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This is for those of you who are in some way learning to speak French. There are two tricks. One will enable you to know the gender of a noun without having to remember it (is it le thingy or la thingy?) and the other will get you speaking fluent bad French in no time flat.

French was a compulsory subject at my school and they did their best to teach us all. I hated it and yes, I failed it at ‘O’ level. Many years later, when I was in my mid 30’s, I had to spend two weeks in Lyon with people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t – you know the French!) speak English. The technical stuff was OK because they were explaining circuit diagrams and I’m an electronics engineer. It was the social stuff that was the killer (lunches and dinners). I was too embarrassed to make a fool of myself with the remnants of what I had left from my schooldays so I hardly muttered a word, which was not very becoming since I was their guest. After a week of hell, I popped over to the UK to visit my family (we’d been in South Africa for about 15 years at that time). During the weekend I decided that the following week I would speak any old French as long as I got my meaning across. And that’s what I did. I spoke bad (no, shocking) fluent French, with no concern for whether it was “le” or “la”, no concern for tenses, past, present or future, in fact no concern for any of those schoolboy horrors. And d’you know what? They understood me!

Some years later and after a few more visits to France, I joined Alliance Francaise to really see if I could learn the language. Two tricks helped me win the Prix d’Excellance in that first (and only) year. I’m going to share them with you. I subsequently took private lessons and then they were interrupted when, at the age of 50, I decided that I wanted to become a CA(SA).

So first off, Springett’s Rule of Gender. There are lots of Springett’s rules of things but this is my favourite because it is so simple.

My teacher at Alliance Francaise was a Parisienne language graduate. I asked her how the French learned the gender of a noun that they were hearing for the first time. Did they grab their dictionary and look it up, then try to remember it or what?

She said something to the effect that “we just sort of know”. Great help! But it got me thinking. How could they “just sort of know”? They had only heard the word, so it had to have something to do with the sound or the meaning. I quickly discounted meaning.

So it had to be something to do with the sound. I dug out my faithful Harrap’s English/French dictionary and started listing French nouns with their gender. What did female words have in common and what did male words have in common. It was a long list, but eventually the pattern became clear and hence Springett’s Rule of Gender –

“If two French words have the same ending, then they have the same gender”

Examples: Incubateur (m) saboteur (m); harmonisation (f) fabrication (f); village (m) montage (m); dexterité (f) verité (f) and so on

The accuracy of the rule is well over 95% (I seem to recall something like 98% when I tested it back in those days). Why didn’t they teach us that at school (or at Alliance Francaise for that matter)? Because they didn’t know it themselves!

And now for the next trick –

Take another look at the examples above. Are they familiar? Of course, every one of them is, or is close to, an English word. It is fact that 60% of commonly used English words are of French origin (or perhaps other members of the Romance language family – Portuguese, Spanish, Italian). The other 40% are from old English, a Teutonic language (German, Dutch, Swedish etc.).

So if you want to speak fluent bad French, speak English with a French accent! It’s called Franglais (from a long out-of-print comic book entitled “Parlez-vous Franglais?” You’ll soon get a feel for which words are of French origin and which are not. And incidentally, there are usually two English words for everything, one French and the other Teutonic (Old English). You just have to know which one to choose and that gets easy too because one of them will “feel right” in French and the other won’t.

One last word. The English word Chimney from the French “chemin der fer” (railway or literally road of iron), leads to cheminée (fireplace) from the days of coal fired steam engines, leads to monteau de chiminée (chimney stack) shortened in French back to chiminée leads to the English chimney. Nice eh?

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