End of the School Year!


If you were thinking that it’s been a long time since my last post, you’d be right! The school year since March took on a kind of frenetic energy, and, for that matter looks to continue for  few more days yet!

Today, the primary school kids that usually hurtle out of the school gates were in an excitable state but keen to linger for their last moments of junior school. I became camera woman taking the inevitable last moment snapshots. It’s moments like this that remind you that you are inescapably in France. The school, a typically “Madeline style” old brick and silex house, with large front courtyard playground and tall metal gates was overflowing with children this afternoon all saying their fond farewells to their “maitresses”. For primary school teachers to kiss their pupils is common, and today the children queued in long lines to wait to have their hands shaked and their cheeks kissed before making their way out onto the street, mindful that next year they would be in Collège. Anywhere else such displays of affection between staff and pupils would be abuse litigation possibilities!

Collègians and Lycéens finished school two weeks ago, after a flurry of exams. Unlike the UK, results for state exams are published only a month after being taken. The adolescents can relax into their holidays without anxiety hanging around them for the summer. Tonight I watch my older two prepare for the huge open air concert on the Rouen Quayside. The campbeds are already laid out for visiting friends making use of our city centre location! Following the success of last year when Mika played to a 60,000 strong audience, The city of Rouen has hosted another set of free concerts, tonight Martin Garrix takes over from the support bands at 11.30. It will be a late and noisy night!

The city will be buzzing through till July the 14th with masses of tourists joining the local population to watch the fireworks at the end of the French national holiday commonly known as Bastile Day. From that moment onwards, the local population winds down in preparation for the real French national holiday- the month of August!

Another school year is over. The school reports are in, and I’m a proud parent. Two of my children have averages of 19/20 in French. I have to record the fact because I am often asked if it is possible, and it’s a great moment when you realise that it is.  I stuck my neck out this year and registered at university to study French, mindful of the ever growing gap between my children’s expertise and my faltering one. To date, it’s the best thing that i’ve done in France. I am over the moon to say that I passed the B2 diploma. At some moments there were doubts, without question there were frustrations and it certainly wasn’t a breeze, but speaking and writing  the language with confidence creates opportunities, and opens up friendships and job possibilities. I am poised for the next diploma, the DALF C1, and all the amusement that it will hold for my children as I study along-side them next year!

But until that moment I can say only one thing:

Bienvenue à l’été!



Was Ist Das? Comment Dire? Will We Ever Get The Hang Of It..?

We are into part 2 of the first term of the DELF/DALF B2 French Diplôme, and today we all as one reached melt-down.  We were listening to a radio broadcast in very rapid French, and after a few panic stricken minutes had ony managing to pick out one or two key words. Sidelong glances at our counterparts reassured us that we were not alone! Thankfully one by one we disolved into snorts and giggles, and not into floods of tears -though perhaps that’s still to come!

The B2 is divided into three main parts, Grammar, Comprehension Ecrit (written) and  Comprehension Oral. Clearly we all have our individual difficulties, and the course is set to challenge us to our full. No more inane conversations about daily life, but serious debate on current affairs – L’argumentation, Le debât et…Le STRESS! Since we have all arrived from different parts of the globe, our personal cultures present their own individual difficulties. Whilst the Europeans have the clear linguistic advantage of the same alphabet and the European compulsion to ‘speak out’, the Chinese and the Russians have an alternative alphabet, and those from the Far East have a  clear cultural predisposition to listen and revere the word of their Professors. So we see the Russians, Turkish, Germans and British in full voice, with the Far Eastern contingent reticent to contribute, yet technically mastering the language in great leaps behind the scenes. Notwithstanding the individual difficulties of the group, each and every one of us has a common stumbling block – pronunciation.

Today, led in a false expectations following a particularly helpful Comprehension Ecrit class, in which another prof had masterfully aided our pronunciation of two phonic vowel groups, and having been promised ‘more’ in the Comprehesion Orale class, one Turkish classmate requested help with the phonic sound of ‘Merci’. The ‘ER’ sound, whilst being easy for the German and Anglophone contingent presented enormous difficulties for the Turks.

‘Mais NON’ declared emphatically the Prof of Oral, ‘phonetics are no longer taught after B1’.

A situation spectacularly unhelpful for all those who arrived in B2 without having ever followed the earlier A or B1 classes. What did come up as a result of this request was an amusing series of examples of how mispronunciation can shape a language and create new words for the dictionary.

Whilst I was still living in England, ‘Husband à L’Etranger’ headed off for the hitherto unknown city of Rouen in France to work, and about the same time I met a French woman living in our village and the opportunity came one day at the school gate  to introduce them to each other.

‘Where are you working?’ she said

‘ROO-on’  replied Husband à l’Etranger, typically pronouncing Rouen ‘à l’anglais’  ‘How about you?’

‘Wwuon’ replied the French woman

‘No, I don’t know it’, replied Husband à l’Etranger, ‘where abouts is it?’

In fact, they were talking about the same city, though at the time they had no idea. Simply said, their national phonetic had created two places out of one.

Another foriegner, buying a train ticket in Perpignan to travel to Rouen, through mispronunciation ended up in Rouanne, nearish Lyons, where he was forced to sleep on the station platform until the first train left the following day, all thanks to his pronunciation.

In medieval times, the simple and rather quaint act of pulling petals off a flower,

“she loves me – she loves me not”

– known in France as ‘compter fleurette’ (literally to count petals) was transferred abroad to England, probably due to the fact that the English medieval court used French as it’s language of business. This in turn being most likely due to the English Ducs of Normandie being the Kings of England from 1066 – 1204. Whilst in court the  expression ‘compter fleurette’ was understood,  as it diversified into the greater English population who were not French speakers, the expression muted to:

‘To Flirt’

In the 1960’s the verb “To flirt” was adopted by the French as ‘Flirter’,  to express the romantic coquettery of seduction,  and whilst the English and French believed that its origin was English,they were incorrect, and it was really the simple fault of mispronunciation which created a new verb for both nations.

In the same manner, the British “Attaché- case”, the symbol of the British businessman, and now widely used in France for the ‘homme d’affaires’ in the city, actually came from France as the ‘Attaché-Caisse’, and it was the British that pinched the word. And so it is that now the French man carries and refers to his  ‘attaché case’ rather than an ‘attaché-caisse’.

Probably the most extraordinary was the German couple who, having bought a house in France, requested their builder install new roof windows for their loft bedrooms. When the builder asked what type of window they would prefer, the German couple, being of limited French pointed to another window in the roof, hoping for a bit of help with their vocabulary, and said:

‘Was ist das?’ (what is that)

The French builder,also having communication difficuties and  misunderstanding the Germans assumed that this was the German name for the French ‘Lucarne’, the typical French style roof window, and replied:

‘Vasistas? Mais oui Monsieur”

The windows were built;  the locals talked, and the name ‘Vasistas’ bizarrely became common-place.

Today, if you go to a local Builders Merchant, both in France and (apparently) in Poland and ask for ‘Un Vasistas’, the staff won’t ask you “What’s that?” but rather “What Kind?”, and in a matter of minutes you will have a brand new window in the back of your car.

Should we, therefore, seek to eradicate all phonetic mispronunciations in our desire for perfection of a language. If in our errors we create new words which become globally recognised, which have historic significance and such humour behind their creation  shouldn’t we enjoy being part of a living language? Perhaps the Professors are right to stop teaching phonetics by level B2, we are after all comprehensible, but we are also the inadvertant cause of hilarity amongst our adopted populace..

..and perhaps the cause of a whole new string of words!

Making Headway – Registering at a French University.

language school

A couple of months ago I threw a book into the dustbin. I have never thrown a book away before, but then again I have never disliked a book enough to warrant doing so. What was the book, you might ask? Humiliating an author is not very ‘bon esprit’ but some may recognise the book  nevertheless.

Every so often I pick up a book written by an author who has started a new life abroad. Most are amusing or heart-rending or downright outrageous tales of  courage or mishap in the face of adversity. The particular tale that ended in the waste-paper basket was one in which a woman had simply given up her life abroad. Of course many have given up on a life inundated with drama and catastrophe, and there is nothing wrong with that; but the author of the book in question had given up on their dream long before the book was written, and the book was merely a justification of the decision. It nearly killed me to read it, but I dedicated myself to every page in the hope that somewhere along the line the author would “DO” something to try to halt the inevitable decision to quit and head home her the country of birth. I wanted to see her try. She never did, and by the time I had finished it, I too had nearly given up on hope in life itself!

Many of the issues faced by that author were ones that I have faced myself, ones of loneliness, friendlessness, boredom and isolation. They come to all of us at one time or another, heightened by the foreignness of the adopted country itself. What made me so desperate about this particular book was that at the end of every page I wanted to shout

“stop – there must be a way…. couldn’t you..?”

but of course it was far too late to say anything, even less protect other readers from her depressing prognosis that it was quite simply impossible to make ‘it’ work.

Probably the two hardest issues to deal with when moving abroad are employment and financial stability,  and friendships. Every nationality has a different approach to these two major issues, none more so than the French. In the last year, after having stagnated for at least two, my life lurched forward a gear or two, and everything started to fall into place. This week, as a result of a lively discussion between a wide variety of nationalities, the subject of friendships in France arose and our understanding of them finally started to fall into place. How did I happen upon this group of foreigners? Quite simply, I decided to enroll into French university!

One of the main barriers to friendships and employment in a foreign country is of course language. Having four children in the French school system I observed two things. Firstly, total immersion is key to language learning, secondly mastery of language and immersion enables the development of friendships and the creation of opportunity. Nowhere else have I noticed the power of the word of mouth for career and life development than in France.

So it was that last December I handed over my CV to the Bureau of Tourisme to apply for their “Formation” to be a “Guide Conferencier” (tour guide), and acceptance onto that training course opened the door to university in France. It wasn’t ‘per se’ the training course that made university possible, but thanks to one of the other trainees I met along the way. The young Italian trainee was at the time enrolled at the University of Rouen studying the DELF/DALF/DUEF course. Essentially a Diplôme de la Langue Français pour les Etrangeres. (A diploma in French for foriegners) It appeared that holding the “Diplôme” was an essential step in career development, further education, and becoming confident about conversing in a French friendship group. Having suceeded in passing my “Guide Conferenciers” exam, a French oral, and being painfully aware of my limitations in the language as a result, I decided that to do this university course was the next logical step.

In June, I downloaded the application forms online for the “Departement des Lettres”, compiled my CV, wrote a “lettre de motivation” and photocopied and translated my degree certificates. Then I left for my summer holidays. When I returned, a “pre-inscription” form had been sent to me. In principle I was accepted for the course, but not before I had completed a three hour French exam. In September I sat the exam which consisted of  a French multiple choice grammar paper, an oral comprehension exam and a written comprehension exam. The following week we had our results. According to the French system there are a series of “niveaux” (levels) of positionment. Broadly speaking A1,A2,B1, B2 and C1; A1 being unable to communicate, and C1 being fluent.

“If you don’t understand what I’m saying” said the course director in the exam hall “leave now, forget the exam – you will be A1!”

I was placed into the B2 group, and the attainement of the B2 diplôme at the end of the academic year is the all-important “golden milestone” into life in France. The B2 enables everything from entry at Master’s degree level at a French university to acceptance into professional jobs; and crucially competence around the French dinner table! The C1, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

At the time of the Guide “Formation” I was probably feeling a little like the author of the book. French friendships had developed to a certain level, but then had seemed to meet a wall, from where close friendship, as we’d understand it from an English point of view, seemed unobtainable. As one of the Russian students in our first lively university discussion so accurately described it, even four years on, French friendships seemed “superficial”.

“But not so”, exclaimed the professor of our first French oral lesson, the problem was that we simply didn’t understand the French!

The genuine true close friendship with a frenchwoman takes years to develop. The idea that one could become close-friends with a French woman in a matter of months is unthinkable. French friendships are like fine wines or cheeses. They take years to mature, at first they are one dimensional and without depth, they move through specific stages of development, and with each phase they develop a new layer of warmth and understanding, until at last, often six or seven years on, they reach full maturity, with trusted nuances understood facets and a reliability beyond question. When a french woman at last decides to commit to a close friendship, it endures through thick and thin and to the end. A true french friend will rise from her bed in the early hours of the morning to aid in a crisis and at the drop of a hat, in full knowledge that the gesture will be reciprocated without question. But until that stage, the women must first be aquaintances, then copines, then friends before ever achieving the exaulted status of close friends.

Indeed, as our professor explained, the very British or American manner of “divulging all” in the early stages of aquaintence or “copineship” frightens French women away. The idea of discussing private family activities and issues within an aquaintance group is “très mal élévé” and typically the French will withdraw in face of it. It does now go to explain why in my early days in France no-one ever seemed to discuss their weekends in the school playgroup on a monday morning.

French women do however like to share – lifts to children’s activities, information about activities and events, offers of hospitality and discussions about current affairs. They like nothing better than voicing concerns and opinions about life-style and culture in general. But what is private stays private until a friendship nears maturity.

“And that” said our professor “brings us back to the matter in hand”;

For the B2 course is about dispensing with chatting about the simple day to day life; and is the training for debate on current affairs and culture. The B2 is the enablement of dinner party discussions and  job interviews with all the necessary vocabulary. And when we have finally attained our B2, the French women will probably know an awful lot more about what kind of person we are from our cultural and political contributions to conversations than they ever could have done after endless divulged stories about our weekends.

Registering at French university is about more than just learning a language; it is about understanding the French and their cultural differences and becoming more like them.

When the author of the book threw in the towel in the face of what seemed to be a stagnation of friendship and the inability to find something to do with her day, if only she had known she was facing “une petite pause” in the natural stages of development of becoming closer friends with the French, and what to have done to overcome it, she may have persevered and succeeded yet.

For making a success of it abroad necessitates mastery of language, total immersion into culture and re-education of preconceived ideas.

…helped along the way with a healthy dollop of “le diplôme B2 “