Learning French through Comedy: Sketches by Les Inconnus

By   November 15, 2010

Probably the most famous comedy sketch in France is Télémagouille by Les Inconnus. You can read the entire transcript online though it’s written very informally and there are many spelling mistakes. Don’t forget to check out their other sketches on Youtube or Dailymotion (I’ve included some of my favorites below). A 5-DVD set is also available from Amazon.fr.

Many of the jokes are cultural references that French people would know immediately, but French learners probably wouldn’t understand right away.

Une question sur le sport …tennis. Qui avait perdu le……
Yannick Noah !

Yannick Noah may be known today as a singer in Europe and the US, but before his musical career, he was a professional tennis player in France who first won, but then lost, a lot of tournaments before he decided to retire.

Question sur le sport… : Quelle est la première ville arabe traversée par le Paris-Dakar ?
Marseille !

The Paris-Dakar is an off-road rally that originally started in Paris and ended in Dakar (the course has changed over time). Marseille, the second largest city in France and a major port on the southern coast, has a large number of Arab immigrants, mostly from Algeria.

Fort Boyaux is another hilarious sketch, which parodies the French game show Fort Boyard:

And Education Nationale, about the state of French schools and teachers:

Decorated Shell Casings from WWI – Aisne 1917

By   November 13, 2010

Remember those old war newspapers we found in grandma’s storage space last year? We came across another interesting find recently: decorated shell casings (douilles d’obus) from 1917. To pass the time in the trenches, soldiers used shell casings as canvases to create their own works of art. You can see other examples by searching images.google.fr. Sadly, some of them are being sold on Ebay for as little as 15€. I will probably donate them to a museum someday, but I will definitely not be making a few euros off les poilus‘ sacrifices for France.


They include the word Aisne (a département of France on the border with Belguim that saw a lot of action during WWI), the year 1917, leaf patterns, the initials VR, and the name Valentine.


I can’t even begin to imagine how long it took to hammer down the metal to form the letters and shapes.


Maybe the initials of the soldier?


Valentine; perhaps his girlfriend or wife?


According to this munitions website, the black line means this shell was an obus explosif.

I’ve uploaded the photos to my Artifacts of French History collection on Flickr.

Listen to the Languages of France & French around the World

By   November 10, 2010

Corpus de la Parole is a great site for anyone interested in the languages spoken in France and the DOM-TOMs. If you’ve ever wanted to hear what Alsacien, Basque, Breton, Francoprovençal, Picard, Occitan, or Reunion creole sounds like, there are audio files and some transcripts available.  There is also a lot of information on the various languages and creoles spoken throughout the territoire of France, especially in Guyana, Tahiti and New Caledonia. The site is written entirely in French, of course, and designed more for linguists because of the terminology used.

A link on Corpus de la Parole led me to the Phonologie du français contemporain site, which includes a teaching French section with several extraits of French speakers reading texts and having conversations, all with transcripts (but no translations.) Most of the material is designed for the advanced level and includes several accents of authentic language in Europe, Africa, and North America. I wish I had found this site earlier!

For beginning learners of French, TUFS Language Modules offers 40 dialogs in either standard French or Quebecois French with options for French and/or English subtitles.  They are scripted and rehearsed so not quite as authentic as other resources, but still helpful for those who are just starting out in French, and especially for those who need help with the Quebecois accent.  The Swiss French version should be online around June 2011.

Languages of the European Union, Traveling in the Schengen Area, and Using the Euro (or Not)

By   November 8, 2010

The European Union’s official web portal, europa.eu, is translated into the 23 official languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish. Each page on the site has the same layout regardless of language so you can easily compare them side by side, as I mentioned in my previous post on multilingualism.

In the next few years, Croatian and Icelandic will be added as Croatia and Iceland finish their accession negotiations and officially join the EU. Macedonia and Turkey are the other current candidate countries, while the rest of the Balkan states – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia – are potential candidates, which would put the number of languages over 30. Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra and the city-states of Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City are not in the EU.

Naturally all of these languages was the reason I loved the idea of the EU, and being an EU citizen is the golden ticket since you can live and work in any other EU country just as if you were a citizen of that country, with some exceptions. Imagine having the right to work in 27 countries, plus any other countries that eventually join the Union. For someone who needs to be surrounded by languages, becoming an EU citizen would be like winning the language lottery. The Schengen Area (making traveling easier) and the Eurozone (making money issues easier) also contributed to my desire to live in Europe, but in the end, these three entities make the idea of “Europe” even more complicated, whether you live/work here or are just visiting as a tourist.

