Bons mots: chat tigré

posted by Simon Kemp

Given that the internet is made of cats, there’s no reason for this blog to be an exception, so here, accompanied by an image of my own overweight and slightly moth-eaten chat tigré, is a post on the subject. Tigré is another of my favourite words, not just because I own a chat tigré myself, but because it makes the cat sound very much cooler than in its English translation, tabby cat. My Larousse dictionary lists tigré as a simple adjective, which ‘se dit d’un pelage marquée de taches, de bandes plus foncées’ [‘refers to fur marked with darker patches or stripes’]. The online Trésor de la langue française goes one better, though, identifying it as the past participle of a rare verb, tigrer quelque chose, ‘to tiger-stripe something’. It even has a few literary examples of usage, including the following from Huysmans: ‘l’épiderme se tigre de taches jaunes’  [‘the epidermis is tiger-striped with yellow marks’]. It strikes me as an unfortunate lapse that English never thought to make tigering a verb, and it never occurred to us that our tabby cats might have been tigered.

Cats turn up in all kinds of idioms and proverbs in French. I think, although I’m not sure of this, rather more frequently than they do in English. Rarely the same ones though. You don’t set the cat among the pigeons in French, for instance, on jette un pavé dans la mare (‘throw a cobblestone into the pond’). You don’t let the cat out of the bag but vendre la mèche (literally, ‘sell the wick’, but in an archaic sense meaning, more or less, ‘reveal the fuse that leads to the hidden gunpowder’). And nor does it rain cats and dogs: in France, rather less surreally, il pleut des cordes (‘it rains ropes’). Weirdly, though, a French idiom will often map exactly onto its English equivalent in image and sense, except for the fact that the French have substituted a cat for various items used in the English expressions. French people do not have a frog in their throat, ils ont un chat dans la gorge; they do not call a spade a spade, ils appellent un chat un chat; they do not tell each other to let sleeping dogs lie, they warn that il ne faut pas réveiller le chat qui dort;and they do not have other fish to fry, ils ont d’autres chats à fouetter. And yes, the French are whipping those cats in that last expression, but English speakers have no cause to feel morally superior: the French simply complain about cramped accommodation that il n’y a pas la place de se retourner (‘there isn’t room to turn around’), without having recourse to cruel and unusual cat-swinging to express their dissatisfaction.

Occasionally the two languages agree on the uses of cats: both of us can play cat and mouse with someone / jouer au chat et à la souris avec quelqu’un, for instance. And there must presumably be some link between the French expression, donner sa langue au chat, meaning to give up trying to guess something, and the not-quite-matching English idea that a ‘cat’s got your tongue’ when you’re too inhibited to speak, with its equally peculiar image. They also have a good stock of cat-expressions all their own, such as the proverbs, chat échaudé craint l’eau froide’ (‘a scalded cat fears cold water’), which is near-equivalent to our ‘once bitten, twice shy’, but, when you think about it, isn’t exactly the same idea, plus the wonderfulla nuit, tous les chats sont gris’ (‘at night, all cats are grey’), which has nothing like it at all in English, and refers in French to how darkness (and, perhaps, other kinds of obscurity) hide the differences by which we classify and distinguish people. It’s incidentally also the title of the chapter of Les Trois Mousquetaires I talked about here, where d’Artagnan pretends to be the Comte de Wardes in Milady’s darkened bedroom.

Finally, it’s not just in language, but in French culture generally that cats have prominence. No less than three of the poems in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal are about cats. Here’s my favourite:

Les Chats

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

And (loosely) translated by Roy Campbell :

Cats

Sages austere and fervent lovers both, 
In their ripe season, cherish cats, the pride 
Of hearths, strong, mild, and to themselves allied 
In chilly stealth and sedentary sloth.

Friends both to lust and learning, they frequent 
Silence, and love the horror darkness breeds. 
Erebus would have chosen them for steeds 
To hearses, could their pride to it have bent.

Dreaming, the noble postures they assume 
Of sphinxes stretching out into the gloom 
That seems to swoon into an endless trance.

Their fertile flanks are full of sparks that tingle, 
And particles of gold, like grains of shingle, 
Vaguely be-star their pupils as they glance.

