south-west of Paris around the city of Limoges. Bayonne is a town on the Atlantic coast near the Spanish border, in the heart of the Basque country.

The Limousin is a mostly rural area, famed in France for its distinctive red-brown limousin beef cattle. It doesn’t have a lot of limousines, and yet the region is without doubt the origin of the word.

Similarly, the place-name of Bayonne is the origin of the word bayonet (la baïonnette in French).

So how did limousines and bayonets come to get their names?

The link between Bayonne and bayonets is the more straightforward one. Rural France in the seventeenth century was prone to sporadic conflicts between different groups. During one such, the peasants of Bayonne found themselves short of gunpowder and bullets. As an alternative, they lashed their hunting knives to the end of their muskets to make improvised spears, and the bayonet was born. (They may not actually have been the first people ever to do so, but the association with Bayonne has stuck.)

Limousin and the limo is a more mysterious connection. No one actually knows for sure how the region came to give its name to the stretched cars beloved of film stars and hen nights. The first vehicles to be known by the name were luxury cars in the 1900s which had an enclosed compartment for the passengers behind a driver’s seat with roof and windscreen, but otherwise open.

One suggestion is that shepherds of the limousin region wore a distinctive hooded cloak. Carriages with separate cover for driver and passengers became known as ‘limousin’ carriages by association, and when the similarly structured motor vehicle appeared, the name was carried across. Do make up your own etymology for the term, though, if you can think of something more plausible.

Other French words derived from place names include le corbillard (hearse), which originally referred to a water-bus shuttling between Paris and the suburb of Corbeil, and la dinde (turkey), which is a contraction of la poule des Indes (chicken from the West Indies), showing that the French had a better grasp of where turkeys come from than the English did.

Lastly, the flower meadow saffron is le colchique in French, which is derived from Colchis, the home of the tragic heroine Medea in Greek myth. Medea’s story involves multiple poisonings, and in French the poisonous flowers of the meadow saffron are associated with her crimes. Les colchiques, and their poison, feature in the most famous poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, which gives me all the reason I need to reprint it here by way of conclusion:

Les Colchiques

Le pré est vénéneux mais joli en automne
Les vaches y paissant
Lentement s’empoisonnent
Le colchique couleur de cerne et de lilas
Y fleurit tes yeux sont comme cette fleur-la
Violatres comme leur cerne et comme cet automne
Et ma vie pour tes yeux lentement s’empoisonne

Les enfants de l’école viennent avec fracas
Vêtus de hoquetons et jouant de l’harmonica
Ils cueillent les colchiques qui sont comme des mères
Filles de leurs filles et sont couleur de tes paupières
Qui battent comme les fleurs battent au vent dément

Le gardien du troupeau chante tout doucement
Tandis que lentes et meuglant les vaches abandonnent
Pour toujours ce grand pré mal fleuri par l’automne

Meadow Saffron

 The meadow is poisonous but pretty in the autumn / The cows that graze there / Are slowly poisoned / Meadow-saffron the colour of lilac and of dark shadows around the eyes / Grows there your eyes are like those flowers / Mauve as their shadows and mauve as this autumn / And for your eyes’ sake my life is slowly poisoned

 Children from school come with their commotion / Dressed in smocks and playing the mouth-organ / Picking autumn crocuses which are like their mothers / Daughters of their daughters and the colour of your eyelids / Which flutter like flowers in the mad breeze blown

 The cowherd sings softly to himself all alone / While slow moving lowing the cows leave behind them / Forever this great meadow ill flowered by autumn

Best of Blog: Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’


