My Say it in French Phrasebook Available in September from Dover Publications

Guess who’s a published author now? It’s on Amazon so that makes it official, right? One of my jobs last year was revising and updating Dover Publications’ Say it in French phrasebook. The original was written in the 50’s and included a section on telegrams and cablegrams, so there was a lot I needed to change and add. I didn’t even know what a cablegram was! Essentially I rewrote most of the book to include modern language that tourists but also regular learners of French in the 21st century would need.

I will post again before September 15 when the book is available and explain the many, many changes I made but I just wanted to finally tell everyone about it because I’ve been keeping this secret for over a year. You can already pre-order it on Amazon. The price is only $5.95.

There are more secrets I am keeping for the moment related to my current job and my future in France, but I’m just waiting for things to be official before I announce anything else!

Swearing in French and Degrees of Vulgarity

Swearing is another cultural concept that is difficult to master when learning a language. Exact translations among swear words are hard to come by since a lot of the meaning depends on the situation and tone of voice. What is considered vulgar in one language may not be in another. In French, merde is usually translated as sh*t in English, but it can also mean good luck or break a leg when talking to actors, and kids don’t get in trouble for saying it. American kids would be grounded or get detention for saying the s word. So should we really say that it means sh*t in English? It certainly doesn’t have the same impact in both languages.

In fact, swearing in French is much less obscene than in English – which is perhaps more detrimental to French students learning English than vice versa. There are many more degrees of vulgarity to English swear words and when we should use them or not, which is something that was unknown to my French students.  Since censorship on television doesn’t exist in France, the idea that certain words are bleeped out on American TV is a bit odd to them. Of course, censorship of nudity is also odd to them – Janet Jackson fiasco, anyone? – but that’s another story!

no cartoon swearing

Photo credit: AdsitAdventures

I tend to classify swear words in English by the situations where they would be censored or not and if children will get in trouble for saying them (but again, that can depend on the school and parents.) In my dialect of English, this is how I would describe the following phrases expressing indifference:

  • It doesn’t matter. – most neutral phrase, can be used in any situation
  • I don’t care. – still not swearing, but can be considered rude
  • I don’t give a damn. – cannot be said by children or teenagers at school; but allowed on network TV
  • I don’t give a sh*t. – cannot be said at school or on network TV; but allowed in movies that teenagers can watch
  • I don’t give a f*ck. – can only be said in movies or cable TV geared towards adults (17 and older)

Now in French, it is difficult to give exact translations for each phrase so let’s group them according to vulgarity:

  • Neutral: N’importe lequel. / Peu importe. / Ça m’est égal.
  • Informal: Je m’en fiche. / Je m’en balance. / Je m’en moque.
  • Vulgar: Je m’en fous.
  • Most vulgar: J’en ai rien à foutre.

There can be some overlap with these phrases as well, depending on who you ask. David says Je m’en fiche and Je m’en fous are essentially the same thing to him and he doesn’t feel that one is particularly more vulgar than the other. And for less vulgar synonyms that replace foutre, such as J’en ai rien à cirer, where should we place them in the spectrum? Are they still considered vulgar or merely informal?

The verbe foutre itself presents the same problem as merde. Originally it had a very vulgar meaning, but nowadays it is used so often and with various banal meanings, that it is no longer as shock-worthy as it used to be. Can you imagine if English f*ck could also be used informally – without getting in trouble for saying it or being censored on TV – to mean to put/stick/shove/throw something or to do something?

Où t’as foutu les clés ? Where did you put the keys?

Qu’est-ce qu’il fout là-bas ? What is he doing over there?

More examples of foutre and the adjective foutu and their approximate English translations:

  • foutre en l’air – to ruin; to beat up; to kill
  • foutre (de la gueule) de quelqu’un – to make fun of someone
  • foutre dedans – to blow it; to stick one’s foot in it
  • foutre la trouille à quelqu’un – to scare the crap out of someone
  • se foutre par terre – to fall flat on one’s face; to embarrass oneself
  • foutre la paix à quelqu’un – to leave someone alone
  • foutre une baffe à quelqu’un – to slap someone in the face
  • foutu de faire quelque chose – to be capable of doing something
  • argent foutu – money down the drain
  • bien foutu – well built (muscular body)
  • café boullu, café foutu – boiled coffee, ruined coffee
  • foutu – screwed; finished; done for
  • mal foutu – sick
  • je-m’en-foutisme – apathy
I will be updating the Informal French & Slang page soon to include more examples of swear words and in which situations they can be used. When in doubt, it’s best to try to use the most neutral expressions as possible so you don’t offend anyone. And if you do say something wrong, you can always play the non-native speaker card. I was once told by a two year old that I shoudn’t say dégueulasse because it was a gros mot. I thought it was just a slang form of dégoûtant (disgusting) and it didn’t seem that vulgar to me. But since I didn’t speak French that well back then due to a lack of exposure to authentic language and culture, how would I have known?