The Schengen Area includes most of the EU members, except the UK and Ireland, plus Norway, Switzerland, and the city-states; while Liechtenstein, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus have yet to implement the Schengen rules. For tourists who don’t need a visa to visit Europe anyway, there are no more passport checks at every border, but there are still random checks on trains and buses. It makes crossing the border faster, but that’s about it. Personally, I really miss getting stamps in my passport. And neither the EU nor Schengen Area actually means that European countries are united together like Americans would probably think of. It still costs a LOT of money to leave a rental car in a different country, even if the distance is rather short between the two agencies. We paid 350€ to leave a car in Lyon when we picked it up in Turin (3.5 hour drive), though leaving that same car in Naples (8 hour drive) would have only cost 75€. Flying between European countries sometimes also requires you to go through security and passport control again at airports when you have layovers. In theory, flying within the Schengen Area is supposed to be flying “domestically” but in four years and dozens of flights later, I have yet to experience anything similar to “domestic” flying in the US where you get off one plane directly at the gate and wander over to a different gate to get on another plane. Your departure, arrival, as well as transfer airports must all be in the Schengen Area, but that’s actually difficult since most transfers go through London and some airports require everyone to go through passport control & security again anyway because they don’t have Schengen vs. non-Schengen zones.

The Eurozone currently includes only 16 out of the 27 EU members, though Estonia will adopt the euro in 2011. Some non-EU countries use it as well, such as the city-states and Andorra, Kosovo and Montenegro. The UK, Denmark, Sweden and most of the eastern countries do not use the euro. Honestly I don’t understand why the UK, Denmark and Sweden have gotten away with not using it when the newer members (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) must eventually adopt it. What’s the point of the EU is there are opt-outs to certain laws and regulations? It’s just as unfair as states in the same country having different laws (talking about you, not-so-United States.)

I would love if the EU and Schengen Space were the same – I really wish Norway and Switzerland would join the EU! – but I’m not so keen on the euro. For tourists, it is great to not have to exchange money all the time. But when you live here, it just makes the cost of living ridiculously high and it’s very unfair when one country has higher salaries and a lower cost of living, but the next country over has the exact opposite (ahem, Germany and France). If you’re all going to use the same currency, why can’t prices and salaries be the same too? The euro has been in the news a lot lately because of the economic problems in Greece and Spain, and every French person I know complains about how expensive everything is with the euro. Ten years ago a baguette cost 2.50 francs (or 0.38€) and today it costs 0.85€ while salaries have barely increased, unless you’re the lucky ones who work in Luxembourg or Switzerland.

I suppose all of these differences depend on what union is supposed to mean. I know there is no real United States of Europe, and in any case, I would not want something similar to the United States of America. I have a lot of problems with states having more control than the federal government in a country that is supposedly rather homogeneous (in what world is it fair that some human beings can marry who they want but other human beings cannot depending on what state they live in, even if they are citizens of the same country???) yet at the same time, I would not want a strong federal government controlling states in Europe that are so diverse because of history, culture and language. Of course, I’m more of an observer and outsider since I am not an EU citizen. I can’t imagine what it would be like for my country to join a union of other countries, change its currency, and no longer have control over its own borders. Perhaps EU citizens can enlighten me on your feelings about it?

Thank you Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland for your Multilingualism

By   November 6, 2010

The other main countries in Europe that speak French are Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland; however, they do not just have French as an official language. Belgium also has Dutch and German; Luxembourg has German and Luxembourgish; and Switzerland has German, Italian, and Romansh. What that means for language lovers is that certain websites have multiple translations and you can use one language to learn another as well as learn about the culture of the country at the same time.

If you like art, the Museum of Modern Art Grand-Duc Jean (MUDAM)’s website is in French and German.  Maybe you’d like to know train vocabulary in German, French and Italian. Try Switzerland’s official rail company. Need to learn words for various food and grocery items so you know what to ask for at the store? Auchandrive.fr is available in French and Dutch thanks to Belgium. (Just choose a store that is on the border, such as Leers.) Then just use two browsers and put the windows side by side to compare the vocabulary.

Of course there are many other websites that provide translations into other languages, such as Wikipedia, but the content isn’t always the same so it’s much harder to compare. Another reason to use websites based in multilingual countries is so you can be sure (well, almost) that the translations are correct. Multilingual countries make much more of an effort to ensure quality translations by hiring professional translators – and not using computer translations – so that all of their citizens can have access to information in their native language(s).

Even though France is a monolingual country, a lot of resources are translated into English for tourists, but I’ve come across too many French websites with English translations that were obviously copied from Google Translate. The official tourism website, france.fr, does offer translations in four languages and even though I haven’t seen any mistakes in the English translations so far, the content is not exactly the same or even in the same place on each version so it’s difficult to compare and use it properly as a learning tool.

What would you like to see on ielanguages.com?

By   November 3, 2010

Now that I have more free time, I plan on working on ielanguages.com full time until at least Christmas. I have a lot of ideas and plans for improving and adding to the content, and of course I’d also like your input on what to add. What would you like to see on the site? What do you find most helpful?

