Using literature at Key Stages 3 and 4 to inspire

8 Jul

This post (first in 6 months – it’s been a busy year!) is the result of the end of the first year of our 2nd three year research project we are carrying out in line with the Princes Teaching Institute. Our first project 2014-17 was on the use of cinema in French, German and Spanish (film clips and short films). Our current project focus is “The development and use of authentic wider cultural resources” primarily aimed at KS3 and 4. This year’s focus was using literature pre-A Level in Years 7-11. We also presented it at a recent Staff meeting, as one of the school’s priorities for 2018-19 was department research projects.

The rationale for our project chimes with two authentic literary extracts appearing in the new specification GCSE Reading papers.  Exposure to literature is now no longer the domaine of A Level only. We have sought to produce similar resources to those in the GCSE papers (+ extended activities) to get students used to this from a young age, as well as giving them a deeper appreciation of target language cultures. We have been using some extracts in French years prior to the 2016 GCSE specifications containing literature. Extracts from Guène, Begag, Joffo and Sagan has been developed for KS4 with success i.e. students found them feasible and motivating.

Until very recently, there has bizarrely been no pedagogical research on this that I or others know of, as it is so new to MFL GCSE teaching. Fortunately however, Fotini Diamantidaki, PGCE tutor at UCL Institute of Education has just published a book on the subject called Teaching Literature in Modern Foreign Languages (Bloomsbury Academic), which should prove useful to any colleagues wanting some ideas. We will certainly be purchasing a department copy. Some teachers I have spoken to think there is a strong case for avoiding literature pre-A Level as it is too difficult, texts are edited, and there is no research to back up its use. However, we would disagree, and I find the ‘for A Level only’ rather an old fashioned view. Literature and culture are widely studied in Classics from the early staging of learning, as well as all the grammar, so why not in Modern Foreign Languages?  There is a way of breaking texts down to exploit them for maximum output, to complement and vary our teaching input, teaching students how to avoid the pitfalls of having to understand every word or idea. Our resources comprise an extract with questions in English and sometimes in the TL for older students, as well as allowing us to review/highlight verbs and tenses, cognates, deeper language analysis, answering Qs, gap-fill, translation, biographical background of the author, hearing the extract on youtube etc. We can stretch our students very well and get a great deal of good value out of a short text. They can also produce some wonderful presentation display work, for example writing original poems inspired by simple Prévert poems, or writing their own war poem in November.

In French we  have used some children’s literature: T’choupi and Peppa Pig for Yr7, and for Years 8-11,  A level text extracts and poetry, as well as classic and popular modern literature such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a Maupassant short story, Bonjour Tristesse,  Victor Hugo and Rimbaud war poems, and an extract from a Montaigne essay. Modern literature is also be used such as Chanson douce by Leila Slimani or No et moi by de Vigan.

In Spanish, we have some Harry Potter, authors Baroja, Galdós, and Lorca poetry and prose, and some more Harry Potter, which students always enjoy.

In German, we  have some Heine poetry (for KS5) and East German literature.

Comic books (particularly French BD) are also a possibility, but we are yet to exploit these.   (see below for examples of some of the above)

Our students respond very well to these extracts. A survey of a Year 10 group conducted in May 2019, found that 90% cited ‘real culture’ and ‘fun’ as reasons they enjoyed authentic literature. All strongly agreed or agreed that reading increases enjoyment in lessons and 61% strongly agreed that it inspires them to read the book in full or read more in TL.  83% prefer literature to songs. They also love the fact these texts are studied at A Level & beyond – it inspires them and, I believe, with other authentic culture we use, leads to good retention beyond GCSE with decent sized groups in three languages.

We will continue producing these resources and incorporating them into SoWs. Looking to next year, our 2nd year of the PTI project focus will be exploiting art, music or history/society/heritage (again a direct link to A Level and to be confirmed). The noticeable output in terms of language understanding, encouraging risk-taking, not stressing over full meaning, and reading for gist is invaluable; it also prepares students for (the thought of) A Level study, as well as taking them beyond the confines of any syllabus or unit of work. We have also found that they find the actual GCSE tasks relatively straightforward as a result. However, far more important is the cultural capital aspect of exposure to literature.

