This month’s guest read history and educational psychology in England, his home country. He holds an honours degree in educational psychology from the University of London.
He arrived in France in 1970 and has been there ever since. He began his teaching career at the prestigious école préparatoire aux grandes écoles de Sainte-Geneviève in Versailles. He holds a master’s degree in English from the Sorbonne Paris IV. For 25 years he was head of the Languages and Translation Department at France Telecom corporate headquarters in Paris.
His letters and articles have been published in England in the Financial Times and The Linguist (the official magazine of the British Institute of Linguists) and in France in Le Monde, Télérama, Marianne and in his local newspaper La Provence.
The Routledge Dictionary of Cultural References in Modern French, (Routledge, Oxford et New York), constitutes a cultural bridge between francophiles and anglophiles. This book has just come out in its second edition. Michael has also published several books with the French publisher Belin, Paris, listed below.
Michael lives with his wife Danielle, in a small fishing village in Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône).
I studied at the College of St Mark and St John, an Anglican teacher’s training college that, at the time, was part of the faculty of Education of the University of London. I commuted daily to the Kings Road, Chelsea, the heart of “swinging London” between 1966 and 1970.
My “academic” subject was history, my specialist period being 19th century social and economic history while my “professional” subjects included child psychology, social psychology, sociology, philosophy as well as the history of British education. From the second year onwards, I specialized in psychology. Each year, for three years, I did teaching practices in schools in the Greater London area.
French is not a language that one learns in a year! I enrolled at L’Alliance française. At the end of my first year at Ste Geneviève, I had the possibility of renewing my contract which I did twice. After having lived three years in Paris and Versailles it seemed impossible to return to England. Living abroad is so enriching. I realized that my life was going to be lived in France.
Why did you choose to retire to a small fishing port in Provence?
My wife comes from Marseilles and as a young girl she spent many holidays in the village where we live today. We already had a vacation home here while we were living in the Paris region and when we retired, the choice of this village was obvious.
I was head of the Département Langues et Traductions that I had created at the corporate headquarters of France Telecom (at that time it was still known as La Direction Générale des Télécommunications) in 1981. My work consisted of :
English language training (initially) of the Chairman and executive directors of the company.
Translating for the needs of the Presidency and the General Secretariat.
The management of a multicultural team of 12 teachers - 6 English, 3 German, and 3 Spanish. France Telecom’s investments in Argentina and Mexico led us to propose Spanish lessons to our senior management plus German lessons following the signing of a strategic alliance between FT and Deutsche Telekom.
A large part of my time was spent on pedagogical and linguistic research which led, in close collaboration with one of my fellow teachers, to the publication of several books with the Parisian publisher Belin.
These books were intended for our students within the company but were equally aimed at students in « préparatoire ». The functional and notional aspects were always in the forefront of our research. We insisted heavily on the art of making presentations in a foreign language, a task frequently asked of our managers. The technical content of their presentations was more than adequate but the art of public speaking left a lot to be desired. Consequently, we invested a great deal of time in the field of discourse analysis
The book published by Routledge was a long-standing ambition of mine. After my first five years of living in France I became an avid reader of Le Canard enchaîné. I quickly realized that my basic knowledge of French was inadequate to understand this satirical newspaper. The component words themselves were not a problem but I was totally missing the hidden meaning behind the words. Thirty years later, on retirement I had the time necessary to engage in wide-ranging research on the cultural references of Le Canard enchaîné. To understand this satirical weekly, one needs to possess very comprehensive cultural keys: literary, biblical, historical, mythological, theatrical, cinématographical… One needs a comprehensive knowledge of the French language in order to seize the puns, which, are legion in this newspaper, let alone the spoonerisms and slang. The word « atmosphère » is a case in point. The word is practically the same in English with the same denotation. However, my teachers and my dictionaries did not tell me that « atmosphère » in French:
is one of the most famous rejoinders in French cinema history;
is the most famous word ever pronounced on screen by the actress Arletty;
is part of the most famous scene in the no less famous film Hôtel du Nord.
In the early days I didn’t know the work of the comic Fernand Raynaud and I was mystified when coughing, as people, in unison, asked me why I was coughing, « Pourquoi tu tousses tonton ? ». What a ridiculous question, I thought!
The objective was thus to give the foreign student of the French language a short cut to that knowledge that is so sadly wanting in traditional university courses and that one takes years to acquire.
With my wife I also published a book, intended for the layman, on the principles of mobile telephony in 1995 “Roaming with GSM” that was published in a quadrilingual version (English, Spanish, German, French).
I’m very wary of the term « deteriorate ». If language is deteriorating today this is because it has always been deteriorating. Cicero lamented the fact that Latin, in his day, was going to the dogs. Each century is tempted to believe that the century before was the linguistic Arcadia… which never existed, let it be said in passing. Over time, languages are modified by ignorance, laziness, snobbery and accident, For example, in the Middle Ages, the definite article was attached to the noun in question. “a » before a noun beginning with a consonant and « an » before a noun beginning with a vowel. Thus the word « napron » was written “anapron”. Later on it was decided to separate the noun from the accompanying article The separation was badly done and « a napron » became «an apron ». Inversely, still in the Middle Ages, the word for newt was in fact “ewt”. Here again the indefinite article was stuck to the noun i.e. anewt. But later, when the separation took place, here again it was badly done and instead of cutting so that the word read « an ewt », as it should have been done, the “n” of the indefinite article was added to the noun, giving us the word we know today “a newt”.
« Make » used to be a regular verb, the preterite being “maked”. But it is a lot easier to say « made » than “maked”….and so on.
In my opinion, English words used in French are an epiphenomenon. We should do well to remember that 30% of the words in the English language are foreign words, French for the most part, which endows the English language with a force and flexibility that French does not possess, derived as it is almost exclusively from Latin roots. That being said, any English word adopted by the French must have a justification. The use of the word « challenge » in French, to my mind, is totally illegitimate. It is longer than the French word it replaces « défi » without bringing any advantage in terms of the connotation or the denotation. This is a question, as is so often the case, of Parisian linguistic snobbery. On the other hand, in the technical domain, would you prefer the English word « handover » or its French translation; « the automatic, inter or intra-cellular transfer » that takes place when a mobile telephone leaves its nominal home address! For me, any ”decline” in the French language can be explained by four things :
The mediocre level of French used by French newsreaders and TV hosts; these people speak to millions of viewers on a daily basis. This is the source of the contamination of mediocrity. With such barbarisms as « slightly catastrophic and « very unique ».
Political correctness, « wokism » and inclusive writing constitute dangerous aberrations particularly when imposed in universities.
Considering the development of the English language in Great Britain and the French language in France, would you be in favour of an institution such as l’Académie française to watch over accepted linguistic practice or do you prefer a more British laissez-faire approach?
It’s not without interest to have an official body such as l’Académie française but this corresponds more to the Jacobin tendency to wish to centralize and control everything ; this is not in the English psyche. In fine, a language, like a rivulet, will find its own route. L’Académie française try as it may, will say that we should use the expression “navire transbordeur” but it’s the word “ferry” that carries the day in French.
Linguistic research is omnipresent: At France Telecom we developed a programme designed to help our students give better presentations in English. Since my retirement, I have been asked for help in this area by three of our grandchildren (who use English for their job). I subsequently adapted the initial programme bearing on telecommunications to the needs of:
I subsequently made the same adaptation for the ophthalmic surgeon (essentially for pathologies relating to the retina).
To carry out the related research, I was able to access the most recent documents in each of these fields: in this respect, for the military doctors’ version, I was able to consult the data base of the American army, navy and air-force to assess all of the health risks associated with each combat environment; truly remarkable wealth of data.
Last but not least, I give English lessons to my little neighbour who is 10 years old. We have had a one-hour lesson per week for the past four years. Having spent my professional life with adults, meeting the mind of a little six-year-old girl is a fascinating teaching experience.
Cet entretien est accessible en français ici