August, 2013

5 funny Mormon missionary French mistakes


What do you get when you put a wide-eyed clean-cut guy in a suit, give him a few weeks of intensive language training, and then drop him off in a foreign country to find people willing to listen to him preach about Jesus? Well, yes, an award-winning Broadway Musical, but besides that? Ample fodder for language mistakes, that’s what.

Here are five real-life Mormon missionary French errors, in no particular order:

  1. Joseph Smith threw up in the woods.   (Joseph a rendu dans les bois.) Part of the story of the origins of Mormonism involves a young farm boy, Joseph Smith, in search of which church to join. Confused, he goes into the woods to pray. Since past reflexive verbs are difficult for a beginning French speaker, “Joseph s’est rendu [went to] dans les bois” sometimes becomes “Joseph a rendu [threw up] dans les bois.” Wow,  thinks the person listening to his message, that’s pretty confused.
  2. Wound this family with death in their home. (Blessez cette famille avec la mort dans leur foyer.) Imagine how disturbing it must be to invite a couple of missionaries into your home, accept their offer to leave you with a prayer, and then hear them utter the words “Wound this family with death in their home.” Yikes! This mistake comes from two common types of error: a false cognate and mispronunciation. The correct sentence was meant to be “Bénissez cette famille avec l’amour dans leur foyer” (Bless this family with love in their home), but the missionary assumes that “blesser” must be “bless” and pronounces “l’amour” (love) like “la mort” (death).
  3. Wound the Germans! (Blesser les Allemands.) Another “blesser” + mispronunciation error, this one appears in praying to bless the food before a meal. The sentence is meant to be “Bénissez les aliments.” (Bless the food.)
  4. We’re here to give you a massage. (Nous sommes venus pour vous donner une massage.) One tiny mistake, and “message” becomes “massage.” The only thing more awkward than the person who responds, “No, I’m not into that kind of thing” is the one who invites the missionaries  in and then starts to disrobe.
  5. Do you have a bra? (Est-ce que vous avez un soutien-gorge?) This is more of a hazing joke than something that happens naturally. The story goes like this: a missionary who has already spent a good amount of time in France tells a brand new missionary to go get some throat lozenges for him from a local pharmacy. With a limited vocabulary, the new missionary thinks gorge=throat and soutien=support. OK. “throat support”—sounds plausible enough.

Illustrating frustration

Hi, my name is Andrew, and I draw a cartoon every day over at I’m also a co-author of What The French?! (which is now officially for sale. Just putting that out there.) When we were first beginning the writing process, we decided to include illustrations, and since I was already on board, it seemed to make sense to have me draw my awkward stick people instead of looking for someone else and having to pay them money (which, I won’t lie, is something we didn’t have). And by way of justifying it, my co-author said it matched the aesthetic of the book– they do kind of look like the sort of scribbles a frustrated student might make in the margins of a textbook while halfway listening to a cassette tape of Pierre talking about his morning routine.

quiet version

Just look at those empty, soulless eyes.

And that’s really the reason we wrote this book. We’ve been in the bored, frustrated student’s seat, and we’ve been in the teacher’s seat, too, trying to teach French in a way that makes sense and isn’t boring or insulting to the students’ intelligence. A survey we did of some commonly-used French textbooks from the last 40 years showed that they’re pretty much all the same, including in some respects that frustrate nearly everyone.

For example: let’s say you want to get a feel for the big picture of how verbs work. In a normal textbook, you pretty much can’t. It’s scattered all over the place, sometimes without introduction or hiding under names like “En vacances!” Really helpful.

So much of our experience as students and teachers has been frustration that the title could really only be the incredulous cry of What The French?! And when it was time to draw the front cover, it was my job to put all that confusion and disbelief and anger into the face and posture of a stick figure. It took a few tries:

This one looks like there was something really surprising in the book.

This one looks like there was something really surprising in the book.

I tried two different sets of eyebrows, which kind of disturbs me to look at.

I tried two different sets of eyebrows, which kind of disturbs me to look at.

Aside from not having the words of the title, this one just looks like a guy running from a bear or a house fire or something. He's not angry enough.

Aside from not having the words of the title, this one just looks like a guy running from a bear or a house fire or something. He’s not angry enough.

Finally, though, we settled on this one. I think this guy has just the right amount of amazement with the absurdity of his predicament, shaking a fist at the book or the sky or the universe, crying out in the frustration of wanting to know how French works.




What The French?! release date quickly approaches

What The French?! has been submitted to the iBookstore, and if we’re lucky, it will be for sale in about a week. There’s no telling exactly how long the approval process will take (it took 6 days with Dangerous Tweets), but we’re crossing our fingers.


The rumors aren’t true: French Military History

Maybe your mom used to tell you, like mine did, “Every joke is rooted in the truth.” And that may be the case when making fun of family members, but today let’s dispel one myth that’s generated a lot of jokes in the last seventy years or so:

“The French never win anything / always surrender / are a bunch of cowards.”