posted by Catriona Seth

If we were playing a word association game and I said ‘Eiffel Tower’, chances are you would answer ‘Paris’. If I mentioned a village in Gaul which is heroically resisting Roman rule, I surely would need to go no further: menhirs and magic potion would instantly come to your mind and you would answer ‘Asterix’. You would be right. The diminutive Gaul’s adventures have been enchanting French children  since 1959. He was the brainchild of René Goscinny (1926-77) and Albert Uderzo (born in 1927). There have been 36 albums up to and including Le Papyrus de César in 2015, and every time a new one comes out, there is great rejoicing amongst readers of French, young and old.
The Asterix books have been translated into more than a hundred languages. You may well have read them in English. If you have, I am sure you will join me in celebrating the great art of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge who translated them. As bilingual children, my sister and I read Asterix both in English and in French with the same pleasure, and thinking about what made the books funny was one of the ways I got interested in languages. Take the names of the main characters which play on words. It is easy to go from ‘un astérisque’ (the typographical star sign: *) to ‘an asterisk’ and the name of Astérix/Asterix, or to see that ‘un obélisque’ or ‘an obelisk’ gives us Obélix/Obelix, but such obvious translations do not always work. ‘Dogmatix’ is a brilliant name for the little dog, but if you look at the French version, you will find he is called ‘Idéfix’. His English name is, if anything, better than the original, since it keeps the idea that because of his instinct he is rather single-minded which someone who has an ‘idée fixe’ would be (someone ‘dogmatique’ or ‘dogmatic’—the word is the same in French and in English—is unwavering in the conviction that he or she is right or is very set on following a dogma). There is also the added play on words with ‘dog’.
If you read the names of the characters or the places out loud in the original, you will see they are often typical French phrases. The poor old bard who always gets tied up is ‘Assurancetourix’ (an ‘assurance tous risques’ is a comprehensive insurance) and the village elder is ‘Agecanonix’ (to attain ‘un âge canonique’ is to reach a great age). One of the Roman camps is called ‘Babaorum’ (‘un baba au rhum’ is a rhum baba). There are dozens of other fun examples.
Because the Asterix books rely so much on wordplay, it is often difficult to get the same joke in two different languages. Sometimes the translators slip in a pun which is not in the original. I seem to remember an exchange at a banquet in which one character says to the other ‘Pass me the celt’ (for ‘the salt’) and another observes ‘It must be his gall bladder’ with the gall/Gaul homophone providing the joke. This is to make up for the fact that some French puns quite simply cannot be translated.
Beyond the linguistic transfer, there is cultural transfer at work in the English versions of the albums. Preparing a paper for a conference to mark the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo last year, I remembered that in Astérix chez les Belges, before the battle, a warrior, who lives in hope, asks his wife whether he will get potatoes in oil (i.e. chips, the famous Belgian ‘frites’) for his meal. She serves up another justly famous Belgian speciality, a sort of enriched chicken and vegetable stew, called waterzooi (there is usually no final ‘e’). The feisty Belgian looks at the dish and sighs ‘Waterzooie! Waterzooie! Waterzooie! morne plat !’


For the record, it is absolutely delicious and anything but dreary as the photograph shows.

Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)
Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)

The Belgian warrior’s crestfallen rejoinder is a cue for many a cultured Francophone reader to burst out laughing. Why? Because amongst the most celebrated literary evocations of Waterloo—probably the most famous battle ever fought on Belgian soil—is Victor Hugo’s poem ‘L’Expiation’ which contains the line ‘Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! morne plaine !’ The dish set in front of the hungry Belgian and which was not what he hoped for is described in such a way as to echo the dreary plain on which the armies clashed. The reference works at several levels and means you need to recognise the poem on the one hand, Belgium’s national dish on the other. Where does this leave the translators? High and dry, you might think. Clearly there is no way of producing a similar effect here.

Their solution is as elegant as it is clever.


posted by Catriona Seth

(Continued from last week’s post.)

The best known poem in English about Waterloo is certainly Lord Byron’s ‘Eve of Waterloo’ from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Three allusions that I have noticed in the translation of Astérix chez les Belges refer to this poem (there may be others I have missed.) Let me point just one of them out[1]. It is the caption the English translators give to a full page illustration of festivities which is a visual pun on a painting by Breughel: ‘There was a sound of revelry by night’. This is the first line of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ so they are bringing in a famous poetic allusion to the battle which English-speaking readers might recognise, in the same way as the francophones will hopefully have picked up the reference to Victor Hugo.

