On the superiority of French over English, or how to test friends on their own language

This morning I took my daughters to school. A group of fathers were going for a coffee before work so asked me to go along. One friend lives for sport before most other things. He teaches it, is a semi-professional in two, watches it live or on TV, is encyclopaedic in his knowledge – of sport in France and a very little in the rest of the world.

So, a sport issue came up. He does not mind adoptions from English, but he wants to know what they really mean. Today’s poser was ‘tie breaker’. It is actually an easy one. It means that two or more people or teams have finished equal. Essentially the clue is in the fact it is most frequently two. So I asked one of the other men if we could start to web search.

We sorted it out fairly quickly. Tie-breaker has been adopted into lots of languages since its origins back in time are ‘tie’ used in 16th century English and tie breaker is about figuratively untying a knot. ‘Dénouer un nœud’ in French. It is one of those things that simply do not work, so the adopted Anglicism works better.

One thing led to another and naturally one of those great debates about which language is correct began. After a couple of moment the letter H arose. It is, said one of them, an almost superfluous letter that is there to make the distinction between spellings but since it is not spoken is of no consequence, so why is it used in English? Somebody else threw in its non use in other Latin languages. My retort was Spanish does, the response was that it does not. I agreed that a written H is not used but please pronounce ‘jamon’ or ‘juegar’ and the J becomes an H sound. Somebody kicked in with Italian. Quite right to a point, but where it is used it change pronunciation so Giuseppe and Ghiselli come out very differently. Italian is a language that uses every letter. Back to English and there are words where it is pronounced such as ‘hat’ and others like ‘hour’ where it is not, a couple of them argued. So, they thinking they had me back against the wall, I smiled and said the former has a Germanic root ‘hut’ and the latter the same Latin root ‘hora’ as ‘heure’. I smiled and added that in Latin the H is pronounced.

I got a ‘that may well be’ response but was told that French is a far more precise language than English. I agreed but did add that the four most used verbs are être, avoir, aller and faire, each of them irregular.

Take être with its distinct present tense forms, of which suis, sommes and sont bear no relation to the infinitive and compare that to I am, you, they and we are with he, she and it is is complicated and also irregular, but then sommes is the only nous form in the language not to end in –ons and êtes one of two vous forms in the language not to end in –ez or future forms ser-, derived from Latin ESSE, different from the infinitive, derived from Latin STARE. It is no more or less irregular that TO BE but certainly more difficult. Then throw in aller and the initial v- of present tense forms not present in the infinitive or third person plural form vont one of only four to end in –ont and, for good measure, the future stem ir- derived from a different root to the infinitive, the original Latin infinitive IRE. I said go and goes is easy and the went seems strange but no more than the French equivalent. I did not bother with avoir and faire, I knew I was ahead on points.

But no, somebody want to get back to English being far easier because it is grammatically easier than French. Perhaps said I, but then French has developed its Frankish-Germanic way of using Latin roots differently to English which is Norman French with the Saxon Germanic language of the majority, a few older languages and Norse bits and pieces. What did they expect? I asked who knew English grammar well? Blank looks. My killing blow was to say that actually English can be incredibly difficult grammatically plus the fact it is a language with far more options for words and in many specialised cases particular words are used in specific instances although there might be a choice of as many as twelve in a thesaurus.

Sport returned. Safer ground. The five minutes of language debate was a bit like mentioning last Saturday’s rugby international and suggesting we all meet for lunch to have spaghetti! One of the men asked me aside how I knew about French grammar, after all my spoken French is pretty awful. I accepted that and said that I had had the advantage of an education that had included classics. In the UK French ranks with Latin and Greek as a classical language and all three were drummed into us so that although on leaving school and we vowed to forget, in reality in emergencies such as that it all comes back. Plus, I added, I get the impression that I was the only father present who takes his turn helping with homework. My point was that our children are learning what they had forgotten and I have the benefit of having a hand in it through what is brought home. He slapped my shoulder, the bad one of course, and asked me whether France or Wales would win on Saturday. I reminded him we had moved here from Wales although not Welsh ourselves then smiled.

I enjoyed that coffee. I did not even have to pay.

Actually I always felt my CV's were the most creative things I ever did!!!

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Conor, I have been doing contracts as a consultant that are between two weeks and three months for 30 odd years and then I have culled most of the ones over 20 years old, if it was only my academic posts it would be less than a page by far - probably half a page. I have about 120 publications because that is what is expected of us as academics, but it is only an average of three a year over just over 40 years which is considered pathetic by many academics. It is all relative, mine is not considered impressive when shoved alongside a 40 to 60 page one (really!!). My OH who is really clever has had so many put downs for only eight pages in her mid-40s, but whilst in the process of applying for a title (not a job, just the title to enable her to apply for particular university positions) the French universities typically ask for two pages including ALL publications, which she cannot do. Pain in the posterior is putting it mildly. In a world that had common sense they would not be important and people should prove what the CAN do rather than use the length of a CV. But then, like Norman, later in life when it no longer matters too much it becomes easy to say. Lucky you to be able to fit it on a page and not have to do a 'size matters' thing ;-)

Nice place to be, only working for people you've worked for previously.

I'm only approaching 40, and with nothing much to show for years 20 to 30, but even I think the one-page CV thing is a bit of a laugh. The CV is a genre with not much room for manoeuvre, so I decided to be a little bit creative (but NOT in the sense of being dishonest, I hasten to add) by providing a sample list of the kind of work I do, and not just a list of the translation work I could potentially do for a prospective customer (which ranges from instructions for radiators to comparative law!). Now it fits on one page, just about, using fairly small-sized text.

Please don't remind me Conor. It is actually 11, BUT when people ask me for a single page CV I usually feel like hanging myself because different things require different versions. Both actual work and publications take up four pages each. I am sooooo glad that I am now of an age where I am either no longer asked or need it less and that I am usually only working for people I have worked for before numerous times.

Wow lads, your CVs must run to 10 pages or something! Fascinating.

Maslow is OK in Western Europe, but doesn't work too well in Eastern Europe or Asia, but it not a bad guide I have found.

Good luck with the book - if my partner got his backside into gear and did what he is supposed to do, I would also be looking forward to further trips and talks - but maybe in the future..................?

I have a possible wheeze before me. When my large, boring £90 book appears in June, so many people will wish to tear pieces off me that they will invite me to speak in various places. Since I am at an age where I forget chunks of everything, including what I have written, then as long as the cheques are generous, hotels decent and I come away grinning... I'm not sure 70 year old theory like Maslow still holds too well, but I suppose we are both well up there with the tip of the pyramid stabbing our backsides to egg us on that bit more!

I think we are both in the 'Self-Actualisation' stage of Maslow's Hierachy!

This is the time we should and obviously are doing those things we WANT to do (nice if we can earn a bit in the process!). I was very lucky to enter advertising after my very young and brief sojourn at a Junior Art School. I took to it like the proverbial duck, and have never left it apart from the odd break when work was tough - factory stint here and there, and a year as a postman. All in Slough, ye Gods. All good experience though, although it didn't seem like it at the time.

I only started writing books at about your time of life, the first being ordered by Saatchi & Saatchi which was hugely flattering. A modest tome, which led to a bigger one, and then turning my lifelong interest in graphics into the current library (expanding) of now 22 large format books of advertising in different market sectors over a 100 year span. Plus the WW1 and WW2 books.

This might turn into a series of lectures this year, who knows. depends if the financial partner will cough up for the equipment.

Keeps me off the streets anyway!


I still paint and produce poster designs in the 'old style' as they say, and now am into my latest two books 1) A History of Propaganda and the new Boxed Set for the Centennial of WW1 in 2014. I love the research and the byways this leads me down, so the brain is still active!

Good for you. I went to pre-school at three and now 61 and a bit years old am effectively still in it and probably will be till something stops me, probably my mortality. All I want now is to do at least one interesting and exciting anthro fieldwork that will give me something to chew over for the rest of my days and I'll be content.

Yes I admit there can be subjects that can be transmitted at an earlier age. Probably the ones with immutable laws like language and mathematics, but when one moves to the 'people' side and trying to make sense of human behaviours and differences that DOES require people experience.