National Foreign Language Week & Promoting Language Learning

This week (March 7-13) is National Foreign Language Week in the US.  It was begun in 1957 by the Alpha Mu Gammar Honor Society to help make students aware of how vital foreign language study is. Of course, if you visit my website and read my blog, then you already know how vital it is and that I promote language learning more often than once a year. So instead of preaching to the choir (and because my translation work is keeping me really busy these days), I just wanted to mention J from 52 Languages, 52 Weeks‘ grant proposal for the Pepsi Refresh Everything competition in Canada.

His proposal is to teach new languages to preschool children by converting “daycares into language nests, places for pre-schoolers to be immersed in a second language and become bilingual from a very early age. It can be a language from the child’s cultural heritage, or it can be an entirely new language to give the child a head start in life.”

His Language Nest project is in the $25,000 grant category under Education.  Voting ends April 30, and you can vote everyday until then. You can also connect with Facebook instead of creating an account to sign in. Also be sure to check out the other participants because you have 10 votes to use each day and there are many other worthy projects among the Health, Arts & Culture, Food & Shelter, The Planet, and Neighbourhoods categories as well.

The American version of the Pepsi Refresh Project has different categories (only Arts & Music, Communities, and Education) and deadlines, so check out their website if you are a resident of the US and interested in participating later this year.

Knowledge of French popular culture: m’a tuer

An example of French popular culture: the phrase m’a tuer

I figured even Voici wouldn’t have made such a glaring grammatical mistake on their cover (it “should” be Twitter m’a tuée, using the past participle and agreeing with the preceding direct object, me, which is a woman in this case) so I asked David what it referred to. He told me about the Omar Raddad case and the murder of Ghislaine Marchal. Omar, a Moroccan, worked as a gardener at her villa in Mougins (not far from Cannes) and was accused of her murder in 1991 because “Omar m’a tuer” was written on the wall in her blood next to the body. Though it was never proven to be Marchal’s handwriting, it was the only piece of evidence against Omar and he did go to jail for nearly seven years before being released as a favor to King Hassan II. Technically he is still considered guilty by law, even though many people have refuted the “evidence” and still believe it was merely racism that lead to his arrest.

It was a heavily mediatized scandal in France, and a movie about it will be released this year. [Update: Watch the trailer here!] I suppose “m’a tuer” could be compared to “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” from the OJ Simpson trial in the US. Anyone who watched French news in the 90’s knows about the Omar trial and instantly recognizes the phrase just as Americans recognize the phrase about the glove. Searching online, you’ll come across many examples of m’a tuer such as Google m’a tuer and Sarkozy m’a tuer. There was even a concert protesting the controversial “creation and internet” law called Hadopi that was adopted in 2009:

I’ve written a lot on learning culture with language because they cannot be separated, but popular culture is probably the hardest aspect of culture to learn. Unless you lived through it, saw it on TV, heard about it on a daily basis, it can be hard to really understand the importance (or non-importance) of it all. It is hard to learn about pop culture from books or even magazines because they don’t really explain it; they just expect you to know it. It’s the experience that matters most, and I’m not sure of the best way to recreate that when learning a language/culture.

David speaks English really well and has no trouble communicating or understanding with Americans. He still watches American series to get more exposure to the language (especially southern accents which he loves, so thanks True Blood) but he still finds it hard to understand pop culture references. I remember when he was watching Lost a few years ago and was completely confused during the Tricia Tanaka is Dead episode. Sawyer and Hurley were on pop culture overload with Skeletor, Hooked on Phonics, Rocky III, JumboTron, Jiminy Cricket, and Munchkin. It was a funny episode for Americans, but not so much for foreigners. Even if he had turned on the English subtitles, he still wouldn’t have understood because it was the meaning behind the words and not the actual words themselves that he didn’t understand. Comparing the French and English subtitles, it’s easy to see that some things can’t be translated well because they don’t really exist in France or French:

Somebody’s hooked on phonics. becomes T’as appris la phonétique.