The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder

One of the great strengths of the Asterix series is that there is something for everyone, from the highbrow Waterloo poetry puns to the franglais names of the self-explanatory Zebigbos or of a village maiden called Iélosubmarine in honour of the Beatles song. You do not need to get them all to enjoy a good read, but everything you pick up draws you a little further in. The more you read them, in a sense, the funnier they are. So… if you want something instructive and fun to read, go for the French version of any one of the 36 albums which recount ‘les aventures d’Astérix le Gaulois’ or compare the original and the English translation: you will be in for a fun, stimulating and thought-provoking treat.

[1] The others, for curious minds, are ‘Nearer, clearer, deadlier than before…’ and ‘On with the dance. Let joy be unconfined.’

Best of Blog: Encore Tricolore, circa 1400

While the blog is on its summer holidays, here are a selection of the best posts from the past couple of years. We’ll be back on the first Wednesday in September with another question on an A-level text: ‘Just how clever is Lou from No et Moi?’

‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’ [A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’[A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]

posted by Edward Mills

For those of us who are fortunate enough to study languages, holidays can be a great way to practise: there’s nothing like embarrassing your parents by ordering their train tickets for them. If you don’t speak the language, though, there is one trusty route to fall back on: the phrasebook. As an idea, phrasebooks have a long history; much longer than you might otherwise think when leafing through a Collins or a Berlitz. Some of the earliest manuals that we possess today were written for learners of French in England in the high and late Middle Ages; still objects of study today, they offer a fascinating insight into how languages were taught over five centuries ago. To illustrate this, I’ll be taking three examples, from consecutive centuries: the Tretiz, written by the wonderfully-named Walter de Bibbesworth around the second half of the 13th century; a Manière de langage from 1396; and a fifteenth-century general primer, the Liber Donati (named after the Latin grammarian Donatus).

These three texts were all written in England, and the circumstances in which they were produced reveals a great deal about the esteem with which French was held in the later Middle Ages. French was widely spoken in what is today Britain in the wake of the Norman Conquest, as part of a (very interesting indeed) triglossia[1] with Latin and English, but as interactions with the continent became more frequent the value of learning French for non-native speakers greatly increased. This is why the Manière de langage is able to state its purpose so boldly: ‘Ci comence la maniere de language que t’enseignera bien a droit parler et escrire doulz françois selon l’usage et la coustume de France.’[2] Assuming on the part of the reader a basic knowledge of the Anglo-Norman dialect of French, all three of these texts aim to educate an English audience that needs vocabulary specific to certain situations.

Of course, all of this may well ring bells — that essentially remains the purpose for the modern phrasebook today. Nor is it an alien concept for textbooks to be written in what is termed the ‘target language’: how many times have you read the phrase ‘corrigez les phrases suivantes’, or else ‘écoutez et répondez’? In a wonderful example of differentiation by prior knowledge, Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz and the Liber Donati even include annotations (‘glosses’) offering English translations for more complicated French terms — ‘berce’ is glossed as ‘cradel’,[3] ‘espaule’ as ‘scholderbon’,[4] and ‘autre fois’ as ‘anoth tyme’.[5]

Another similarity with present-day phrasebooks comes in the way in which new material is presented. We’re all familiar with the hackneyed, slightly stilted dialogues that fill the pages of Encore Tricolore or Élan, so it should come as no surprise that most of the new terms in the medieval texts are first seen in dialogue form. The Manière de langage and the Liber Donati both present the characters of the traveller and his servant (intriguingly called Jehan in both texts) as a focalising device through which the reader can see themself. Here again, similarities abound, as the topics of conversation — a good indication of what it was judged as important to learn — are practically identical to today. The Liber Donati provides an example of how to book into a hotel:[6]

— Hostilier, hostilier.
— Sir, sir, je su cy.
— Purrons nous bien estre loggez ciens?
— Oy, certez, mez maistrez … Combien estez vous en nombre?

