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9 December: Le politiquement correct est devenu fou

In our advanced French class this week we looked at a list of political correct-isms. You know the kind of thing: You can no longer say “alcoolique”, but rather “Personne à sobriété differée.”

A road sweeper (balayeur) becomes “Technicien de surface” if you are strictly following the guidelines.

And it is no longer acceptable to use the word “laid” (ugly); you must instead say “esthétiquement différent”

These are of course ridiculous and exaggerated, and very few people really recognise the rules, but…

One of the WhatsApp group images that received plenty of positive affirmation in the shape of smiley emojis and thumbs ups was this one:

Having started the post in the vein of PC sensibilities, I now wonder whether posting this could draw accusations of racism, however “gentle”.

But is it necessarily racist to acknowledge national stereotypes? Can doing so perpetuate dangerous prejudices, or is it harmless fun?

Let’s take the concept of punctuality. Having lived in Germany, Japan and Spain, and having friends from Senegal, Sweden and even Basingstoke, I can tell you for a fact, not from lazy generalisations, that the differences are very much cultural, not personal. If you had a dinner party and expected your international guests to arrive at 7:30 for 8pm, it would be interesting to chart the arrival times of your differently-origined (avoiding the word 'foreign') friends. It cannot be racist to notice and remark on the characteristics, but I suppose the point is our attitude when we make such observations; what we aim to achieve by doing so.

In our language lessons, there are various plates that we aim to keep spinning: learning vocabulary, grammatical rules, comprehension, spoken fluency, and cultural reference points. It is hoped that anyone enrolling in a language-learning course will be doing so not only to improve factual knowledge but also cultural understanding.

Andrew Wenger is proud to have friends, colleagues, and students from all over the globe, and feels enriched by the experiences they bring to lessons and to the dinner-party table. There is a good reason behind the name "Same-Sky Languages"!

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