What’s your problem, JumboTron? becomes C’est quoi, ton problème, Écran géant ? in one version and C’est quoi, ton problème, Jabba le Hutt ? in another.

Remember online subtitles are made by volunteers and aren’t necessarily the same as the dubbed version shown in France. But it is interesting to see how the translators decided to render the same idea or image in French, especially for things that don’t exist, such as the brand name JumboTron for the large TV screens in arenas and stadiums. One translator resorts to a literal translation of giant screen, while the other uses another cultural reference that French people would know since Star Wars is just as famous here as in the US.

Anyone else endlessly fascinated by translations of pop culture among languages?

International Mother Language Day & Recent Foreign Language News

February 21 is UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day, which “has been celebrated since 2000 to promote all the languages of the world. This Day represents an effective mobilization opportunity for linguistic diversity and multilingualism.” Spread the language love!

If you don’t already know why being multilingual makes your life better:

Being bilingual may delay Alzheimer’s and boost brain power
Research suggests that bilingual people can hold Alzheimer’s disease at bay for longer, and that bilingual children are better at prioritising tasks and multitasking

Juggling Languages Can Build Better Brains
Once likened to a confusing tower of Babel, speaking more than one language can actually bolster brain function by serving as a mental gymnasium

Bilinguals Find it Easier to Learn a Third Language
Bilinguals find it easier to learn a third language, as they gain a better aptitude for languages

CIMG2655_JPG
I love you wall in Paris

And if the constant news about universities cutting budgets and getting rid of foreign language programs gets you down, there is at least one university in the US that is doing the opposite:

U.C. Berkeley campus expands course offerings
More than half a million dollars will be allotted to numerous foreign language courses beginning in 2011-12 and will ultimately result in more than 30 additional language courses offered

Congratulations to the winner of the Mango Passport Bundle giveaway from last week: @plutoinlove Thanks to all the participants and Mango Languages for making the giveaway possible!

Review of Mango Passport & On the Go and Free Product Giveaway for Twitter Users

Last fall, I included Mango Languages for Libraries in my review of language learning websites. If you do not have access to Mango through your library or would like your own personal copy of the program that is not dependent on an internet connection, Mango Languages now offers Passport software and On the Go mp3 downloads for individual users, available in the following languages: Chinese (Mandarin), English as a Second Language, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese (Brazilian), Russian, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, and Vietnamese.

The Mango Passport software includes 10 chapters with several lessons each and a review at the end of each chapter. Some languages have more lessons than others; for example, the Italian program that I reviewed has 52, while Czech has 67, Vietnamese has 76 and Japanese has 84. You can try one lesson for free online to see what the program is like, or if you do have access through your library, the Passport software is the same as the Mango for Libraries Complete 2.0 course. Each lesson provides dialogs and conversations in the target language, with color-coded vocabulary, phonetic transcriptions when you hover over the word, voice comparisons for testing your own pronunciation, and timed “cards” so that you must recall the target word or phrase.  Each chapter builds up vocabulary, grammar and culture without being too explicit (especially for grammar) for basic conversation and traveling needs.  The ten chapters in Italian are: Greetings, Gratitude, Goodbyes; Do you speak English?; What’s your name?; Where’s the station?; How much does it cost?; I’d like to order; Can I pay by credit card?; I need help; How do you say Thank you in Italian?; What is it?; plus the course review.

The On the Go product is the audio version of the Passport software. The Main Course mp3s are in the same order as the 10 chapters in Passport, and there is also a Quick Course which doesn’t include the memory exercises so the time is cut in half if you prefer a faster version. Three Review sets of mp3s are also included: Cultural, Phrase and Vocabulary; as well as a nice PDF booklet with all the transcripts.  The booklet does also include the cultural and grammar notes plus the phonetic transcriptions of each word.

The program does not claim that you will gain fluency (and I really don’t believe that any one program will make you fluent) and remember that these products are for beginners. If you already have knowledge of the language, it will probably be too slow and not extensive enough for increasing your vocabulary beyond the basic conversational level. Only neutral accents are used for the recordings, which have been scripted and rehearsed, so it is not the best bet if you are looking for advanced authentic audio with regional accents.  Please check out Mango‘s website, read the FAQs, and try the free lesson to see if the program will suit your needs. The introductory price per language for the Passport software is $150, while the On the Go mp3s are $100 – however, if you buy them together as a Bundle, the price is $200.  If you are interested in mobile apps, Mango Languages will be releasing an iPhone/iPod Touch app this summer.