The others are here and here. Better known even than Baudelaire’s cats, though, is the cat belonging to sixteenth-century essayist, and master of thought-provoking quirkiness as literary style, Michel de Montaigne:

Quand je me jouë à ma chatte, qui sçait si elle passe son temps de moy plus que je ne fay d’elle?’

(‘When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?’)

… he famously wondered, as has many a cat-owner in his wake.

Bookshelf Book Club: Un secret, by Philippe Grimbert

posted by Simon Kemp

If you’re looking to read a novel in French that’s fairly short and accessible, but a serious piece of literature that will stay with you long after you finish it, then Philippe Grimbert’s Un secret would be a good choice. It won the Prix Goncourt des lycéens when it was published (France’s only literary prize to be awarded by a panel of sixth-formers), and has since been made into a film by Claude Miller.

The autobiographical novel is about the terrible family secret Philippe uncovers during his childhood. The story begins with his unusual quirk, as a child, of having not an imaginary friend, but an imaginary brother:

 

Fils unique, j’ai longtemps eu un frère. Il fallait me croire sur parole quand je servais cette fable à mes relations de vacances, à mes amis de passage. J’avais un frère. Plus beau, plus fort. Un frère aîné glorieux, invisible.

[An only child, for a long time I had a brother. You had to take my word for it when I served up this tale to people I met on holiday or casual acquaintances. I had a brother. Stronger, more handsome. A glorious, invisible older brother.] 

 

But not only does Philippe have an imaginary brother, he also knows the brother’s name, Simon, and owns the cuddly toy dog that once belonged to him. Simon, it begins to appear, is not so imaginary after all, but pieced together from half-remembered whispers and silences about Philippe’s parents’ lives before he was born. And the mystery seems somehow connected to the fact that their real name isn’t Grimbert at all, but the Jewish surname, Grinberg. What Philippe finally discovers is a history of love and betrayal among his parents and their circle of friends during the German Occupation of France in World War II, culminating in a dramatic event, the ‘secret’ itself, which, once you learn it, you won’t forget for a long time.

In Context

posted by Simon Kemp

You may have seen in the news recently that state-school students are said to be likely to do better in their university degree than independent-school students who start university with identical qualifications. The news is reported here, and you can find the original study, carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, here.

The BBC gives the findings as follows:

The Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) tracked 130,000 students beginning degrees in 2007, looking at schooling, background and ethnicity.

It found on some measures state pupils were significantly more likely to get a 2:1 than their private school peers.

Of those students who achieved ABB at A-level, some 69% of students from independent schools went on to gain 2:1 or a above compared with about 77% of students educated at state schools.

And at three Bs, 61% of independent students pupils got a 2:1 or above compared with 70% of state school students.

It’s not the first such study, but it is the biggest, and its findings confirm the results of earlier studies, including a 2009 study of Oxford admissions.

The first question, if you are currently a student at a UK state or independent school and worried about your chances of getting to university, is: what does this finding mean for you as an individual?

The answer to that question is: nothing. It has no significant bearing on the likelihood of you personally getting into the university of your choice, and no impact on the likelihood of you doing well in your degree once you get there. It’s a large-scale study, looking at over a hundred thousand students, and extrapolating from that data that the performance of the average state-school student at university may exceed that of the average private-school student with the same grades.

You are not an average student.

In fact, nobody is: it’s a mathematical construct, obviously. And there’s nothing very useful you can infer from it about your own particular case, no matter what kind of school you may be attending.

What the study will do, though, is reopen the debate about whether universities should use ‘contextual data’ about applicants’ backgrounds in their admissions process, along with qualifications acquired and predicted grades, to decide whether to offer a place. As we’ve already talked about here, Oxford already takes into account a great deal of information beyond your qualifications in deciding who to offer places to, including (in modern languages) personal statements, schoolwork, language tests, and interview performance. Among this extra information is precisely this contextual data, and has been for some years now. Here’s the university’s official statement on the topic.

With every UCAS form that comes in for a UK student, I’m told what kind of school you attended (state or private, comprehensive, grammar or sixth-form college), and I’m also told whether that school performs better or worse than the UK average at GCSEs and at A-level or equivalent. The forms ‘flag up’ below-average schools in either category, to show if your grades are outperforming those of your peer group. I also know, provided you’ve opted to disclose this information, if you have a disability of any kind (about which you can give details on the form), and whether you’ve spent time in care. The form will also tell me if the postcode of your home address indicates that you may come from an area designated ‘moderate means’ or ‘hard pressed’ economically, or if people from your area generally have low participation in higher education.