Belief in this myth has spawned a lot of jokes:

“For sale: French army rifles. Never fired, dropped once.”

“What does Maginot Line mean in French? —’Speed bump ahead’.”

Or the prank by which a Google search of “French military victories” used to yield…well, here’s a picture of it:


If they make so many jokes about it, it must be true, right? Well…

In recent-ish memory, the French did get their butts handed to them by the German blitzkrieg, which was a war tactic no one in Europe was prepared for. Which is why so many other countries in Europe also found themselves either under the Reich or begging to join their club (I’m looking at you, Mussolini). Hindsight is 20/20, right? But what’s remarkable is that even with Hitler doing a little dance under the Eiffel Tower and their country occupied by Nazis and collaborators, over a million French people continued to fight with the Allies, providing pivotal support in such major events as D-day. So yeah, a lot of French people gave a heavy sigh and invited the Nazis in, but many brave men and women continued to resist and helped to win the war.

How about French military history overall? The Wikipedia article on it quotes British historian Niall Ferguson as saying that France has participated in 168 major European wars since 387 BCE, out of which it won 109, drawn 10 and lost 49, making the country the most successful military power in European history.

Granted, France has been around a lot longer than the good old US of A, but it kind of puts things into perspective when you think we have guys running around wearing these:



How about the French military today?

The 2013 French budget for military expenditures is 58.9 billion dollars, excluding their Gendarmerie (sort of like the National Guard). That’s 2.3% of the country’s GDP. For a country substantially smaller than the United States, it’s a lot of people and a lot to spend. France has 469,461 members in its purely volunteer-based military. There are 5.5 active military members for every 1000 people (7.3 per 100 total), compared to the USA’s 4.5 active per 1000 (also 7.3 total per 1000). (And people call them lazy!) There are a surprisingly small number of aircraft carriers in the world, but France has one of them.

I could keep digging up stats for you, but I won’t. If you want to keep making your inaccurate jokes grounded in a poor understanding of history, knock yourself out. As for me, my understanding of France can mostly be summed up by this painting:


Bad guys speak French

In the year 2154, you have a better shot of living on a pristine space station if you speak French. At least that’s what I learned when I went to see the movie Elysium last night. When we first see Jodie Foster, as the villainous Secretary Delacourt (yep. as in “of the court”), she is mingling with elite citizens of Elysium in fluent French. Meanwhile, back on earth, Max (Matt Damon) speaks just enough Spanish to let the viewer know that he is a man of the people. This isn’t a movie review, so I won’t go into the numerous problems with the script (like, if you want the miracle health care of the “med-pod 3000″, wouldn’t it be more efficient to just steal one and bring it back to earth rather than jeopardize the lives of little girls in doomed missions to breach the space station? I’m just sayin’.)

Whatever its faults, Elysium gets one thing right: people who speak French are evil.

Can you imagine a dystopian earth where the huddled masses, the lovable gang of outlaws, and the messianic badass speak French? Hollywood can’t.

If you have ambitions to be a supervillain (or even a WASPy power-hungry xenophobe with a refrigerator full of expiring Activia. And who doesn’t?), you really should brush up on your French. Sure, you may end up dead when Matt Damon comes to free the world from your despotic grasp, but as the blood pools around your impeccably tailored suit and your gracefully pursed lips prepare to exhale their final breath, you will admire your reflection in one of the many surrounding chrome surfaces with just a soupçon of a smile. Fond memories of conjugating…Je suis…tu es…il est…elle…and then nothing.

WTF?! looks at swearing (part 2)

So, you want to swear in French, do you? Bad idea. Think about the last time you heard a less-than-fluent foreigner swear in your native language. It just doesn’t sound right. Either it sounds shocking or unintentionally comical. As if a small child were saying it. My theory is that, since linguistically, you essentially are a small child, you are held to a different standard. You don’t get your swearing privileges until you reach linguistic adolescence.

I ran into a pathetic thread on a language forum where some poor student asked the following:

Ok well I’m new here and well yeah. I was wondering if anyone knew any really bad sayings in french. Like I know “ferme ta guele” and “tu es pleine de merde” or go to hell in french…”va chez le bonhomme” I think, but I want to know more! It would really impress my teacher. So if anyone could help!!Please

Yikes! Where do I start? With the idea that swearing would impress the teacher? With the hilarious “va chez le bonhomme” (who says that? Dora the explorer?)?

Imagine you are that student. You’d be stuck looking elsewhere, and from what I’ve seen, you will usually end up with about 40% wrong content. There’s a travel guide, for example, where we get to hear “Julie’s 1o favorite swear words.” I don’t know who Julie is, or why she keeps a list of her favorite swear words but the pronunciation guide alone is worth a good laugh. There’s “Poo-TAHN”  (is that a woman of loose morals or some new spin on a Canadian French fry dish?), “CHI-ant” (Something that bugs you or a knock-off brand of Italian wine?), “ta-GOOL” (A way to tell someone to shut up or a new horror movie villain?).