We as teachers have at times been reading new texts and developing imaginative ways of making them accessible, which could open up new texts for us to study with our A Level students. It is, and should be, aspirational for staff and students alike. Developing these resources makes preparation and teaching more enjoyable, invigorates our curriculum,  and adds to our love of subject, which can surely only be a good thing!

Paul Haywood, Head of Modern Foreign Languages, July 2019


Three examples that have worked well


Read the extract from Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal, by J. K. Rowling  (Year 10)

El señor y la señora Dursley, que vivían en el número 4 de Privet Drive, estaban orgullosos de decir que eran muy normales, afortunadamente. Eran las últimas personas que se esperaría encontrar relacionadas con algo extraño o misterioso, porque no estaban para tales tonterías.

El señor Dursley era el director de una empresa llamada Grunnings, que fabricaba taladros. Era un hombre corpulento y rollizo, casi sin cuello, aunque con un bigote inmenso. La señora Dursley era delgada, rubia y tenía un cuello casi el doble de largo de lo habitual, lo que le resultaba muy útil, ya que pasaba la mayor parte del tiempo estirándolo por encima de la valla de los jardines para espiar a sus vecinos. Los Dursley tenían un hijo pequeño llamado Dudley, y para ellos no había un niño mejor que él.

Los Dursley tenían todo lo que querían, pero también tenían un secreto, y su mayor temor era que lo descubriesen: no habrían soportado que se supiera lo de los Potter.

Answer the questions in English

  1. The Dursley family would describe themselves as:
  2. What is Mr. Dursley’s job?
  3. How is Mr. Dursley described? (3)
  4. What does Mrs. Dursley spend a lot of time doing?
  5. Who is Dudley?
  6. What do the Dursleys have?


Chanson douce (2016) de Leila Slimani   (Year 9)

« Ce matin, ils ont fait le marché en famille, tous les quatre. Mila sur les épaules de Paul, et Adam endormi dans la poussette. Ils ont acheté des fleurs et maintenant ils rangent l’appartement……ils rassemblent les livres et les magazines qui traînent sur le sol, sous leur lit et jusque dans la salle de bains……ils plient les vetements des petits…..Ils nettoient, jettent. Ils voudraient qu’elles (les nounous) voient qu’ils sont les gens bien, des gens sérieux et ordonnés qui tentent d’offrir à leurs enfants ce qu’il y a de meilleur. Qu’elles comprennent qu’ils sont les patrons.»

  1. The action takes place: a) in the afternoon   c) in the morning    b) at Christmas
  2. There are five members of the family. True/False
  3. The little girl, Mila, is: a) on her mother’s knee  b) on her father’s shoulders c) in a pram d) holding her brother’s hand
  4. Where did they go that day, and what did they buy? (2)
  5. What did they do in their apartment?
  6. Give three details of what exactly they did to make this successful?   (3)
  7. Some things were on the floor, others went as far as which room?
  8. They wanted potential nannies to see that (choose four correct answers):
  1. They are good people
  2. They are happy
  3. That they are the in charge (the bosses)
  4. They pay well
  5. They are serious
  6. They want to give their children the best
  7. They are wealthy
  8. They have a spacious apartment                                                                    (4)


No et moi (2007) de Delphine de Vigan      (Year 9 or 10)

Our teenage protagonist, Lou (the moi of the story) is remembering when she was little and how she thought her ears used to stick out!

Quand j’étais petite je passais des heures devant la glace à essayer de recoller mes oreilles. Je me trouvais moche, je me demandais si ça pouvait se réparer, par exemple en les enfermant tous les jours dans un bonnet de bain, été comme hiver, ou dans un casque de vélo, ma mère m’avait expliqué que bébé, je dormais sur le côté, l’oreille mal pliée. Quand j’étais petite je voulais être un feu rouge au plus grand carrefour(…….) pour protéger les gens. Quand j’étais petite je regardais ma mère se maquiller devant le miroir, je suivais ces gestes un à un, le crayon noir(…….), le rouge sur les lèvres, je respirais son parfum, je ne savais pas que c’était si fragile, je ne savais pas que les choses peuvent s’arrêter, comme ça…..

