Friday, 27 April 2007

Bl**dy nerve!

Last week I was asked to proofread the text and audio scripts of a new BBC French language course. The last time I undertook such work (for a well-publicised BBC Two series that turned out to be a disaster) the dialogues had already been recorded by the time the typescripts were sent to me (you can imagine my dismay). This time, things are being done in the right order and with a bit of luck the end result won’t make anyone cringe. Of course, it took longer than I was told it would (five hours more, in fact, than I was able to charge for, because – as usual – the project manager underestimated the time, and beggars.... see previous post).

What amazed and concerned me was that this language course was written, like the previous one, by someone who has been teaching French for donkey’s years yet still makes basic mistakes. Here’s a – far from exhaustive – list I compiled as I went along:

* du and de; des and de; c'est and il/elle est; dans le and au are not interchangeable and are subject to precise rules.
* the adjective that follows c’est is always masculine singular.
* ‘After ten minutes’ is not après dix minutes but au bout de dix minutes.
* Tu penses? is not English; the correct verb is croire: Tu crois?.
* les soirs, elle va... is a literal – and incorrect – translation for ‘in the evenings, she goes...’; it’s le soir, elle va...
* depending on context, ‘next’ is prochain or suivant (they’re not interchangeable either).

* In the past tense, se faire mal (to hurt oneself) goes like this: je me suis fait mal, tu t’es fait mal, il/elle s’est fait mal, nous nous sommes fait mal, vous vous êtes fait mal, ils/elles se sont fait mal. Yes, that's it, fait is invariable. Elle s’est faite mal hurts me a lot. LOL!

* Passer
(to pass) is only followed by a direct object in passer le temps, passer un examen, otherwise it’s passer devant. In giving directions, you say, ‘Vous passez devant l’église...’ not ‘Vous passez l’église...’

* proper names never take an ‘s’ in the plural – except names of dynasties: les Bourbons.
* The French love commas and use them much more liberally than the Anglo-Saxons.

Most bits of very simple French text written to illustrate specific grammar rules sounded clumsy and were often wrong.

What makes someone whose French is not 100% perfect think they can produce such a course? Who commissions them? Would it occur to me to write an English language course, even though I am just as qualified as those writers to teach English? Erm, no. The only foolproof way for such material to be up to scratch would be for it to be written by two native speakers – one for each language.

Obviously, if the author had been correct all through, I would have missed out on a job. I should be grateful, really. Hmm...



  1. oh, thank you!

    i had to sit for ten minutes thinking whether to write 'parce que c'est plus BELLE' or 'parce que c'est plus BEAU' for a post recently

    i thought it was 'beau' (masculine singular) but i have it in my mind that the frenchman who said this to me had said 'belle', so i went with 'belle'

    of course, i could have called my father to check, but it seemed a trivial thing to bother him with at 10.30pm...


  2. People always think they can speak French better than they actually can, just because they can be understood. Just as people always think they can proofread just because they can read.

  3. The trouble is that the Beeb, like most of the TV media, now employ very, very young persons. They haven't got a clue. They have passed loads of tick-box exams (probably including French Language) and think they know it all. Then they have to get someone like you in to sort it all out - but with the arrogance of youth they couldn't imagine they might have got it all wrong, so started the re-recording before you arrived on the scene. Obviously its good business for you, but I still have a section of a book I read recently

  4. This is worth a big slap on two levels: Your being unpaid for your work, and
    the fact that someone who is supposed to be teaching a language, doesn't know it well enough to do so!

    That's just too, too much!

    BTW, our second daughter had a university French teacher who was actually Chinese by birth. You guessed it: daughter was speaking French with a Chinese accent. My husband was appalled. I'm so ignorant about French, I couldn't be of help, but he could.

  5. Oh, the confusion of people who know a foreign language yet are tempted to tranlsate word for word using their native one's idiocies and intricacies...(like "les soirs" etc.)
    Not to mention the confusion between Bel and Beau...

    Pity about the money though :-(

  6. So what happens if you work until you've reached the time they estimated, and then tell them sorry, you were off, there are so many corrections that I'll need 5 more hours to finish?

  7. That's happened to me before. What they do, the employer, is either make you feel you are causing them personally to be in trouble - 'But that's the budget! There just isn't any more money... Oh, no, what a problem!' - or more commonly they grimace at the end of the phone where you can't see them, pay up with seeming good grace, and then never employ you again and don't tell you why.

  8. UC, I’m glad I could help. Seeing your post made me realize that this particular point of grammar must be rather badly taught at school since the author of the course had made that same mistake. There are two problems with c’est: 1) when to use it; 2) how to write what follows it. 2) is the easier to solve: as I said, the adjective that follows c’est is always masculine singular because c’est stands for ce est and ce is masculine singular and the verb has to agree with its subject. 1) is a bit more tricky: basically, c’est is more abstract; it doesn’t refer to a particular thing. Like, if you ask someone, ‘How did you like the film?’ and they answer, ‘Oh, I loved it, but it was very sad.’ In French, this exchange would go, ‘Comment avez-vous trouvé le film?’ ‘Oh, je l’ai adoré, mais il est très triste.’ You can’t use c’est there because if you do it might sound as if what is sad is the fact that the person loved the film. But, ‘Did you know her husband had died?’ ‘No, I didn’t. It’s really sad.’ becomes ‘Est-ce que vous saviez que son mari est mort?’ ‘Non, je ne le savais pas. C’est vraiment triste.’ C’est refers to the fact/idea that her husband is dead and it’s the only word that can be used there. Hope you can see the difference. :-)

    L, indeed, there are many delusional people out there. Over the past 20 years, I can’t remember the number of times I’ve had to explain a subtle point of grammar to some editorial assistant who didn’t understand why I’d used this word or that expression. And why did I use that tense there instead of this one they’d learned at school? In the latter case, a sentence like ‘Winston Churchill dies!’ usually shut them up. LOL!

    H, everyone has always employed very, very young persons. The British Tourist Authority editors, for instance, were new university graduates, who were always trying to justify their appointments by querying everything.

    TLP, thanks for the sympathy.

    Ideally, languages should only be taught by natives, but it can’t be done, can it? I was very lucky: my first English teacher was actually British and she taught us for two years. It was great.

    Yes, H, it’s a shame and a constant source of aggravation. The confusion between bel and beau is easily solved: bel is only used before a masculine singular noun beginning with a vowel – as in ‘le bel âge’. It sounds incredibly quaint, though. LOL!

    NST, what would happen is very simple: as L explains below, they would never ever use me again.

    Yep, that’s the way it goes, L.

  9. Yes, J dear, that's what I meant: it does sound quaint and hence it's often left unchecked!
    I am sure they would use you again: you're a stickler for accuracy and how can that be a bad thing? ;-)

  10. H, I've just found your comment on in the Blogger moderating section (I never received it in my Inbox). Thank you very much for the vote of confidence.


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