The university’s policy states that, if your predicted grades and your performance on pre-interview tests suggest there’s a possibility you may be able to get a place, then candidates flagged for postcode and school performance, or candidates flagged as having been in care, are strongly recommended to be invited to interview, and admissions tutors must explain to their departments if there are any exceptional reasons why they might not do so.

It’s not, however, the university’s policy to make lower offers to some candidates on grounds of school type or contextual data. In modern languages, all candidates who successfully pass the admissions process are given an offer of AAA at A-level or equivalent for other sixth-form qualifications. Should you happen to miss your offer by a small margin, though, we do at that stage reopen your application file and re-examine all the data we have on you, including the contextual data, to see whether at that stage there might be grounds for relaxing the requirements. In my personal experience as an admissions tutor, on several occasions in the recent past, there have been.

There’s obviously much to be debated on the rights and wrongs of Oxford’s policy on admissions, and on how well it works, and I’m sure some of that will be spread across the media in the wake of this report. But I thought it would be useful to lay out the basic facts of our approach, so you can at least see how we go about looking for academic potential, wherever it might be found.

Bookshelf Film Club: Panique au village (A Town Called Panic)

Perhaps not destined for immortality alongside the films of Renoir, Truffaut and Godard (we’ll get around to them later), Panique au village (2010) is nevertheless one of the most striking and original French-language films this decade. I mention it now because, as The Lego Movie sweeps the planet with wild enthusiasm for manic silliness, delirious inventiveness and non-stop action performed by small plastic children’s toys, it’s a good moment to hunt out that film’s spiritual godfather. In fact, if the makers of The Lego Movie didn’t watch A Town Called Panic while they were coming up with their ideas, then there’s a surprising coincidence of tone between the two films.

The main characters of A Town Called Panic are a house-sharing group of three friends, one of whom happens to be a small plastic cowboy, one of whom is a small plastic Indian, and the third a small plastic horse. All three of them live in a perpetual state of frenetic excitement, speak very fast, and have a tendency to panic. If they seem familiar, it may be because they also starred in adverts for Cravendale milk on British TV a few years ago. The story begins when Cowboy and Indian plan to build a barbecue for Horse’s birthday party, but accidentally order over the internet a billion times more bricks than they require to build it. The resulting delivery destroys their house, but each time they try to rebuild it, someone steals the walls during the night. They discover the thieves to be a group of sea-monsters, who…

Actually, that’s as far as I can really get with summarizing the plot, which seemed to make sense when I watched the film, but now just leaves me confused and giggling. Let me just say that it’s very funny, and if you liked Emmet, Wyldstyle and Unikitty, you’ll like these too. Here’s a flavour of it from the trailer:

A Darker Shade of D’Artagnan

posted by Simon Kemp

The BBC’s musketeers rumble on, not having a great deal to do with Dumas’s novel, to be honest, but entertaining none the less. The adventure-of-the-week is generally entirely made up by the show’s writers, but the occasional scene, like Richelieu’s offer to d’Artagnan to join his Red Guards, or longer story-arcs, like the emerging back-story between Athos and Milady, come from the novel more or less intact. The free adaptation makes the show more interesting for people who already know the book, as it leaves us guessing which parts of the original story will make it into the programme. I know what the novel has in store for Constance Bonacieux further down the line, for instance, and I know that the filmmakers could hardly do better if they wanted a dramatic end to their first season, but is that really where we’re heading? I’m still not sure.

I want to talk a little about d’Artagnan in this post, though, and how Dumas’s version differs from the BBC one. Our first impression of him on TV could hardly have been further from the novel. Dumas’s d’Artagnan starts the story as a cocky, happy-go-lucky teenager out to seek his fortune in Paris and pick a fight with anyone who gets in his way. ‘Puppyish’ is a fair description, and 1980s Spanish cartoon series, Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds actually got his character down quite nicely. Luke Pascalino’s d’Artagnan, however, starts off brooding and grief-stricken, heading to the capital to avenge his father’s death by seeking out the sinister, black-robed Power-Behind-the-Throne he holds responsible for the killing. That’s not Les Trois Mousquetaires, that’s Star Wars. (Might Peter Capaldi turn out to be Pascalino’s real father? Let’s not even think about it.) Thankfully, he cheers up a bit in later episodes, and the series gets a little closer to the novel’s boisterous spirit, but the initial idea behind the series does seem to have been to ‘go dark’ with its source material in much the same manner that Christopher Nolan set out to drain all the fun out of Batman in his film trilogy.