(p.44, Editions Jean-Claude Lattès)

  • Surlignez tous les verbes à l’imparfait dans une couleur  (imperfect verbs)


  • Surlignez les mots que tu connais dans dans une deuxième couleur (words you know)


  • Surlignez les mots transparents dans une troisième couleur (cognates)


  • Which SIX things did she used to do when she was little or a baby? Put a cross next to them. She used to…..


play the violin not eat carrots
spend hours in front of the mirror sleep on her side
watch her mother want to be near a red fire
go to the cinema breathe in her mother’s smell
know that things can change think she was not pretty


  • Traduisez le texte



Unlocking love of MFL: authenticity

24 Jan

Much has happened since our last post in September 2017. Our students received commendations for the EU Translatores competition, won an Oxford University French essay prize, won a place to stay and study in Germany over the summer, and went abroad on 4 trips (200 students), and got through the first year of the new GCSE and A Level with admirable success. Time for another post inspired by a research project we are carrying out.

Excellent teaching in MFL should be steeped in two central ideas in my view: majority target language in the classroom and use of authentic culture to inspire and motivate.

Textbooks are of course needed as a guide, and contain very useful cultural content, particularly the new AQA GCSE, Year 9 Stimmt2, and A Level books. They contain a lot more authenticity than previous textbooks did. However, they will date in five years’ time.

I have become ever more passionate about constantly striving to achieve as much development of the inclusion of culture since then, and we have appointed staff who embrace this ethos and want to continue challenging themselves. I also strongly believe all teachers should continue wanting to learn and develop new areas of interest well beyond getting their degrees or qualifying as teachers. Changing and/or updating authentic teaching resources, wanting to teach new A Level texts and films, and finding new authentic tasks to keep themselves fresh, challenged and inspired, make for a very effective and inspirational MFL teacher. Colleagues in our department at HBS are culturally interested and very active in creation of lots of ideas and resources often adapted and used at KS3-4, which is fantastic.

Resources built around authentic target language culture have been a central tenet of our whole department practice since 2011 when we became involved in the Princes Teaching Institute’s Schools Programme. This entails improving your department in different key areas, one of which was obviously teaching and learning. Following three years looking at ways to improve the department, we then completed a three year PTI research project developing the use of short film and clips from films in KS3 and 4 teaching. It began with French and a project with BFI Southbank bank in 2013, but I wanted to embed the focus further and extend it to German and Spanish. We successfully competed this in 2017 with great feedback from students in a large survey of their thoughts. In our biennial Department Review in November 2018, students from all years told us they loved film as it “gives us confidence” and “makes us enjoy the language more”. They also mentioned the word “authentic” on few occasions in the most positive terms when talking about their lessons.
We are now engaged in another three year project, this year looking at the use of literature in our teaching at KS3-4. This happens to coincide with one of this year’s School Priorities: research into an aspect of teaching. Last term alone, various texts in Spanish have been created with questions in TL or English. In French, we have had First World War and general war poetry (including Victor Hugo with a YouTube clip of it being read, Rimbaud and two other poems and activities used with Year 13), and girls in Years 10,11 and 13 have composed their own excellent poems with the originals as inspiration. We are going to display them in the department, and I am asking some Year 10 students to read their poems in assemblies to Years 7-9.
I have also used an extract from the start of Chapter 2 of Madame Bovary with English questions for my Year 11 group, all in the style of the new GCSE, if a lot more challenging.
The great thing about such resources is that most students at first fear literature: it is too wordy, too complex, 19th century-inaccessible, or just plain off-putting. However, they soon realise having competed the task, that they can answer some probing questions on a poem or extract without understanding even 40-50% of the text; they still feel very satisfied they have read Hugo by spending time unpicking the poem for cognates, identifying known verbs and vocabulary, and then understanding the poem far more deeply than they first thought they could. They can even (in English and some TL) discuss feelings and possible aims of the author. With sixth form, we have discussed these poems and questions on them exclusively in TL.
In French, simpler and more modern poems by Prévert can be used in terms of language, perfect tense identification and manipulation:  in ‘Déjeuner du matin’ for example, as well as ordering the text or available filmed shorts of that poem. Our Year 8s have in recent years, composed their own poems in the style of Prévert to great effect.
The fables of La Fontaine are also a good idea. Animated clips can be found on YouTube and a lot of language analysis can be done, as with all literary texts, to refamiliarise, recycle and even practise language recently taught. Students say they really enjoy this sort of work as it is a change from the curriculum and inspires them. If it is not directly related to a Scheme of Work, where is the problem? We are more motivated as teachers and our students will appreciate us having such high expectations of them, regardless of their ability.
To conclude, as well as challenge and inspiration, continued learning and stretching ourselves as teachers, the same goes for its effect on our students. Using authentic cultural resources in younger years has contributed over time to our retention and high numbers at A level. Beyond that, they are so much fun to create and use!
Paul Haywood, Head of MFL

A Lorquian Odyssey

7 Sep

Luis Buñuel eloquently wrote of Federico García Lorca ‘la obra maestra era él’ (1984) and I could not agree more. As an avid student, teacher and researcher, it had always been my dream to delve into this prolific writer’s own life by tracing his roots from birth to untimely and tragic death in his treasured Andalucía. What could have been better than to spend my honeymoon this August doing just that?!

Lorca 3

My journey started in Lorca’s birth place of Fuente Vaqueros, a typical whitewashed Andalusian town just a few miles west of Granada.

Lorca 2

Here, I was treated to a guided tour in Spanish of the family home, witnessing first hand original furnishings, such as his piano (yes, Lorca was also an accomplished pianist, as well as a playwright and an artist!), first walking frame and ornaments. The beautiful patio bears the poet’s bust, which conjures his spirit throughout the dwelling. The granary is now an exhibition centre of personal letters and artefacts, with rare video footage of Lorca’s theatre group La Barraca, which brought the theatre to the public and made it accessible to the working class and not just a chattel of the bourgeoisie, or ‘putrefactos’ as the trio of Lorca, Buñuel and Dalí famously coined, amongst other things outdated and despised.

Next door to the Museo-Casa Natal is a wonderful research centre, home to a wealth of lorquian documents, as well as those of Ian Gibson. Gibson has researched and written relentlessly on Lorca. What first started off as PhD research, transformed into a lifelong thirst to investigate all things Lorca, and in turn led to Spanish citizenship and countless books and biographies concerning the poet’s life. I cannot put into words how wonderful it felt to be close to Lorca himself. My informative Guide spoke of Gibson’s frequent visits and it was nice to hear his anecdotes. I was delighted to learn that I can access the centre’s archives in the future, which is something that I would certainly relish. There was a temporary exhibition of childhood games, and what a real treat it was to talk with a local man about his memories of playing with them in the street and how ‘the youth of today’ to coin a clichéd phrase, glued to their social media indoors, are somewhat lacking. It was certainly food for thought.

The town of Fuente Vaqueros is still alive with the poet today. On arrival, the visitor is treated to a monument of the writer, seated in deep thought, together with a plaque bearing an inscription of Lorca’s sentiments for his home town, which wholeheartedly shaped and influenced all of his works. From here, next stop… La Huerta de San Vicente.

La Huerta de San Vicente (named after Lorca’s mother, Vicenta), was the summer home of the García Lorcas’ from 1926 to 1936 and where Lorca wrote some of his most famous poetry and plays, such as Yerma, which my A Level students study at school (and who will be performing the ‘scene of the washer women’ in a schools’ theatre competition later in October). It is difficult to imagine the spectacular views of Granada that this beautiful home must have offered in the days of pre infrastructure, when the vast land was mere fields and orchards.

Compared with the childhood home, this one is much larger to make room for his siblings and to enjoy numerous family summers in Lorca’s beloved Granada. Of striking interest is his impressive writing desk where he penned Yerma, next to a window through whose light floods in with the warmth of the Andalusian sun. It is easy to see how Granada inspired his writing and thoughts, with the sound of crickets and what would have been marvellous views of the Alhambra and beyond.

The many rooms contain fascinating photographs of family and friends, including the poet Rafael Alberti and Lorca’s biographer, Leslie Stainton. What particularly grabbed my attention in the sitting room was a drawing of a sailor woman by Salvador Dalí and dedicated to Lorca. I have long been interested in the iconography of sailors in the works of the Generación del ’27, which figure prominently in their drawings and paintings, but what struck me the most was that this was the first ‘woman’ sailor I had seen amongst the group’s works…more research to be done here! Lorca and Dalí enjoyed an intimate relationship, despite Dalí’s fear and rejection of homosexuality, understandable during the oppressive forces of the right-wing in early twentieth century Spain.

From here, my journey took me to the breathtaking Moorish palace of La Alhambra. The views from here of the Albaicín and Sacromonte gypsy neighbourhood brought vividly to life Lorca’s poems of Andalusia. Lorca loved to visit here regularly and he even put on a flamenco festival of ‘cante jondo’ (deep song) in the 1920s with his good friend and mentor, Manuel de Falla, whose house can also be visited here.

It is easy to see why Lorca was attracted to such a gem, with its ornate and intricate Islamic architecture, beautiful gardens and water fountains, the sources of many of Lorca’s works. It is a vast palace which never fails to disappoint and in whose Parador I had the luxury of sampling. Its beautiful grounds evoked my favourite of all Lorca’s poems ‘La guitarra’: ‘Empieza el llanto de la guitarra. Es inútil callarla. Es imposible callarla’. The wailing and beautiful guitar played in my head for hours; Lorca’s spirit was still truly alive.

Lorca 5

The final part of my journey was perhaps the most solemn, but fitting end to what had been a most fascinating insight- the road leading to his tragic death by the ruthless gunshots of the Civil Guard. Despite numerous excavations and archaeological digs, Lorca’s remains have never been found, and in all honesty, I believe never will; the area has been developed greatly over the years. Lorca was buried in a ‘fosa’ (mass grave) somewhere along the road between Víznar and Alfacar. Regardless of the sadness they personify, it was still easy to fall for the charming Andalusian allure of these two villages and to at least seek some solace in the fact that this great twentieth century Spanish genius still rests somewhere in his beloved land (tierra).

This was a journey that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I will certainly be back for more. Watch this space!

Harvey Ross, Teacher with Responsibility for Spanish, September 2017

Summer inspiration

3 Sep

As the long and reinvigorating summer holidays reach their end, it’s time for another blogpost, as a busy year meant I have had little time, and I may not now have much before half term! Last October half term, I wrote the following:

I think any good teacher should still be pushing the boundaries, by reading, learning new vocabulary and expression, being up to date with what is going on in the target language country, and have the desire to teach new material as a result…….Part of being engaged in the subject is what students and teachers read or watch outside the classroom for pleasure.”

Particularly for any 2017-18 Year 13 students reading this with predicted grade updates, UCAS applications and the small matter of the new two year AQA A Level examination ahead of you in June 2018, I hope it inspires you to see beyond these hurdles, and want to read something/anything in TL for the sake of it. University tutors of any subject will love this by the way, as it shows your personal engagement beyond the syllabus or what you complete as homework, which is exactly what university study is about. It will also make the actual exam rather more straightforward.

I thoroughly enjoyed teaching Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups to Year 12 last year as one of their cultural topics. Although it is a film I had studied, heard recent academic lectures on, and seen over 30 times, it was wonderful to teach and exchange opinion with students. As I was teaching it for the first time, it made me very enthusiastic both preparing and delivering the lessons. Some opinions and interpretations I heard or read last year were highly original and showed great insight on students’ part, so I learned as well. This is very rewarding.

This year, I will be teaching Philippe Grimbert’s Un secret, a great book new to the syllabus, but also one I have never taught; I really look forward to building resources and having that same exchange of intellectual ideas and argument with my very insightful Year 13 group. I like the fact the new A level demands two written culture essays in the exam rather than speaking about them in the oral. I always found this a little unsatisfactory, as oral examiners could not possibly be conversant with every student cultural topic. I am sure these essays will be marked by specialists in each text or film.

Back to reading for pleasure: this summer, during my three weeks in France, I read four page-turner French novels, two by Guillaume Musso (Je reviens te chercher and La fille de Brooklyn) and, as I was in Finistère, Brittany, two crime novels by a Breton author called Jean Failler: La faute de Lammé Bouret and Boucaille sur Douarnenez. You could not call any of them high literature, but reading does not have to be so. Any French you read is good for your fluency and taking you into the mind/imaginary world of the author.

The Musso books were enjoyable:  Jreviens the chercher (in the school library) is in the vain of his more surreal, existential output. The most recently published (La fille de…) is much more of a polar than his previous work. Both were very entertaining reads, but required so much suspension of disbelief bordering on the ridiculous at times. However, in terms of reminding me of French I speak/used to speak when in France, it was great to get lost in the language, however fantastical the plot twists.