THE TWITTER GIVEAWAY

I have one free copy of Mango Passport & On the Go Bundle to give away, a value of $200!

To participate in this Twitter giveaway, follow these instructions:

1. Either comment on this post or send me an e-mail at ielanguages [at] gmail [dot] com with your Twitter name and e-mail address.

2. Follow both @ielanguages and @mangolanguages on Twitter, if you have not already done so.

3. Tweet the following phrase “I just entered the @ielanguages giveaway of a Mango Passport Language Bundle from @mangolanguages http://ht.ly/3XrCU” before Sunday, February 20, 2011, at 11:59 PM Eastern Standard Time. One entry per person.

4. After verifying the follows and tweets, I will choose one entry at random on Monday and contact the winner through e-mail with the promo code for redeeming their free copy of Passport Mango & On the Go in one language of their choice.

Thanks for participating! [This giveaway has ended. Please check newer blog posts for further product giveaways!]

More French Cultural Vocabulary: Proprietary or Brand Names

Proprietary or brand names are also a cultural aspect of learning languages. Many times people aren’t even aware that a word they use for a certain object is in fact a brand name and not the generic name. In English, we have several brand names that have become more common than the original terms, such as kleenex (tissue), Q-tip (cotton swab), and band-aid (adhesive bandage).  This also extends further than nouns because we have verbs such as to tweet and to google.  And of course, some dialects of English do not use the same proprietary names as others (it’s plaster and not band-aid in British English.)

Here are a few proprietary names (with their generic names) used in France.

critérium / portemine

stabilo / surligneur

tippex / correcteur fluide

sopalin / essuie-tout

cotons-tiges / bâtons ouatés

Check out other Cultural Realia of France.

Culturally Relevant Photos of French Objects: Learning the Cultural Significance of Words

Following up on my recent post about cultural differences in photos, I have begun taking pictures of culturally relevant objects in France as an extension to my realia project that originally included written objects in French, such as signs, brochures, menus, receipts, etc. Now I want to add realia pertaining to visual differences among cultures and how a word in one language sometimes cannot translate exactly to another.

For example, the closest thing to a washcloth (that Americans know as a square piece of cloth) in France is actually un gant de toilette, which you can put your hand inside like a glove. Should we say that a washcloth = un gant de toilette even though they are not exactly the same thing?

How about approximations according to what is most common in each culture? In the US, most modern homes are heated by furnaces while in France most homes are heated by radiateurs, whether cast iron or electric.  Some homes even have underfloor heating. Even though Americans know what radiators are since they are still common in older houses, how would you go about translating the concept of a furnace into French? Simply use the culturally equivalent item? But then if you had only learned vocabulary by memorizing the spelling and pronunciation of the translation from your native language, how would you even know that French homes don’t have furnaces?

Here are a few other objects that are almost the same, but with slight differences.


Paper has grids, not lines, and more holes along the side


Milk is sold in one liter bottles, and most do not need to be refrigerated before opening


A wall outlet tends to be round with two circular holes for the prongs

Once again, language and culture cannot be separated. If you don’t learn them together, you will never have a full understanding of either. This is why I intend to add photos to the flashcards and I have added another page to the Realia section for this Cultural Realia of France.  All of the photos I take in France will be released under the same Creative Commons License that I used for the French Listening Resources mp3s so that other teachers and learners of French may use them in their classes or for self-study.

Brainscape Flashcards: Website and Mobile Apps

Brainscape is a website that offers flashcards on a variety of topics – more than just foreign language vocabulary – using graduated intervals for maximum repetition and reinforcement of least-known items.  This learning technique goes by many names (spaced repetition seems to be the most common among language learning sites) and it is indeed based on actual scientific research that you can read about in scholarly journals. Brainscape explains the cognitive science behind their system and cites their sources, which is extremely important to a researcher like me who values empirical data and facts over random anecdotes of personal failure or success.