There is one moment in Dumas’s novel, though, which generally fails to make it into modern adaptations, where d’Artagnan suddenly comes across as very dark indeed. D’Artagnan has befriended Milady’s maid, Ketty, and inveigled his way into her room, from where he can eavesdrop on Milady through the thin partition wall. After learning Milady’s plans, d’Artagnan declines to leave Ketty’s room. Here it is in the original French:

 

– Silence ! silence ! sortez, dit Ketty ; il n’y a qu’une cloison entre ma chambre et celle de Milady, on entend de l’une tout ce qui se dit dans l’autre ! 

– C’est justement pour cela que je ne sortirai pas, dit d’Artagnan. 

– Comment ! fit Ketty en rougissant. 

– Ou du moins que je sortirai… plus tard. 

Et il attira Ketty à lui ; il n’y avait plus moyen de résister, la résistance fait tant de bruit ! Aussi Ketty céda. 
C’était un mouvement de vengeance contre Milady.

(from Chapter 33, ‘Soubrette et maîtresse’)

 

And here’s a translation of the same passage :

“Silence, silence, begone!” said Kitty. “There is nothing but a wainscot between my chamber and Milady’s; every word that is uttered in one can be heard in the other.”

“That’s exactly the reason I won’t go,” said D’Artagnan.

“What!” said Kitty, blushing.

“Or, at least, I will go… later.”

He drew Kitty to him. There was no way to resist, resistance would make so much noise. Therefore Kitty surrendered.

It was a movement of vengeance upon Milady. 

 

Worse still, this is only the first step in d’Artagnan’s vengeance. ‘Seducing’ Ketty is part of a plan to gain him access into Milady’s bedroom under cover of darkness for a night of passion, all the while pretending to be Milady’s lover, the Comte de Wardes. Later, he will mockingly inform Milady of the earlier deception after seducing her in his own name with the lights on. So is our hero d’Artagnan in fact… a serial rapist? He certainly seems to have non-consensual sex with both women, even if Ketty bears no grudge about it (quite the opposite, in fact), and Milady consents to sleep with d’Artagnan both when she knows who he is and when she thinks he’s de Wardes. We are, of course, dealing with a nineteenth-century depiction of seventeenth-century social mores, so we must be careful to bear in mind the historical context when we judge things from our own twenty-first century perspective. And if one thing is clear, it’s that Dumas doesn’t think his hero has done anything wrong at all. But there’s a moral murkiness to d’Artagnan’s behaviour in the novel, to say the least, which has been wiped clean for the BBC TV adaptation. And without it, Milady’s obsessive pursuit of d’Artagnan, and the terrible harm she may later cause him, make much less sense. Dumas’s Milady may be a caricatured villain in many ways, but at least in the novel she’s not just being evil towards d’Artagnan for the fun of it. She has good reason.

100% Made in France

posted by Simon Kemp

While we’re on the subject of newspapers, here’s another report, in English this time, that might interest you. The Guardian reports that, following a call to French citizens from a government minister to support the country’s economic recovery by buying French products, one person decided to do just that. Exclusively.

Journalist and documentary-maker Benjamin Carle set out to live for ten months using, living with, and eating exclusively made-in-France products. It turned out to be harder than he’d imagined:

 

“He set just three rules: eat only foods produced in France, eliminate contact with foreign-made goods and do so on €1,800 a month (above the minimum wage of €1,430 to cover the extra expense of living in Paris).

The journalist was shocked to find out at the start of the experiment that only 4.5% of the contents of his flat were made nationally – and that the rest would have to go, including the lightbulbs (China) and green beans (Kenya).

The removal men left his home almost bare.

Left without a refrigerator (none are made in France), or nail clippers, he was forced to chill his food on the window ledge and saw at his toenails with a penknife.

