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Francophonics

September 5, 2009

Many moons back, when I was a young undergraduate, I spent a year working as the English assistant in a French school in the suburbs of Paris.  Each day, I would take one half of the class scheduled for English and the teacher would keep the other half.  The following week we would swap.

I took a fairly informal approach with the pupils, trying to motivate them by injecting some fun into learning to speak English.  The teacher had a syllabus to which he or she was obliged to adhere but I did not.  All I had to to do was to try to get them speaking English.  It was a challenge but I wanted them to want to come with my half of the group and at least to want to try.  I told them that they could ask me anything they wanted to know in English and, within reason, I would tell them.

One day, in the middle of class, a pupil (aged about 14 or 15) put his hand up:

‘Excuse me, Mees, what ees bollocks?’

The shocking ‘bollocks’ word bursting forth so unexpectedly from such a politely phrased and timidly posed question tickled me.

‘Where did you hear that?’ I asked him.

‘Ze Sex Peestols.  Never Mind Ze Bollocks,’ was his response.

Fortunately I had learnt that very word the evening before when, out with some friends who were not so polite or timid around me, one of them had told a joke that contained the same word.

‘Les couilles,’ I told him.

My poor pupil blushed a deep shade of red while the whole class collapsed into guffaws of laughter.

This led to another question, from a girl this time, an avid Blondie fan, who wanted to know what the French kissing from their hit ‘French Kissing in the USA’ meant.  I explained that it meant kissing with tongues and the pupils, astounded, responded that in French they called it ‘baiser à l’anglaise.’  Well, as you can imagine, that initiated a very interesting discussion to find other idioms where we blame it on each other, so to speak.  We came up with ‘ to take French leave’  (filer à l’anglaise); ‘French seam’ (couture anglaise)  and that old chestnut the ‘French letter’ (capote anglaise).

Who would have thought?

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