Mind your Language!

It was a sort of Urban Legend at the school I attended. A piece of paper once flew out of the textbook of a French nun. The girl who found it and picked it up recognised the beautiful script immediately – and the contents made it imperative that it be shown to everyone tout de suite.

There, in black on white, was a list of French phrases – with their English translations. Unfortunately, these were not the la plume de ma tante type, but more on the lines of “you are lazy”; “you will fail your exams”; “go and stand in the corridor until the lesson is over”, and so forth.

This nun insisted on what is now known as “the full immersion method” – but when she wanted to make sure we understood what she was saying, she used one of the above phrases, complete with Gallic accent that made lazy sound like leh-zee. All those of us who, over the years, had been on the receiving end of one of these choice epithets have now been vindicated.

The French Education Minister for Education, Xavier Darcos has had to admit that the international language is English – or words to that effect. Frankly, as we sued to say, Je ne care pas because we knew that anyway.

M. Darcos said that better English is the key to worldwide communications, no doubt antagonising the Académie Française as do Maltese people who antagonise L-Akkademja tal-Malti when they fail to observe its latest updates and insist on writing lakemm as two separate words.

Presumably, he wants to give the French attitude an overhaul, or, as he would say, un relooking. Or perhaps he has realised that of the 27 Member States in the EU, not too many of them are either Francophones or even Francophiles. He appears to have noticed that “all” international business is conducted in English, rather than in French or even Franglais – and to make his charges au courante with this type of progress, he ordained that French schools will now offer extra lessons to tout le monde – or at least those who want to attend the sessions, during the holidays.

This will offset the elitist system of going to other countries in Europe (including Malta) in order to learn English.

Globalisation, he said, means that not many people whose native language is not French, will be able to speak it. Not many people would know that Jacques Chirac , had studied at Harvard and worked as a forklift driver at Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis 50 years ago (and he says he still likes a Budweiser with his cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato, rather than with a biftek). So he probably understands English as well as the next man.

But many would remember the time he stormed out of an EU Summit session, together with Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Finance Minister Thierry Breton when Ernest-Antoine Seillière de Laborde addressed delegates in English “because that is the accepted business language of Europe today.”

At the time he was reported to have been ‘deeply shocked that a Frenchman would choose to address the summit in English’, and for this he was applauded by the Académie, which was established in 1635 to protect the purity of French…. in ways the rest of the world considered over the top.

M. Chirac had later expounded upon his original outburst by explaining that “France has great respect for its language; It has been fighting for a long time to establish the presence of the French language – whether it be at the Olympic Games, where it was contested for a while, whether it be in the European Union, or at the United Nations.”

Douze Points? Not from anyone who had to learn how to conjugate verbs in many, alas too many, tenses. Mr Seilliere had also put in his two cents’ worth, and recommended that EU leaders must “avoid a negative domino effect” when it came to the use of language.

There exists in France The Toubon Law (full name: law 94-665 of 4 August 1994 relating to usage of the French language), which makes it mandatory to use the French language in advertising, commercial contracts, official government publications, and other documents. To this effect, in 2006, the French subsidiary of an American company, GE Medical Systems, was fined over €500,000 plus an ongoing fine of over €20,000 per day for supplying its employees with computer software and documentation that was solely in English. So this is quite the U-turn.

However, learning English is not simply a matter of sitting down at a desk, or even riffling through a dictionary – which may be obsolete as soon as it is printed. New words evolve, or are created, all the time. Sometimes, old words are brought out, dusted down, and given new definitions; but using them on the wrong side of the Atlantic, or in the wrong context when you make a vain effort to be chic – can earn you a trouncing.

I would appreciate knowing what French, or even Franglais terms, Xavier Darcos and Jacques Chirac would have coined for brainstorming and blamestorming, electrosmog and mucous warriors, recessionistas and multi-slackers….

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