Google Analytics tells me that the French, Spanish, ESL Lesson Plans, German, Italian and Swedish pages are the most visited on the site. Obviously it is easiest for me to create more French and ESL content, but I’d rather have direct input from site users instead of relying on statistics to tell me what people want most. I’m particularly looking for feedback from beginning learners of French. I tend to forget what it’s like to be at a beginning level, so remind me of what’s difficult and confusing and what works best for you.


Something new I’ve added to the site is a weekly newsletter available in HTML, text and mobile formats. It will include latest site updates, blog posts and the “French phrase a day” that I tweet every weekday, plus language facts and news about what I’m currently working on. Subscribers will also receive special discounts on current and future e-books in the Store. If you prefer e-mail to RSS and Twitter, then join the mailing list and find out what’s new on ielanguages.com every Wednesday.

Portugal and Portuguese: First Impressions

By   November 2, 2010

Portugal was a nice break from the strikes in France last week and I am already planning to return to see more of this adorable country. Lisbon is one of those capital cities that makes you forget how many people live there and the fact that it is such a large city. The subway was incredibly clean, the architecture was beautiful and colorful, the people were nice, the prices were low, and I never once felt stressed or scared or annoyed as I often do in other large cities (especially Paris!)

The public transportation system is easy to use so you don’t have to spend 15€ on tourist hop-on hop-off buses if you don’t want to. The train to Sintra is 3.50€ and a day pass for the entire system is 3.75€, which we took advantage of the second day to visit Belém for the pastéis (tram 15) and the modern eastern side of the city where the World Expo ’98 took place (red line on the metro). In addition to the 1.45€ fare for bus 22 to & from the airport and 2.60€ for the bus to return to Sintra train station from the Palace of Pena (we walked the entire way to Pena, which I do not recommend because it takes 1.5 hours, all uphill with no sidewalk), I only spent around 13€ on transportation. Our lovely hotel only cost 49€ a night, and I doubt I spent more than 25€ a day on meals. Even a cup of coffee was only 80 cents!


Our biggest expense was the plane ticket since we took a regular airline, but free food and drinks and knowing that we wouldn’t be treated like dirt was worth it. Thanks to the strikes in France, we had to waste an extra 20€ to get to the airport in Geneva by taking the expensive bus since there were no trains. And of course the bus was late and we got stopped at the border because French customs apparently had nothing better to do than annoy people trying to leave the country. Shouldn’t they be more concerned about people entering the country?

Once we arrived in Lisbon, my frustration with France disappeared instantly. There is a tourism center at the airport where you can get a free map of Lisbon and the bus stop for either the Aerobus (which you should take if you have lots of luggage; costs 3.50€ but your ticket doubles as a day pass for the public transportation system) or the local buses is directly across from the exit. Our hotel was incredibly easy to find and so clean and bright and the reception was helpful and pleasant. The downtown area of Lisbon is completely walkable and I saw very few people begging or harassing tourists for money. Normally I despise large cities because of people who try to harass you on the streets, but I did not experience that at all in Lisbon.


Obviously I loved Lisbon, and as a linguistics nerd, being surrounded by the Portuguese language was interesting since I’m familiar with many other Romance languages. Even though I haven’t yet really started studying Portuguese, I was able to understand a few words and phrases; and when we came across the one person who couldn’t speak English, we were able to communicate in French. I sat down at a bus stop before getting on the metro to head to the mall because I was feeling sick and an adorable old man was concerned that we were at the wrong stop because he had seen me look at the map and point to a place that he knew the buses didn’t go. How cute is that? Seriously, the Portuguese are very good at English, probably because they subtitle instead of dub TV and movies.

Portuguese is the 5th most spoken language in the world with 260 million speakers (the most in Brazil, of course), though it is not studied as much as Spanish, French or even Italian. Most language learning communities, such as Livemocha, Busuu and Mango, all offer Brazilian Portuguese, but few offer the European accent from Portugal. I hope they add the European dialect someday, and I certainly plan to incorporate it into the Portuguese tutorial currently available on ielanguages.com. If you are interested in reading authentic European Portuguese from everyday life, I’ve already uploaded Portuguese realia.

Portuguese is closely related to Galician, spoken in the northwestern part of Spain. At one point, they were considered the same language, but political boundaries have separated the two. Portuguese is not quite mutually intelligible with Spanish (Castillian), but the written language is easy enough to decipher if you do know Spanish. Understanding the spoken language is much harder. Portuguese is closer to Catalan and French in pronunciation because of the sibilants and nasal vowels, and some people say it sounds more like a Slavic language rather than Romance.