Same with my course materials, certain factors (not facts) do remain constant, and only the tools change. Problems seem to arise when the reverse is believed - that the tools will change the principles involved.

For me the great thrill was having left school at 15 and no advanced education at all, to be listened to and seemingly at least, respected was a late reward in living.

Oh yea Norman, even four years ago before they killed several courses I was part time teaching a course at a university. Like many people, I went out of my doc research into post-doc and did teaching as part of that in 1972. I have been a director of studies and on various academic committees, therefore in formal teaching up to my chin. My OH is a university lecturer, as too was an ex. The present one is right now waiting to hear how she is 'graded' in France and has applications in for a couple of senior posts. I've lived and breathed it for long, probably too long. Because I never had a fixed job but was a perpetual research or teaching fellow, I also took up consultancy and have probably done about 20% of that work as training over 35 or so years. I simply change cap to do both, but the materials behind both remain the same.

The age question is a hard one. I taught, I suppose, at 22 or 23 whilst writing up my thesis. It was mainly one-to-one supervision but we were somehow expected to display our research in the form of a few lectures. I was also a research fellow in a German university then and was required to present my part of the research programme as series of seminars. Since I quickly abandoned 'talk at them' lectures early on and only do something more like a seminar anyway, the seminars in a formal German setting came out more like lectures until the new generation of interactive lecturers gained a foothold.

I am not a great teacher either. I learned from two lecturers particularly. Neither of them work from paper, simply get up and go. The secret is that they knew their specific topic thoroughly. There are exceptions. My one time boss Giddens was always capable of walking in to do a paper or lecture, talk to the moment when he needed to stop because it was the end or discussion time. He could walk back in the lecture room a week or month later and take it up from the very next sentence as if there had never been a pause. I cannot, never could and I am too old now anyway. I simply teach or train within my range, never attempt a millimetre left or right of that. The 24 year olds who get phenomenal amounts of money per 'gig', term or year are dubious because they do not have the years of practice with people and interaction. I too have been to 'seminars' where I came away a week later having spent some valuable hours with old friends but the sessions themselves are forgotten by the time I reach home. It is all big business. As for big numbers, not done too many. Just after the end of the Soviet Union I was in Kyrgyzstan to train 'social workers' to do outreach work on the streets. I had well over a hundred people in one of those huge classically sterile concrete buildings. It included the deputy minister of social affairs and numerous members of the former 'secret police'. Things clearly did not bode well for the planned street children projects in my opinion. I much prefer the roughly 30 like next week. I have a list, know a few already and thus know who to target in order to get to know a bit. We all have our own way of working, some more boring than others, but there I shall not judge myself. I only know I have plenty of return visits to many places, so I can't be THAT bad.

Hi Brian, I think there is a difference in the Training area, which I agree is more fun to do, but I also love major public seminars of say 100 people, as that is a great challenge to keep them interested.

I don't know if you ever got involved in a formal teaching environment though? This is completely different (or was for me) as although one got to create one's own courses - in my case Marketing at BBA and MBA levels that wasn't the end of it as both Courses and end papers were always reviewed by internal and external authorities, and final grades discussed before they could be applied. Good in a way as it discouraged any favoritism. Plus of course my sessions were only part of an overall BBA and MBA qualification, so it was always useful to compare notes on students with the other Profs. to see if there were inherent weaknesses or problems with any students. Remembering that BBA was full-time 18-25 year olds (approx.) whilst MBA was part-time (evenings) for older students mostly already in jobs.

I found it great adjusting esssentially the same basic material for two different age and working groups. The MBA material I did convert to the Public Seminars as it was more applicable. I have now put these all on narrated CD's now, and am tweaking them up to offer inexpensively to students having watched a programme the other night on 'looking out for fraud' in the Coaching areas. Did you spot it? 24 year old 'Profs' addressing banks of students of 100 or so and charging huge money for the privilege - €9,000 euros a term was mentioned! I was stunned! It was the old 'read a book, run a Seminar' stunt all over again.

I may not have been a great teacher, but at least I knew my subjects inside out as by the time I started the lectures I had already chalked up 40 years practitioning in all diferent economies. Not something many 24 year olds are offering I think?

Last time in Budapest we found some good restaurants on the river usually at the end of Line 2 tram and off the side roads. Our flat was facing Margit hid (Island), and the Chain Bridge so it was our neighborhood. Although I am largely vegetarian I can never resist crispy goose leg (don't think about it just eat it!) I found the renowned 'game restaurants' not to my taste in either sense.

Ah happy days!

Hi Norman, I have spent most of my life teaching and training and what I am doing next week is in my own specialist area, which is why they asked. I am training them to do the kind of work I have done since the early 70s and know actually street level and theoretical. I am a relatively slow speaker with lots of pauses, so people can always stop to ask questions as we go along. I have taught/trained in far too many countries to be be much concerned about how it comes out. I mainly encourage interactive work anyway, being averse to standing up in front of people for a stop watched hour type of approach. It is never a 'cakewalk' though, I love doing it but have messed up often enough to know my own limits. I know Budapest, prefer Pest myself, so no surprises there. My criticism is that the food has gone down hill since they have become far more international!

Hi Brian,

I lived in Hungary for close to five years over a three-visit between 1992-2006, which was a fascinating time to watch a country come out from under Communism (and not everybody was convinced it was a good thing!). I had a partner company with Lintas Worldwide (Lintas-Clark Direct & Promo) a leading advertising agency there, plus I also taught for a University in Budapest as a Visiting Prof. What always amazed me was their understanding of English. This was in fact common throughout Eastern Europe, which was great for me.

Hungary is still where I get my books printed, as allowing for customs duties etc., shipping, their prices are comparable with China.

I don't know if yoiu ever applied a 'trick' when lecturing non-English groups? As a natural born enthusiast, I have a tendency to speak too quickly. People are invariably polite, but I always prefaced my lectures by saying "if you find I am speaking too quickly just pass your hand across your throat, and I will slow down".

This always went down well as it could be done discreetly and I would be the only one to see it, and no-one would be embarrassed.

I am sure you have your own methodology. Have a good trip! Budapest is a gret city.

Well, it makes no difference to me either way, but I think your choice of words was a bit unfortunate. Maybe I'm being oversensitive. Let's leave it there.

I'm a great fan of the idea that it's not what you say, it's the way you say it.

Sorry Conor, too complicated to explain but through the Bray family I have a connection and am repeating what I was told. As for Nobel prizes, generally right but a few people might always disagree.

Here is what Beckett had to say about writing in French:

Beckett says that he began to write in French because he wanted to get away from his mother tongue; writing in English somehow made it come too easy. The French language offered greater clarity and forced him to think more fundamentally, to write with greater economy. But instinct rather than a deliberate plan determined whether his plays were originally written in English or French. [...] writing with economy and clarity were necessary when he worked inside a resistance group that conveyed information to the Allies. A French colleague carried certain details to him about German troop movements, and he translated them into English in as few words as possible for transmission to London.

Full article here: http://www.samuel-beckett.net/beckett_paris.html

As for the comment here about Beckett and "blarney", I don't think they give you the Nobel for literature for writing blarney.

Conor, I have never taught languages but I taught students for a number of decades and indeed will be training people in Hungary next week. I know how to teach, but would never try something I am not trained in or experienced with. However, subjecting somebody to a wall of English conversation in order to get him to achieve what the request last night was about is an interesting thought. If he expected actual teaching with how to construct perfectly grammatical sentences and so on I would run a whole number of kilometres.

Norman, you've hit on a great truth there -- willingness to communicate sometimes overcomes all obstacles.

Brian, when French people ask me to help them with their French, I run a mile. From recollection, I have only ever helped two French guys to any great extent with their English. The first led to a questionably-motivated invitation to a restaurant, and the second, which involved song lyrics, led to me concluding that the guy I was supposed to be helping (a massive Morrissey fan and an all-round music nut) wrote better and more allusive and less prosaically direct than I would ever come up with in a million years.

(Let it be stated, though, that my aversion to teaching English pre-dated both.)

Teaching English to non-native speakers would be my plan Z work-wise.