His foreign-made clothes, down to his underwear were replaced with more expensive, alternatives: French-produced underpants (€26), socks (€9), polo shirt (€75), espadrille sandals (€26), but no jeans as none are produced in France.

On discovering France makes no refrigerators (apart from wine coolers) or televisions, but is big in aeroplane seats and windmills, he sighs and says: “Great. Nothing that will fit into my apartment.”

 

You can read the full report here, and discover why he made it to only 96.9% French. There’s also an embedded clip from the TV documentary he made about the experiment.

Is French a Sexist Language?

la rousse

posted by Simon Kemp

 The French newspaper Le Monde has been taking a look at the question, in an interesting article (in French) that you can read online here. There are the issues we know about, of course, such as the rule that ‘le masculine l’emporte sur le féminin’ in sentences where both genders govern an adjective, pronoun or participle ending:

Les femmes sont rentrées chez elles.

but

 Les femmes et le garçon sont rentrés chez eux.

 

We know too about the vexed question of masculine job titles for professional women :

Madame le maire

Madame le ministre

Madame le professeur

Both of these grammar points cause controversy, and there have been calls for reform, which we’ll revisit another time. Le Monde, though, takes a different tack, and examines pairs of words, which grammatically stand as simply the masculine and feminine forms of the same word. In all the cases Le Monde picks out, though, the masculine form has a positive or neutral connotation, while the feminine form has a derogatory, and often sexual meaning:

– Un gars peut être  bon ou brave, c’est-à-dire un mec sympa. Une garce même belle, restera une garce.

(‘Un gars’ translates more or less as a ‘lad’, but ‘une garce’ means a bitch.)

– Un courtisan est un proche du roi, une courtisane est trop proche du roi

(‘Un courtisan [a courtier] is close to the king; une courtisane [a courtesan] is too close to the king.’)

– Un professionnel est un homme compétent, une professionnelle est une prostituée.

(‘A professional [applied to a man] is a skilled man; a professional [applied to a woman] is a prostitute.’)

Le Monde has several more examples, and a lively debate among readers below the line, about whether the language itself is teaching its speakers from an early age to disrespect and sexualize women. See what you think, and if you think the writer is onto something about French, are you confident that English is free of the same problems?

The Year Abroad Game

Posted By Rowan Lyster, a third year at Somerville College, reading French and Linguistics, and is currently on her year abroad in Montpellier, France. This is an extract from rowanlyster.blogspot.fr

I’ve decided it’s time that the secret competitiveness of being-on-a-year-abroad was made official, and have created the Year Abroad Game. Rewards are measured in smug-points; any inconsistencies in the rules are down to artistic licence (and definitely not the fact I couldn’t be bothered to make up a proper scoring system).

START: You find yourself trapped in a foreign land where nobody has heard of Doctor Who. Will you survive? 

Gain 5 points for each cool attraction you discover in your new hometown.

Such as the ice rink, which has a disco section complete with a light tunnel and hills. In classic French style, this is completely dark, and full of terrifyingly reckless locals. Great fun, despite frequent near-death experiences.

Gain 2 points (and a few pounds) every time you sample a local foodstuff

such as crêpes, of which I’ve eaten a shocking number since discovering the heaven-in-a-pancake that is Nutella with Speculoos-spread.

Gain 10 points if you wring a smile out of one of the bitter and twisted administrators you’ll no doubt encounter.

Such as the receptionist of my accommodation, who regularly tells off residents for the heinous crime of asking for our post. After a determined campaign of sickly sweet bonjour’s, I miraculously got a friendly smile back.

Lose 15 points and go back 3 spaces if you let out a snarky comment to one of the bitter and twisted administrators who’ll no doubt be pointlessly rude to you. 

Believe me, the former is ultimately a better way of getting things done.

Gain 30 points if you get a non-disastrous haircut during your time abroad.

I managed this the other day, despite an alarming lack of French hairdressing vocabulary. Aside from nearly accepting an unwanted fringe, it went surprisingly well!

Gain 20 points if you go on a spontaneous trip with no particular destination in mind. 

We accidentally did this after attempting to go to Nîmes by bus (it turns out there is no bus to Nîmes, despite the confident assertions of 6-8 locals who sent us on a frankly impressive wild goose chase). After giving up on Nîmes, we hopped on a bus and ended up in Pézenas, a gorgeous town an hour or so away.