There are more helpful slang lists, but they mix outdated and current content. Maybe you’ll get lucky or maybe you’ll sound like a cantankerous old man (“Them dern aliens ruined my golldarn rubbarb patch with their flyin’ machine, dagnabbit!”

If I haven’t convinced you to steer clear of swearing, then my advice is, stick with merde. It’s an amazingly versatile way to express annoyance or frustration. Depending on how you say it, it can either be mild or strong. It can be a short monosyllabic expletive or it can be drawn out into two syllables for emphasis. You can build up its impact through repetition and volume.

Or better yet, take a cue from the Fantastic Mr. Fox (or the Smurfs) and just use one word for everything.

“Ask a teacher” interview: Michael Christensen

Every so often, we get to interview a French teacher. We ask questions about likes and dislikes, stories, mistakes and much more. This week, Michael Christensen (MC) took a minute to answer our (WTF) questions.

WTF: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

MC: I teach at Brigham Young University, Intermediate French (third semester). Besides teaching, I enjoy eating, music, and sarcasm. Also, food…although that probably goes along with eating.

WTF: Why did you decide to become a teacher?

MC: I became a teacher for the pay (ironic, I know) but also because I enjoy helping others learn new things and seeing the proverbial lightbulb click on.

WTF: How could students make your life easier?

MC: If students could trust me more, it would make my life easier; I’m not out to make them fail and I do know my subject. I’m not perfect and make mistakes, but trust (especially from older students) is so important in the educational process.

WTF: What’s one way students could make their own lives easier?

MC: Students can make their lives easier by relaxing, caring less about a grade and more about listening and learning.

WTF: What’s your favorite French mistake?

MC: Best French mistake…just the distinction between monter and montrer…It’s always good for a laugh.

WTF: What’s your favorite thing to teach, and why?

MC: My favorite thing to teach is phonetics and pronunciation; it’s amazing how much it helps students not only with their speaking, but also with their listening comprehension skills.

WTF: Which Francophone country or region has your favorite accent?

MC: My favorite accent has to be the standard Québécois accent: understandable, yet wonderfully not-French.

WTF: Thanks for your time, Michael! Keep up the good work.

Would you like to nominate your teacher for an interview? Go to the “contact” page, tell us why, and give us a way to get a hold of your teacher.


WTF?! looks at swearing (part 1)

You have probably seen the Orbit commercial with the “What the French toast” line in it. Why French toast? Why not just “What the French?!”? Does it take the level of absurdity up a notch? Does it tone it down?  Perhaps more important to our soon-to-be-released grammar book What The French?! is whether our less edible title will stop people from buying the book.

As a kid with a British mom, I was taught never to say “I have a bloody nose!”—lest my grandmother freak out. This was a clear, early lesson that words don’t affect all people the same way. My mother still calls What The French?! “that project you’re working on” or “your project.” I have heard some people (these are the ones who only watch G-rated movies) call substitutes for swear words (“Fetch!” and “Flip!” are as traditional in Utah, for example, as green Jell-O and funeral potatoes) “second string” swear-words. I’m not big on sports, but if you want to win a game, shouldn’t you really put in the first string?

Because we have texted “wtf” for “what the french” so many times back and forth in process of writing our book, the term has completely changed in my mind. When I see WTF, I only think What The French?!—“French” has become first string, as well it should. Whether you’re studying French grammar, traveling in Paris, or trying to identify that food you just ordered, “What the French?!” just feels like the right thing to say. If you teach ESL, maybe you should tell all your students that “What the French” is what Americans say when they’re angry. C’mon. You can help make it a thing.

Swearing is tricky business.

If we were on the game show Pyramid (remember that show?), and I started listing English translations of Québecois swear words, you might guess “Things you find in a church.” But if I listed the swear words a Parisian might use, you might guess “Things you find on New York mayoral candidate’s cell phone.”

The BBC (no, not that BBC—the Backdoor Broadcasting Company, which isn’t half as dirty as it sounds) has a downloadable recording of a lecture by Belgian linguist Jean-Marc Dewaele about multilingual swearing.  The introduction to his talk says he has the prize for “most obscene title of a scientific paper.” You’ll hear it it in his talk (sensitive listener alert). If it’s any consolation, he dilutes the shock with the dull academic subtitle “Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals” (which might be enough to alienate the half of the audience not offended by first part of the title). It’s worth a listen—yes listen, no video, but there are powerpoint slides.

A few things you will learn:

Which swear word do non-native English speakers underestimate in terms of its impact? Is swearing linked to level of education? Besides your teenage years, at what age do you swear the most? What are the effects of workplace swearing? Are your “linguistic rights” in a foreign language limited? Are you more/less likely to swear in a foreign language?

Tell us what you think. And stay tuned for part 2 about swearing next week.

google analytics code: