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The rendering of names into French

Just listening to a piece on the RFI channel about the new Elvis movie and was amused by the pronunciation of ‘Tom Hanks’ by the reviewer. ‘Tom’, no problem. But ‘Hanks’ sounded like “Onks”.

I am sharing this in a spirit of highlighting a teaching point, rather than in sneering mockery, and humbly wonder how much better our pronunciation of names of French people and places would be!

Once, when conducting a French oral exam for a class of GCSE candidates I had never previously met, upon entering the room, one boy confidently told me his name was André Blanc. As I scanned the list, I mumbled something about having a head-start, given that he had a French name and all, but there was no one of that name on the register. It finally transpired that his name was Andrew White.

Rule 1: Do not translate your own name into French

In conversation about your academic achievements, you might be tempted to translate ‘A levels’ as ‘Baccalauréat’. This is not correct, however, as they are two different qualifications. Granted, they are the rough equivalent of each other, in that it is the exam that 18-year-olds must sit in order to get into higher education, but one is not the translation of the other.

Rule 2: Don’t translate proper nouns/names for which there is no direct equivalent in your target language.

This brings us onto the pronunciation.

Surely our ultimate goal, our Holy Grail, as language students is to pass for a native of the country whose language we are studying. This leads us to a quandary: if your home city is Manchester, should you go full ‘Allo, ‘allo and pronounce it Mon-shest-air, in order to sound as authentically French as possible? Short answer, and this is just my opinion: No!

If it feels ridiculous, that’s because it is!

We have already established that you shouldn’t translate your own name, but what about the pronunciation thereof? When introducing myself to a French person, should I say “On-drú” because I know that’s how it will end up? I have to admit that there have been occasions I have done just that, or even claimed my name was André, but only en pleine cambrousse*, where I just wanted to take the path of least resistance, and didn’t necessarily want my name to be a topic of conversation.

We are not working for GCHQ. Our goal is not literally to hoodwink people into thinking we are actually French. Surely it is enough to have those conversations, using all those amazing phrases that you have picked up in your time of studying this lovely language, and enjoy the feeling of understanding and being understood, with increasing regularity.

Rule 3: Yes, by all means mimic the sounds of the target language as nearly as possible, but this should not extend to trying to make English words sound French!

*Out in the sticks

Andrew Wenger has been teaching French for the best part of three decades and has realised that for most of us, having a perfect accent is probably never going to happen, but that this is not the most important thing. For the vast majority of SameSky students, the order of priorities would/should be: communication, good range of vocabulary and idiom, grammatical accuracy… Open to discussion…

Please contact us here if you would like to find out more about joining one of our French classes, or for that matter, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, or English as a Foreign Language

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This is the transcript for Episode 7 of the SameSky Languages FRENCH podcast. It covers adjectives, the subjunctive and 'verlan' slang

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