 

 

Pézenas

Gain 15 points for each new town you visit.

The Nîmes story has a happy ending; we finally made it there (by train) the other day!

 

 

We saw this gem…

 

 

…and this badass.

Gain A MILLION POINTS if you ever manage to actually receive CAF (the French housing allowance).

I was lulled into a false sense of security by a letter saying I’d been approved for this, but apparently that’s just a hilarious prank they like to play before asking you for every document you’ve ever heard of and a lot that you haven’t. On the plus side, there’s free money available to anyone willing to undergo the seven labours of Hercules.

Lose 1 point every time you accidentally insert snippets of English e.g. ‘yknow,’ and ‘like,’ into your target language. 

This is particularly embarrassing in official meetings.

Gain 10 points for each new hobby you take up.

I’ve joined a walking group. Yes, I have become my parents… It’s actually a great way of exploring, as the people with cars drive everyone to somewhere cool.

Gain 15 points per nationality for all the international students you manage to befriend.

So far I’ve met people from Germany, Spain, Italy, Algeria, America, Switzerland, Poland, Brazil and Hungary.

Gain 30 points if you do something ridiculously brave that you’d never do at home.

I went with a German friend to a café that had libre-service instruments, and eventually decided to go for the plunge and play the piano in public. Nobody booed, although hell may have frozen over.

Wild card: OH MY GOD ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN if you completely change your plans for the year. 

By ‘completely’ I mean ‘quite a lot’ – I’m moving house at Christmas and have replaced a lot of my study-time with volunteering-time, which conveniently involves interacting with Actual French People.

Gain 100 points if you get mistaken for a French person by another foreigner.

This has happened to me a few times, albeit briefly. I’m also often asked if I’m German, due to my Nordic good looks (I like to think).

And if you get mistaken for a French person by an Actual French Person

Go home, you have won. 

 

Here’s a bonus picture of the French doing what they do best: taking extremely strange things rather seriously. This man was darting about and pointing at people, occasionally shouting “ACHEVÉ!” all filmed by solemn people in white coats.

 

Le Lunch (and other franglais)

posted by Sam Gormley, fourth-year French student at St Hugh’s, and year-abroad hotel-worker in the Auvergne

Recently, a woman came to reception to ask for her ‘lunch’. It being a calm point of the day- that particular day was a Wednesday, I think, or a Monday, it doesn’t matter- I had just been quietly minding my own business. The sun was out, I was emptying the dishwasher, nothing special, it was a Wednesday or a Monday, maybe a Thursday, and I was minding mes oignons. 

She asks me for her ‘lunch’.

I merrily ask her to repeat the request.

‘Mon lunch’.

All I hear is ‘moleurrncsh’. I ask her, apologetic, to repeat again.

[With annoyance] ‘Tu sais? Leleeurrrnsch que j’avais commandé hier?’

Nope, sorry, still….

…still not getting it.

She looks at me as if I were an idiot, as if this were all a joke, a hilarious joke on my part, and that no, really, ha!, I know what your ‘leeurrnsch’ is, this just a set-up, you’re actually on television right now, joke’s on you! I ask her again to repeat, and by now I’ve gone bright red, I’m floundering like a beached whale, at least, one that can’t speak French, and, somewhere, all my past languages teachers vomit simultaneously.

She then proceeds to mime shoving food into her face, into her unimpressed French face.

And it suddenly twigs. She’s saying ‘lunch’.

Lunch! Yes! YES. I know what that is! At that point I slapped myself on the forehead, jabbering something about being an idiot, how could I not know what ‘lunch’ meant, and I probably looked like a psychopath and she probably reached into her pocket and quietly started dialling for the police.

Now, as an Englishman, I am generally expected to have a decent grasp of English. But ‘lunch’ throws me entirely. ‘Lunch’.  An English word. I failed to comprehend my own language. I hand the woman her panier pique-nique, which is the set phrase I’m used to, still jabbering pathetic apologies, and she nods and gives me a chilling, sarcastic smile and takes her plastic bag of food.

Fortunately, this has only happened once since I’ve been in working in the hotel. Actually, it’s less common to hear nonsense like that than it is to see it. A few days previously, I notice these words on an advert:

‘Le top shopping sensation!’

