Category Archives: French language

Paper Frenchmen: Francophone Indian literature

In late November, Oxford welcomed the writer Ari Gautier and his translator into English, Prof. Blake Smith, for a discussion about Francophone Indian Literature and about Gautier’s writing in particular. Part of the ‘World Literatures’ strand of the Creative Multilingualism programme, this event was convened by Prof. Jane Hiddleston and Sheela Mahadevan. Here we reflect on a few highlights…

Currently based in Oslo, Ari Gautier spent his childhood in former French colony Pondichéry, India. He is the author of Carnet Secret de Lakshmi and Le Thinnai, two novels which creatively intersperse Tamil, Hindi, Créole and English with French, reflecting the multilingual identities of those living in Pondichéry. His works give an insight into the impact of the French rule on the lives of Pondichéry citizens, their constantly vacillating identities, the multicultural aspect of the city, the Indian caste system, and the history of Pondichéry.

The ‘World Literatures’ strand of Creative Multilingualism is interested in texts where multiple languages brush up against one another, prompting questions about the boundaries of what a language is. This research wants to explore how worldliness and cultural transfer is present within a text from the moment of its inception, and how multilingualism speaks to multiculturalism. The research aims to expose interactions between different languages within a text, not just by examining the different languages in which a text is written, but also seeking out the traces of other languages through allusions to them or even by the notable absence of certain languages in a text. Gautier’s novels, with their interspersing of at least five languages, therefore seem like a perfect fit.

Prof. Smith gave a useful overview of the status of Francophone Indian Literature. To begin with, he acknowledged that it’s not necessarily something the general English reader will be aware of. When we think of Francophonie, we perhaps automatically think of certain countries in West Africa, Canada, or French-speaking East Asia or Oceania. However, France had a colonial presence in India from the seventeenth century. That said, Francophone Indian Literature was only really published from the late nineteenth century onwards and, during the twentieth century, French acted as a secondary language for many writers who were primarily writing in other languages. Academic interest in the French colonial legacy within Indian writing is fairly recent, and Prof. Smith recommended an anthology of Francophone Indian short stories for anyone who wishes to explore further: Écriture indienne d’expression française, edited by Vijaya Rao (Yoda Press & La Reunion par Le GERM, 2008).

Photo by Muhammed Jiyadh on Unsplash

The panel then turned to a discussion of how multilingualism operates within Gautier’s writing. Here is an extract from Gautier’s novel, Le Thinnai:

— Gilbert, va m’acheter un Suruttu à la boutique. Il te reste encore de la monnaie, n’est-ce pas ?
Voyant Gilbert fouiller désespérément ses poches, mon père lui dit d’aller chez Karika Bhai et d’acheter un paquet de Suruttus sur son compte.
— Oh, je suis à la retraite depuis une bonne dizaine d’années. J’ai fait le strict nécessaire sous les drapeaux pour pouvoir bénéficier de la retraite et je suis retourné au pays, répondit mon père après s’être allumé une cigarette.
— Pourquoi vous n’y êtes pas resté ? Vous ne vous plaisiez pas en métropole ?
— Ce n’est pas une question de s’y plaire ou pas. J’avais juste envie de revenir parmi les miens. Même si je m’étais fondé une famille là-bas, il me paraissait tout à fait naturel de rentrer chez moi.
— Mais la France, c’est aussi chez vous ! Vous êtes citoyen français.
Papa laissa échapper une bouffée de fumée ; il tapotait la cigarette sur le bord du cendrier et parut réfléchir.
— Oui, je suis français. Mais je suis indien en même temps. C’est ici que je suis né, mes ancêtres sont d’ici. Mes racines sont là. Même si j’ai vécu en métropole pendant quelque temps, il m’a paru normal de rentrer chez moi. Il n’y a aucune différence entre moi et un Breton ou un Normand qui aurait envie de retourner chez lui après avoir passé du temps en dehors de sa région natale. Sauf que moi, c’est un peu plus loin… Il marqua un temps d’arrêt pour tirer une bouffée. Mais vous connaissez aussi bien que moi l’histoire de notre pays ; surtout, l’histoire de Pondichéry. Ma famille est française depuis deux générations et je fus le premier à partir en métropole. Jusqu’ici nous n’avions que le statut de Français sur les documents ; mais nous étions profondément indiens. Enfin, nous le sommes toujours. Comment pouvez-vous vous sentir français, sans avoir jamais mis les pieds dans ce pays. Mes parents viennent d’un milieu modeste et n’ont pas eu accès ni à la langue ni à la culture française. L’univers français nous était totalement étranger. La seule chose qui nous rapprochait des Européens était le culte de la religion catholique. À part ça, nous vivions dans deux mondes différents. Notre allégeance à la France se trouvait enfermée dans une vieille malle en ferraille dans l’espoir qu’un jour, un des descendants l’ouvrirait et utiliserait ce morceau de papier. Pendant longtemps, nous ne fûmes pas considérés comme citoyens français ; nous n’étions que des sujets de la nation.
—Mais, toute ces années passées dans l’armée française n’ont pas su éveiller en vous un sentiment d’appartenance à ce pays ?
Mon père écrasa la cigarette au fond du cendrier et se versa une nouvelle rasade. Il se leva pour aller servir le vieil homme et vint s’asseoir sur le petit thinnai. Il tenait le verre de whisky dans sa main droite et regardait les bulles de soda qui remontaient à la surface du verre. Il reprit la parole en se passant la main gauche sur les cheveux d’avant en arrière ; geste qu’il avait l’habitude de faire quand il réfléchissait longuement.
— Je ne connais pas votre histoire, l’ancien, mais vous avez l’air de quelqu’un qui connaît la vie. Vivre en exil est une énorme malédiction. Certes, mon éloignement fut volontaire ; mais à mon époque, nous n’avions pas beaucoup de choix. Partir était le seul moyen d’échapper à une vie indigente. Nos parents et grands-parents qui avaient opté pour la nationalité française avaient fait de nous une génération d’immigrés dans notre pays qui était la France. Indigènes de la nation, nos vies n’ont connu que les tranchées, les coups de feu et les rations militaires. Inconscients et aveugles ignorants, nous sommes partis combattre nos frères malgaches, indochinois et algériens. À aucun moment, la notion que nous étions coupables de complicité involontaire aux massacres d’un pouvoir colonial ne nous a effleurés. Nous nous battions contre des ennemis de notre Mère patrie. Nous en étions fiers. Mais malgré notre fidélité envers elle, l’idée du retour fut plus instinctive. Après tout, nous n’étions que des indigènes des Troupes Coloniales ; la France n’a jamais été notre patrie. Cet attachement ambivalent que nous avons envers elle est une anomalie de l’histoire.  

And here it is in Prof. Smith’s English translation:

 “Gilbert, go buy me a suruttu at the shop. You still have money, don’t you?”
Watching Little Gilbert fumble despairingly in his pockets, my father told him to buy a suruttu from Karika Bhai, and add it to the soldier’s account.
“Oh, I’ve been retired for twelve years now. I did the absolute minimum to earn my pension, and now I’m back.” My father answered, lighting a cigarette.
“Why didn’t you stay? You didn’t like it in France?”
“It wasn’t a question of liking it or not. I just wanted to come back to my own people. Even if I started a family there, it seemed natural to come back home.”
“But France, that’s home too! You’re a French citizen.”
My father exhaled a puff of smoke. He tapped the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and seemed to think it over.
“Oh, I’m French. But Indian, too. I was born here. So were my ancestors. My roots are here. And after spending some time outside their own province, even a Breton or a Norman wants to go home. It’s the same with me. But my home is a little farther… you must know the history of Pondicherry as well as I do. My family has been French for generations, but I was the first one to go to France. Until then we were just paper Frenchmen; really we were Indians. Really we still are. How can you feel French, if you’ve never set foot there? My parents came from nothing; they didn’t know French or French culture. The only thing that connected us to the Europeans was the church. Besides that, it was two different worlds.”
“But all those years in the French army, didn’t they make you feel like you were part of the nation?”
My father crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and poured another drink. He got up to fill the old man’s glass and sat back down. He held his whisky in his right hand, watching the soda bubbles rise to the surface. He ran his left hand through his hair, which he always did when he had to think hard about something.
“I don’t know your story, old one, but you seem like you know a thing or two about life. Living in exile is a curse. Sure, I chose it, but back then there wasn’t much to choose from. Leaving was the only way out of poverty. Trenches, gunshots, and rations, that was all we knew. We fought our brothers in Madagascar, Indochina and Algeria. We never thought we might be guilty of anything. We felt nothing, saw nothing, understood nothing. We fought the enemies of the motherland. We were proud. But in spite of our faithful service, we wanted to come home. We were just colonial soldiers. France was never our country. What we had with it was just a quirk of history.”

The question of French culture and how far it can coexist alongside an Indian identity is central to this passage, a fact that is emphasised and complicated by the fact that the novel is written largely in French. But, of course, this passage is not entirely in French. What about that reference to a suruttu? A suruttu is a cigar, what we would call in English a ‘cheroot’, from the French cheroute, which itself comes from the Tamil curuttu/churuttu/shuruttu/suruttu. In this way, a single word, referring to an everyday item, can illuminate a complicated multilingual interaction.

Similarly the reference to the Tamil word thinnai is an example of what we might think of as an untranslatable word. A thinnai is a raised platform built adjacent to the main entrance of a house. It is common in Tamil Nadu, a state in the south of India. Traditionally, it was a place where elders could rest to talk to neighbours and friends, and where strangers could stop for respite when passing through the town. Thus, in a text written mostly in French we see how a reference to another language can evoke a whole set of cultural values – hospitality, community, conversation. The porous borders between languages can facilitate and reveal the coexistence of multiple cultures.

Gautier talked about his own multilingual background, explaining that he spoke French with his father but Tamil with his uncle. Growing up in Pondicherry, he said that every street seemed to have its own language and he moved around a lot: his universe evolved with languages. When asked about the fact that his first novel included footnotes to explain Tamil words to non-Tamil speakers, but his second novel did not, Gautier confirmed that this was a deliberate decision. Footnotes could be seen as a form of linguistic colonisation – an attempt to make the Tamil words fit more comfortably within a French-language text. By deciding not to explain the Tamil in his second novel, Gautier refused to compromise Tamil. He said that using footnotes made him feel alien to his own language.

The wide-ranging discussion moved on to cover many aspects of Gautier’s writing, including its cinematic quality, the role of received memory in constructing his narratives and the question of mythology. While we don’t have room to touch on all those topics here, we will end by mentioning one further question that was raised, and which again highlights the porous potentiality of multilingualism: the use of Creole in Gautier’s novels.

Le Thinnai includes a character called Lourdes, a servant who speaks in Creole. One of the important roles Creole plays in a novel written largely in French is to recognise a community that has been overlooked. Gautier explained that in Pondicherry there is a problematic hierarchy between what is known as ‘haut-créole’ and ‘bas-créole’. Someone who is ‘haut-créole’ is of mixed French and Indian descent, whereas someone who is ‘bas-créole’ is not of French descent but nonetheless speaks a creolised form of French. The character Lourdes is ‘bas-créole’. She insists that she speaks French but other characters think she is speaking in Creole. The inclusion of Creole in this novel therefore performs the difficulties of thinking about translingualism: how far is it a language in its own right? How far is it a corrupted form of French? Might we think of it as an enhanced form of French?

These are just a few of the questions raised by the notion of multilingualism and translingualism in World Literatures. You can dig a little deeper into Francophone Indian literature by reading Prof. Smith’s piece ‘Indian Literature speaks French‘ or follow Ari Gautier on Twitter.

FRENCH FLASH FICTION: THE STORIES

Here are some of our highly commended entries from the Year 7-11 category of the French Flash Fiction contest (other highly commended entries will be posted in the next few weeks.) As you’ll see, they have a huge variety of styles, moods and subjects, showing how much thought and imagination has gone into their creation. There has also clearly been a lot of care and effort from the writers in expressing themselves in good, clear French. The French is not always perfect – although it is always of an impressive standard for the level of study the writer has reached! – but in every case you can see the enthusiasm for language as the writer tries to tell an ambitious story in a foreign language. Congratulations to all the writers featured here, and we hope you enjoy the stories.

Image by Anke Sundermeier from Pixabay

Monsieur Mystère est le meilleur détective français, toutes les énigmes qu’ on lui donne il sait les résoudre en un éclair. Alerte ! Le trophé de la coupe du monde de football a disparu; Didier Deschamps le capitaine est inconsolable… Trois joueurs sont suspectés de l’avoir volé pour son or: Mbappé, Pogba et Griezman. Monsieur Mystère les interviewe, il remarque Mbappe a une nouvelle Lamborghini ayant des roues en or, Pogba a des nouvelles dents en or et Griezman a un nouveau ballon d’or. Lequel suspectes- tu…?

Aucun ! C’est Gareth Southgate qui la subtilisé pour 2022 !

Sean, Year 7, Trinity Catholic High School

 

Un jour, un chat, une souris et un chien vivent dans une maison. Le chat a très faim. La souris a mangé du fromage. Le chat a mangé la souris. Le chien a poursuivi le chat. Le chat est très gros car il a mangé la souris. De plus, le chat est très lent. Il était très facile pour le chien de manger le chat. Et ensuite? Ensuite, la maison a mangé le chien et tout ce qui se trouvait à l’intérieur.

Ansh, Year 8, Hill House School

 

Amabel s’est réveillée pendant la nuit. Après être descendue les escaliers, elle est sortie de la maison. Elle ne voulait pas partir longtemps, et elle savait certainement qu’elle reviendrait avant que ses frères ne se lèvent.

Elle a commencé à suivre un vieux sentier. Amabel a marché jusqu’à la rivière. Comme elle venait de se réveiller, elle était encore fatiguée et s’est assise près de l’eau. La fille regardait le ciel, qui passait d’un noir à un rose orange.

À son avis, le lever de soleil était la plus belle chose de sa vie.

Jeong, Year 8, Milbourne Lodge School

 

Diables

Ils viennent. Comme ils sont venus des centaines de fois. Sculptés en mes heures de veille, me hantant en mes heures de sommeil. Je tourne un coin et sprinte loin de les soucis que me consomment: mes devoirs, mes examens, la pression et mes relations; dans le monde vrai. Je vérifie ma montre. 3:00 du matin. Mes problèmes intérieurs me sont réveillé encore. Je sais que je devrait dire à quelqu’un, mes parents peut-être. Mais je dois le regarder en face seul. Ma tête tourne et je m’endors encore, dans mon monde imaginaire, où mes diables attendent pour moi.

Jack, Year 9, The Judd School

 

Le rêve
Je me suis assise sur mon lit. Je pense et pense, encore et encore. Ce jour-là, qui marque l’histoire avec un sourire malicieux. Les cicatrices qui restent peintes sur mon corps. Je me souviens de son visage, pâle mais doux. Comme une rose blanche pure émergeant du sol pour la première fois dans le temps. La pensée qui me hante et se moque de ma douleur. Les mains tremblantes, je prends mon visage et je pleure, les larmes de l’océan. J’imagine un monde vide, sans tristesse et sans haine, mais je sais dans mon cœur que je rêve.

Jasmine, Year 9, Cheltenham Ladies College

 

La lumière passait à travers les stores de mes fenêtres; un lever du soleil jaune terne éclairait les murs lavandes.  Je me suis faite tremper dans la chaleur de mon lit avant de marcher vers ma salle de bain.  Alors que mon pied a touché le sol frais, des sensations glaciales ont été envoyées en haut de mes jambes et je me suis regardée dans le miroir.  Les poches sous les yeux étaient intensifiées, ressemblant aux contusions plutôt qu’à un manque de sommeil.  C’étais confuse. Je ne pourrais que me souvenir d’une chose; combien mon coeur me fait mal.

Tilly, Year 10, Colston’s Girls’ School

 

C’était le jour où les étoiles ont commencé de tomber. Ils sont tombés tranquillement. Brûlants, brillants, comme les larmes coulant d’un visage seul. Je les ai regardés avec un émerveillement féroce, bouche bée. Le sol soi-même sous mes pieds, qui avait été fiable jusqu’à maintenant, était en train de vibrer, même de trembler. Je ne pouvais ni souffler ni sentir l’air frais, mais plûtot, il y avait une odeur trenchante et tordue, le sang brulé. Ca m’a fait piqué, ça m’a attaqué. Alors, tout est devenu un noir affreux, pendant que le monde tel que je le connais était terminé.

Jessica, Year 11, Wycombe Abbey

 

La Chose
La nuit est tombée ; le couloir est plongé dans l’obscurité. J’éclaire la pancarte à l’aide de ma torche, mais l’écriture est effacée, et ma main tremble trop. J’entre, la porte se plaignant bruyamment. Une odeur âcre me frappe aussitôt. En face de l’entrée se tient une armoire ancestrale ornée d’un miroir. Un vieux lit longe le côté droit de la pièce et – un grincement résonne soudainement. Je me fige. Puis un autre. Les escaliers, je réalise. Mais personne n’habite ici depuis des siècles. Un souffle caresse mon cou. Je regarde mon reflet dans le miroir, et j’hurle.

Lucas, Year 11, The Judd School

 

Le vieux sorcier habitait dans une maison qui n’existait pas, à Londres, qui existait. Chaque matin à sept heures, il montait au quatre-vingt-dix-neuvième étage et il s’asseyait sur son fauteuil à bascule, en fumant une pipe et lisant un livre. Quand il finissait une page de son livre, il la déchirait et il la pliait pour en faire un oiseau, qui s’envolait. De temps en temps, l’un de ses oiseaux revenait, et il lui demandait où il avait été et où il allait aller ensuite. Un de ces jours, il se disait, il allait les rejoindre.

Nicole, Year 11, The Latymer School 

Launching the 2019 French & Spanish Competitions!

This year, instead of our usual French Film competition, we will be running a Flash Fiction Competition in both French and Spanish. If you are in Years 7-13, you are invited to send us a very short story to be in with a chance of winning up to £100. Read on to find out more…

What is Flash Fiction?

We’re looking for a complete story, written in French or Spanish, using NO MORE THAN 100 WORDS.

How short can it be?

Well, candidates for the World’s Shortest Story include a six-word story in English by Ernest Hemingway:

‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’

Or a seven-word story in Spanish by Augusto Monterroso, called El dinosaurio:

‘Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.’

You don’t have to be as brief as that, but anything from six to a hundred words will do. Just not a single word more.

What are the judges looking for?

We’ll be looking for imagination and creativity, as well as your ability to write in French or Spanish. Your use of French or Spanish will be considered in the context of your age and year group: in other words, we will not expect younger pupils to compete against older pupils linguistically.

What do I win?

There are two categories: Years 7-11 and Years 12-13. A first prize of £100 will be awarded to the winning entry in each category, with runner-up prizes of £25. The winning entries will be published on our website.

How do I enter?

The deadline for submissions is noon on Sunday 31st March 2019.

If you would like to submit a story in French please do so via our online sumission portal here.

If you would like to submit a story in Spanish please do so here.

You may only submit one story per language but you are welcome to submit one story in French AND one story in Spanish if you would like to. Your submission should be uploaded as a Word document or pdf.

The online page will ask you to fill in some details, which are used for the purpose of administering our outreach activity. To understand how your data is used for this purpose, please read the Privacy Policy.
You will then be sent an automated email (check your spam folder if you can’t find this), which will include a link to validate your email address. Please click this link, which will take you to the Modern Languages Faculty website (you will be given an option to sign up to the newsletter. You do not have to sign up to the newsletter in order to enter the competition, although you are welcome to do so). Once you have clicked the confirmation link in the email, your entry has been submitted.

If you have any questions, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Good luck! Bonne chance! ¡ Mucha suerte!