The concept is simply to rate how well you felt you knew each item on a numerical scale, starting at 5 for perfectly down to 1 for not at all.  The items that you rate lower will reappear more often so that you can focus your attention on them rather than spending time on the ones you already know fairly well.  Currently there are flashcards available in the subjects of Test Prep (GRE & SAT vocabulary plus Driver’s Ed), Languages (Spanish, French, Chinese, ESL and survival Russian & Portuguese), and Knowledge Junkie (random facts for nerds like me). Audio is provided for many of the language cards and will be continually added for languages that do not already include it. Keyboard shortcuts are also available (spacebar and numbers) so you aren’t required to click constantly.

At this time, all of the flashcard sets are available for free on the website.  Just create an account or sign in with Facebook and add them to your library.  You can also create your own cards or import lists of items in XML or CSV format as well as share them with other users on the site. If you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, Brainscape also offers apps for each of the flashcard sets.  More than half are free through iTunes’ app store.  Eventually there will be a single app for accessing your library and syncing your progress between the website and app so that you can start learning on one platform and continue on the other with no interruption.

Even if flashcards are not your thing, Brainscape’s blog is still worth checking out for articles on learning, memory, cognition, education, etc. They update it quite frequently and have great guest bloggers and interviews.

Finally, I have five promo codes for the French Vocab Genius app for iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch (normally $7.99) which includes nearly 3,000 audio flashcards. The first five people who e-mail me at ielanguages [at] gmail [dot] com requesting a code will receive one! [EDIT: All of the codes have been given away already!]

Cultural Differences in Photos: USA and France

In my English classes I taught at the university, we used flashcards with a photo of an object and the English word written out to teach and/or reinforce vocabulary. For most objects, there were no problems with the images provided but every once in a while, my students didn’t quite understand the connection between the image and the word because of cultural differences between the US and France.

For example, what word comes to mind when you look at this image?

If you are American, you would most likely identify it as a loaf of bread. All of my French students, however, thought it was a cake. Why? Because un cake in French is this:

Most Americans would probably call this a sort of quick bread, such as banana bread or zucchini bread, because the shape is similar to a loaf of bread. Loaves of bread are not all that common in France because pain has many shapes, whether a baguette, or pain de campagne, or petits pains. Sliced bread sold in loaves is just called pain de mie, or “American Sandwich” as it’s written on the bag, and it is not really eaten with meals but used almost exclusively for making sandwiches or croque monsieurs.

Another image that my students found strange was this:

Orange prescription bottles that are the norm in the US don’t exist in France. When you go to the pharmacy, you receive a box of medication but there is no printed label with the directions on it, or even your name or doctor’s name. All of that information stays on the prescription paper itself, which you must keep.

Students who watch a lot of American TV or films recognized the bottle, but it was still a foreign concept to them – just as not receiving an orange bottle is still a bit odd to me whenever I fill a prescription in France.

Now what image pops into your head when you hear the words crutches or vacuum?

If you’re American, I bet you think of these:

If you’re French, I imagine it’s more like these:

The forearm crutches and cylinder vacuum are also used in the US, but the underarm crutches and upright vacuum are relatively rare in France. I always thought it was strange when my students came to class with the forearm crutches after a car or skiing accident, because I only ever saw those used by elderly patients with lifelong disabilities or Kerry Weaver on ER. I don’t know which set of crutches is considered better for healing, but at least with the vacuums it makes more sense that the upright version is more common in North America – because we have a lot more carpet in our homes and businesses. I have yet to set foot in a home in France where there is wall-to-wall carpet instead of a few small rugs here and there. Since Europe prefers hardwood and tile floors, the cylinder vacuum is more convenient here.

Another difference that I had never thought of came to me when I was flipping through Oops magazine this past weekend. Oops is one of those trashy celebrity magazines that I only look at to learn more slang or see what atrocities French has done to English words lately (relooké always kills me). There was a picture of Zac Efron next to a car holding a few things in his hands, one of which was a tube of Burt’s beeswax lip balm, which is very recognizable to Americans – as are most tubes of chapstick. [I believe this was the paparazzi photo if you want to see for yourself.]

However, the caption in French said that he was holding a tube of homeopathic pills. I don’t think that Burt’s Bees products are as popular in France as in the US, and homeopathic pills found in little tubes are very common, so it’s easy to see why the author was mistaken:

There are many other subtle differences that don’t lead to confusion (houses with siding vs. stone houses, cars with trunks vs. hatchbacks, top-loading washers vs. front-loading) that help to identify something as American or French/European. Searching for the English word on images.google.com and the French word on images.google.fr will provide many examples. Can you think of any other items that could be mistaken for something else like the cake and tubes above?