No, France, wrong. That’s wrong. That’s not French. That’s English. I am English, trust me, that’s not French. There are lots of these floating around, including, but by no means limited to:

– un total-look

– Stabiloter (i.e., to underline something with a Stabilo highlighter)

– une garden-party

– un one-man-show

– un brunch

It’s a strange phenomenon, but one the student of French just simply has to accept, especially when the English word used does not even seem to make any real sense in English. It’s all part of language change and, love it or hate it, it exists, and the French bloody well love it. If anything it adds to the exciting unpredictability (read: maddening unpredictability) of studying a foreign language. But it also adds to its richness; many bizarre conversations are to be had with foreigners on the subject of word-swapping. Not only do you learn about the way in which a modern French person speaks, you also learn about the huge number of French expressions in English. Here’s the catch: they don’t mean anything in French either. I used the phrase ‘un double-entendre’ when explaining to a French person, well, what a double-entendre was. We all know what it means in English: to a French person? Nothing at all. Just nothing. Not even a flicker. The just heard the words ‘twice-hear’ put together for no reason. So it’s as strange for them as it is for us. When you do travel experiences like this, in France, or Germany, or wherever you go for your Year Abroad, you come face to face with the reality of language as it’s really spoken by people (which, incidentally, is nothing like how you’ll speak it for your GCSE or A-levels- but that’s a matter for another time), and not the kind of French the Académie française wants us to learn. For better or for worse (often for worse, especially when stupid stuff happens to modern language students), languages change. All we can do is deal with it, adapt, move on, and then sob silently when no-one’s watching.

 

(For my Year Abroad (2012-13) I worked: as a language assistant in primary schools in Briançon, in the Alps, for seven months; then as a waiter/ receptionist/ barman for two months in a hotel in the Auvergne (South-Centre); and finally as an au-pair for three boys, still in the Auvergne, for two months. This article been adapted from a blog post I wrote whilst I was working in the hotel, hence the lack of context.)

My Oxford

posted by Helena Kresin, first-year student of French and Spanish at Trinity College

I had always wanted to go to Oxford. The beauty of the town, the rich history and the prospect of being surrounded by so many knowledgeable individuals had attracted me from a young age. Some of my friends were intimidated by all the grandeur, imagining imposing professors and fancy dinners with strict rules of etiquette, but I can tell them now for certain that Oxford is far from intimidating. It is true there are certain quirky traditions that have been kept, such as having to wear gowns on the odd occasion, but these only add to the charm of the institution and serve as a reminder of its unique character.

I could never pretend that Oxford doesn’t involve a lot of work, but this should not be seen as a negative aspect of the University. I was shocked by how quickly I improved after just 8 weeks of my first Oxford term and this was undoubtedly due to the constant practice I had writing essays and doing assignments required for my French and Spanish degree. Being kept constantly busy is – I now realise – a blessing, keeping boredom at bay and allowing constant immersion and thus a deeper understanding of the languages I’m studying. In fact, in many ways, I have found Oxford easier than school. At school, there was sometimes the risk of having a teacher who you worried might not help you achieve the grade you want in your exam. Here, there is never that worry. The tutors are incredibly helpful, being only an email away and generous with the time they devote to clarifying anything you might be confused by. The comments and feedback they have given me have proven extremely useful , being thorough and constructive rather than negatively critical. In addition, being in the city and surrounded by all your friends and other students of similar age has meant that going out and doing things outside of the academic sphere is far easier than it ever was at home. I even go out more than friends at other universities, perhaps owing to the sociable atmosphere of Oxford where everyone seems to make sure they have a good time at all of the many events on offer. It’s also great to be able to do the subjects I love and be surrounded by those who love it just as much as I do, with experts in the field able to answer all the questions you’ve long wanted to have answered.

There is certainly never a dull moment here. The tutorials provoke interesting discussions which encourage you to form you own opinion and essays really allow you to express your individuality. I never thought I would say it, but the lectures have proven fascinating too. All of the lecturers I’ve had have been animated, passionate and ready to impart their vast knowledge on a wide range of topics.

I don’t need reminding of how fortunate I am to be in such a fantastic university. I stand by the view that if every educational institution was like Oxford, everyone would be instilled with the same love for learning that I have developed since being here. The only thing that saddens me is that my studies here will one day come to an end.

A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in French language and culture, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!