While on the road, whether in 1300 or today, it’s also important to be able to ask for information from people you meet. Thankfully, the Manière de langage is here to help, providing multiple ways of how to ask for the time:[7]

Et puis le sr s’en chivalche sur son chemyn, et quant il venra ou my lieu de la ville, il demandera du primer homme qu’il encontrera, ainsi : « Mon ami », vel sic : « Biau sire », vel sic : « Biau filz, quelle heure est-il maintenant ? » Vel sic : « Qu’est ce qu’a sonnee de l’oriloge ? »

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the Collins Gem in your pocket and its medieval equivalent is to be found not in vocabulary, but in grammar. The concept of gender, always tricky to explain, is dealt with in the Tretiz just as it often is today: by looking at the body. Just as we introduce the concept of gender by focusing on the agreement in the phrases ‘j’ai les cheveux noirs’ ( or ‘j’ai de longues jambes’ (, the Tretiz explains the best way to teach your children the concept of gender is through the human body. Plus, it will stop your darling child from being mocked:[8]

Et quant [un enfant] encurt a tele age
Qu’i[l] prendre se poet a langage,
E[n] fraunceis lui devez dire
Cum primes deit sun cors descrivre
Pur l’ordre aver de ‘moun’ e ‘ma’,
‘Ton’ e ‘ta’, ‘soun’ e ‘ça’, ‘le’ e ‘la’
Qu’i[l] en parole seit meuz apris
E de nul autre escharnis.

There’s a huge amount more to be said about these books, whether it be what happens in the narratives that they construct, the individual manuscripts in which they survive, or the complicated relationship between French and English during this period. For now, though, I hope this short foray into the medieval world through the medium of tourism has left you with a sense that your A-Level textbook has a long history behind it. When you’re next grappling with the pluperfect tense, just remember that you’re not the first — some time around 1447, readers of the Liber Donati were faced with another element that would not look out of place today:[9]

J’avoy enseigné, tu avoiez enseigné, il avoit enseigné, nous avoions enseigné, vous avoiez enseigné, ils avoient enseigné.

I find it fascinating to think that all of the things we think of as ‘modern’ tools to learn a language — vocabulary primers, sample conversations, even verb tables — have existed for centuries, in forms we can still look at today. While the medieval learner of French may not have had WordReference on his iPhone, the influence of the tools that he did have can still be felt today. As the (nineteenth-century) French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr would say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’

If you’re interested in reading more about medieval French literature, there are many excellent websites out there. Websites such as the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog and the Medieval Fragments project are a great place to start; I also wrote a more general introduction to medieval French over at the University of Cambridge’s Be Cambridge blog. The Manière de langage is also available online here.


Edward Mills is a postgraduate student in medieval French literature at Wolfson College. Thanks very much to Daron Burrows for proof-reading prior to publication.

1. ‘Triglossia’ refers to a situation wherein three languages are spoken in a given space. See also ‘diglossia’, the phenomenon of two languages being spoken in a given space, and Polyglossia, the University of Cambridge’s student-run modern languages journal (which I definitely wasn’t involved with. Nope. Never.) [↵]
2. Manière de langage, p. 382. “Here begins the Manière de langage which will teach you the proper speech and writing of sweet French as it is used in France.”[↵]
3. Tretiz, l. 7. [↵]
4. Tretiz, l. 98. [↵]
5. Liber Donati, p. 18. [↵]
6. Liber Donati, p. 20. “Innkeeper, inkeeper. / Sir, here I am. / Can you house us here? / Certainly, sirs … how many are you?” [↵]
7. Manière, pp. 394-95. “And then the sire continues on his way, and when he finds himself half an hour away from the town, he asks the man whom he meets, thusly: ‘Friend,’ or ‘Good sir’, or ‘Good man, what time is it now?’, or ‘How many times has the clock sounded?'” [↵]
8. Tretiz, ll. 21-28. “And when [a child] reaches such an age / That he may apply himself to languages, / You should first tell him in French / How to describe his body / By proper order of ‘mon’ and ‘ma’, / ‘Ton’ and ‘ta’, ‘son’ and ‘sa’, ‘le’ and ‘la’; / So that he be better educated in speech / And not be mocked by others.” [↵]
9. Liber Donati, p. 11. [↵]

Spot the Grammatical Error! (Kids’ Books Edition)

posted  by Simon Kemp

It’s quiz time again, and once again, there’s an opportunity to feel smug and superior by spotting mistakes made by French native speakers. Last time, we were hunting out grammatical errors that unfortunate French folk had decided to tattoo on their bodies for all eternity. This time is if anything even worse. The mistakes are in picture books aimed at teaching very young French children how to read.