For those who speak Spanish and want to learn Portuguese, there are some resources available, such as Foreign Service Institute’s From Spanish to Portuguese and the University of Texas-Austin’s podcast Tà Falado: Brazilian Portuguese Pronunciation for Speakers of Spanish.

If you are planning a trip to Lisbon, the official tourism website is Visit Lisboa and I’ve written up some travel tips about my experience in Lisbon, Sintra, and getting to and from the Lisbon airport. Also don’t forget to check out my Lisbon & Sintra photos to see for yourself how beautiful Portugal is!

We’re off to Lisbon, Portugal!

By   October 25, 2010

This week is my last trip of the year and I’m off to Lisboa / Lisbon, Portugal, with David. The pictures I’ve seen online of the Portuguese capital look incredibly beautiful, and the guest house I booked, Residencial Vila Nova, looks really nice and in a great location. Plus it’s still 20°C and sunny there whereas it’s 10°C and rainy here so I am really eager to get to Portugal!  We’re flying out of Geneva so luckily the strikes in France don’t affect us and we’re on a real airline (TAP) so even though I’m still a little apprehensive about flying again (thanks Sleazyjet), getting drinks for free will feel like Christmas to me.

I’ll be taking lots of photos and collecting realia of Portuguese to put on the site next weekend.

Pour les francophones qui veulent apprendre l’américain / For French speakers who want to learn American English

By   October 23, 2010

Après quatre longues années en tant qu’enseignante d’anglais, j’ai envie d’aider les francophones à apprendre la langue des Etats-Unis, ou l’américain comme disent les français. Même si la plupart des manuels scolaires sont écrits en anglais britannique et la plupart des profs parlent anglais britannique, mes élèves et mes étudiants voulaient toujours mieux comprendre l’américain parce qu’ils préféraient l’accent ou ils adoraient le cinéma américain ou ils avaient l’intention de travailler pour une entreprise américaine. Malheureusement, il existe toujours cette idée ridicule selon laquelle l’américain serait moins correct et moins désirable (ce qui est complètement xénophobe) et même moins utile dans le monde anglo-saxon – une opinion absurde vu le nombre d’anglophones, ou américanophones pour être plus précis, dans le monde entier.

Pour les francophones qui veulent apprendre l'américain

Donc j’ai commencé à écrire un tutorial pour les francophones qui veulent apprendre l’américain et réviser les bases de langue pour éviter les fautes gênantes ou traductions trompeuses. Il n’est pas encore fini, et par conséquent ne figure pas parmi les tutoriaux actuellement disponibles sur le site, mais voilà quelques petites leçons :

  1. Les américains ne disent jamais I speak American, mais seulement I speak English. American n’est pas une langue aux Etas-Unis, sauf si on veut être vu comme un nationaliste excessivement patriote. Par contre, American English est tout à fait normal si on veut distinguer les accents. On parle aussi de British English pour l’accent anglais (mais pas pour les accents écossais ou gallois ou irlandais – ils ont leurs propres adjectifs). Pour nous, British est égal à English dans le sens de nationalité ou de langue. C’est simplement pour éviter de dire English English qu’on dit British English.
  2. Méfiez-vous des différences de vocabulaire et des mots qui ont un sens plus péjoratif. Fag est de l’argot en Angleterre pour une cigarette, tandis qu’aux Etas-Unis, c’est une injure grave envers les homosexuels. Homely en anglais signifie quelqu’un aux goûts simples ou quelque chose de simple, familial, voire accueillant. Aux Etats-Unis, ça veut dire laid, peu attrayant, déplaisant, etc.  Rubber veut dire une gomme (pour effacer) en anglais, mais c’est un préservatif  pour les américains.
  3. Water with gas n’est JAMAIS correct en américain pour parler de l’eau pétillante. D’abord, les américains ne boivent presque jamais de l’eau pétillante. Je ne savais même pas que ça existait avant mon premier voyage en Europe !  Si vous êtes serveur/serveuse et vous voulez parler anglais avec vos clients, dites sparkling water (le plus courant dans les restos) ou fizzy water. Carbonated water est même plus courant dans la vie quotidienne. Gas en américain veut dire l’essence ou le gaz en langage standard, mais il veut dire aussi la flatulence en argot. Donc la première chose à laquelle on pense quand on entend la phrase water with gas, c’est que soit quelqu’un a mis de l’essence dans l’eau, soit quelqu’un a pété dans l’eau – et évidemment on ne veut pas du tout boire ni l’un ni l’autre !
  4. De façon similaire, si vous travaillez chez un glacier, dites scoops et pas balls pour la traduction de boules de glace. Balls en américain, ce sont les ballons ou les balles en langage standard, mais ce sont aussi les testicules en argot. Mélanger des testicules avec de la glace, ce n’est pas très joli (ou confortable, j’imagine…)