 

*French Film Competition 2018 – Results!*

This was the eighth year of Oxford University’s highly popular French Film Competition, where secondary school pupils are invited to watch selected French films according to their age category (Years 7-11 or Years 12-13) and produce an alternative ending of their own devising. The 2018 film selection was Une vie de chat (Years 7-11) and Des Hommes et des Dieux (Years 12-13). As in previous years, the competition attracted a large number of entries: over 140, from more than 50 different schools.

The judges were greatly encouraged by both the strength and the diversity of this year’s field of applications. There was a notable increase in the number of video clips and storyboard submissions, and overall a great amount of creativity was on display; in both age categories, students channelled their energies into elaborate film scripts and imaginative essays. Many entrants showed commendable French language skills. Shortlisting was a difficult task, with fine margins separating the winners from many other pieces that showed impressive talent. The most successful entries managed to develop plot and character convincingly from the tone established in earlier scenes, picking up smoothly from the set starting-point, with compelling dialogue and plausibly innovative action, all within the specified limit of 1500 words.

In the Years 7-11 category, the joint winning entries were those of Priya Gurcha and Ethan Ross et al. Priya produced a dazzlingly illustrated storyboard that closely reflected the style of the original dessin animé, and caught the judges up in its alternative high-octane conclusion. Meanwhile Ethan and his team produced a very well sequenced, French-language film clip in which comic touches built to a gripping, poignant ending. The runner-up in this category was Sarah Shah with an imaginative and beautifully detailed screenplay, demonstrating convincing psychological development – complete with flashbacks – and a truly cinematic perspective. Highly commended by the judges are Auj Abbas and Daeun Shin. Commendations also go to Joshua Brookes, Kelly Chae, Ananya Ajit, Sofia Ispahani, Tyla Orton, Scarlet Somerville, and Bruno de Almeida Barreto .

In the older age category (Years 12-13) the winner is Florence Smith for her stunningly original ending to Des hommes et des Dieux. This well researched script reconsidered the legacy of the Tibhirine monks via a contemporary newsflash, allowing Florence to reflect on the viability of the monks’ Christian charity and respect for Muslims in France today. Runner-up is Peace Silly, who impressed the judges with her inventive re-imagining of the plot’s outcome, developed around the crux of the supply of medicines, and especially touching in its focus on the friendship between Frère Christophe and Rabbia. In this category, Max Thomas and Trinity Mae Dore-Thomas are highly commended, while commendations go to John John de Weert, Will Foxton, Maya Szaniecki, Georgia Brawne, Martin Christopherson, and Clementine Lussiana.

Some further notes from the judges on the overall field of entries for individual films follow below:

Une vie de chat: a contemporary classic by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, it received over a hundred submissions. At least twenty of these were worthy of consideration for a commendation, with the lower end of the age range (7-9) faring strongly. There was an abundance of entertaining entries that majored on a roof-top fight, shoot-out, car chase and/or tragic death of one of the ‘goodies’. Various entries swapped Notre-Dame for the Eiffel Tower when setting the final showdown between Nico and Costa. The zoo also crept back into several entries. More than one hit upon the idea that Nico might be Zoe’s father (one film clip even had him being magically transformed into the cat!). The most convincing entries were those that managed to engage all the major characters in a plausibly dynamic climax – without losing the quirkiness of the original.

Des Hommes et des Dieux: this is a demanding film that requires considerable background cultural knowledge (or research) in order to be best appreciated. Pleasingly, a number of entries showed exactly this, some quoting the Bible and Arabic phrases to evoke the mind-set of the French monks and the Algerians with whom they mix. We received a good number of entries in a high standard of French. A key challenge here for the students was to develop one or two unusual ideas without introducing implausible characterisation (particularly of Christian). Some entries were beautifully written, but ended up keeping close to the actual ending with the monks’ execution.

We hope you all enjoyed watching the films and working on your entries, and hope you will continue to pursue your interest in French cinema and culture!

— The Competition Judges

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 schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk. 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 schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk 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’S AND DON’TS!

  • 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 (http://www.amazon.co.uk or http://www.amazon.fr). 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 french.essay@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk 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