Below are pages from five picture books, with one mistake in each image. Can you find them all? Answers at the bottom of the post.

(Hint: as is common when native speakers make mistakes, all the errors sound OK when you read them out loud, but are written wrongly on the page, rather like English speakers confusing their, there and they’re.)








Scroll down for answers…






  1. Should be ‘ils tendent le cou (‘they stretch their necks out’).
  2. Should be ‘qu’il fasse moins chaud’ (‘until it gets cooler’).
  3. Should be ‘rassemble’ (‘gathers’).
  4. Should be ‘s’écrie’ (‘shouts out’). ‘S’écrit’ means ‘writes to himself’.
  5. Should be ‘histoires’ (stories).

Images borrowed from the French website Bescherelle ta mère (note: contains adult language!).

Bons mots: savoir-faire

200_s  posted by Simon Kemp

We already know what ‘savoir-faire’ means, don’t we? After all, it’s part of the English language.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that it usually refers to…

the ability to speak or act appropriately in social situations.

They give a few examples of usage, including this one from 1924:
He had, it seems, spent previously some months at Deauville and Paris… and there acquired that polished French and developed that savoir-faire, both so typical of him.’
And this one, about the British Queen Mother in 2000:
‘Her savoir-faire was as much instinctive as learned.’

It’s about sophistication, elegance, good manners and suave self-assurance. It basically means this:



Well, yes, that’s what it means in English, but would you be surprised to learn that that’s not what it means in French?

According to the Larousse dictionary, savoir-faire means:

compétence acquise par l’expérience dans les problèmes pratiques, dans l’exercice d’un métier.

… in other words, it’s know-how (a term that’s also used in French as a synonym for savoir-faire).

So not so much them…


as him:


It can mean being handy with putting up shelves, or good with IT, or having organizational skills. Savoir-faire in French is any kind of practical competence (especially job-related) that you’ve learned by experience.

 So, if savoir-faire in French means know-how, what’s the French for savoir-faire (in the English sense of the word)?

It’s savoir-vivre.

Savoir-vivre is defined in the French dictionary as:

Connaissance et pratique des règles de la politesse, des usages du monde.

…which is basically the same idea of social sophistication that we saw in the original English dictionary definition of savoir-faire.
Bizarrely, then, when you’re translating between the two languages:
if you see savoir-faire in an English text you should probably translate it as savoir-vivre in French
and if you see savoir-faire in a French text you should probably translate it as know-how in English.
How did this odd situation come about?
Well, it seems that when the term first came into English, it had the same meaning as in French. The Oxford Dictionary first records it being used in 1788 in the following line:

‘I have a very great opinion of your savoir faire, especially in the articles of sugar and rum; but for your savoir vivre—none.’

It’s pretty clear that both savoir-faire and savoir-vivre are being used here in their original French senses of know-how and sophistication respectively.

Over the course of the next century or so, savoir-faire in English gradually came to get its present overtones, either because English speakers associated the French with being sophisticated, or because being able to drop French words into your English conversation was itself seen as a sophisticated thing to do. Probably a little of both.

It’s actually quite a common phenomenon. A word that’s fairly ordinary and neutral in French, will come over all sleek, sexy and stylish once it’s borrowed by the English.

It happened with le savoir-faire.

It happened with un je-ne-sais-quoi, which means ‘a certain something I can’t quite put my finger on’ in French, and ‘a certain stylish and sophisticated something I can’t quite put my finger on’ in English.

It happened with un rendez-vous, which in French is the normal, and entirely neutral word for an appointment. If a French person has un rendez-vous with their dentist, it likely involves fluoride gel and oral hygiene tips; if an English speaker has a rendez-vous with a dentist, we expect roses, wine and sugar-free chocolates.

And it happened with la lingerie, which to French people means pants of both the lacy, exotic variety and the sensible, practical, keeping-everything-warm-through-the-winter kind. (It also refers to women’s nightwear of all sorts, and to places where underwear and nightwear are manufactured, sold or stored).


There are several other examples. Can you think of any?

If a language can have an inferiority complex, then it seems English might have got one. If it’s trying to express a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, a kind of effortless, stylish, savoir-faire, then  only French will do.