The Failler novels felt great to read as I was very close to where they were set, and could see certain aspects echoed in what I saw and the people I met. Failler writes mainly polars with a bizarrely named female detective, Mary Lester. Again, the language was great, including some truly breton expressions and slang, which the author has Mary helpfully explain to other characters/us when needed. The plots are pretty thin and Mary always solves the crime with no particular evidence of her having done a great deal or the criminals simply admit to their crime. The Brittany police force do not come off too well in his novels – ineffectual and preferring to go to carnival or take a verdict as read than really investigate a crime! However, lovely descriptions of Brittany and its traditions more than made up for this.

All four were great holiday reads, as they were fairly undemanding. The fact it was summer and they were full of great idiomatic French made up for the faults I may have found with the plots or characters.

Now back home, I am reading the far more literary Réparer les vivants by Maylis de Karangal which one of my good teacher friends in Paris (Year 10 exchange organiser) gave me the year before last, and which I’ve been meaning to read since.  It won numerous literary prizes in France, was a bestseller, and has recently been made into a film. The premise looks quite morbid, but it is apparently uplifting, so I look forward to reading it. Fifty pages in, it contains beautiful descriptions and good engaging characterisation.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I still need and want regular practice and inspiration in French, as well as continuing to increase my vocabulary without it being related to my day job. See below for some expressions I thought a student reader may be interested in noting.

Paul Haywood, Head of Modern Foreign Languages, 30th August 2017


 Summer 2017 vocabulary

(Students, you can these up. I’ve added a few meanings for you)

manger sur le pouce
rendre l’âme – to give up the ghost, breakdown
dernier cri – the latest model
Il faut de tout pour faire un monde
Les liaisons commencent dans le champagne et se terminent dans la camomile
….de fortune – makeshift
Les goélands – gulls
un magot – a fortune/hoarded money
feu (adj) – late e.g le feu roi , feu son mari (her late husband)
piailler – screech (les oiseaux/mouettes, les enfants qui jouent bruyamment) or se plaindre tout le temps
Les estivants
un chalutier – fishing trawler
La cale – slipway/hold of a boat / wedge
Mi figue mi-raisin –  part earnest part mocking expression
La criée – auction house / fish sellers
Jamais on ne se serait cru fin février
Eclaboussures (f) de soleil/eau
Je n’aurais echangé pour rien au monde
En biais – askance (look)
Choper (*) – to find sb out / catch
Charrier (*) – fo have sb on
A fleur de peau – on surface of skin, very touchy/sensitive
passer au peigne fin – what good detectives do!
passer entre les mailles du filet – slip through the net
embraser = prendre feu
caotchouteux – comme manger de la pieuvre ou des chapeaux chinois (see below)
une lampotte/patelle/un chapeau chinois (fam) = un fruit de mer que l’on prépare avec de l’ail sur le barbecue
les médocs – (*) médicaments
d’une traite – in one go
Être terrassé par – to be floored by
Un faire-part = official announcement (usually family)

*= argot

Languages are for life not just for UCAS

25 Oct

img_0546As it’s the half term holiday, I have the time and energy to write a post I meant to write seven weeks ago.

The late 90s and early 00s Chief Inspector of Schools for Ofsted, Chris Woodhead, was much maligned by teachers and the media when I joined HBS in 1999. However, he gave a speech at the 2001 Hay-on-Wye literary festival which makes a lot of sense on reading it now. In it, he said, “….good teachers (when I was at school) were the ones who had a real love of subject. Because they were personally engaged themselves, they could communicate that personal engagement to us, their pupils, and because of that we were inspired.” I think any good teacher should still be pushing the boundaries, by reading, learning new vocabulary and expression, being up to date with what is going on in the target language country, and have the desire to teach new material as a result. With a fresh article, text or film, I always feel more personally engaged than if I were still teaching something I have taught a lot before, partly because of the intellectual investment, and partly because of the enjoyment creating resources and then discovering students’ different opinions and insights. Of course, the word ‘teachers’ in Chris Woodhead’s quote could well be replaced by ‘students’. Their love of subject beyond the syllabus is key to personal engagement and self-inspiration! It also means students will have a keener appreciation of the language and culture which will come through in all they do, and make them more interesting/interested individuals.

Part of being engaged in the subject is also what we students and teachers all read or watch outside the classroom that is NOT work or linked to teaching and preparation of courses. It is as important as formal academic work in my view. I posted last year (is it really a year?!) about the importance of reading for pleasure, and see no harm in continuing the theme and letting you know about my recent non-academic reading. Particularly for any students reading this, I hope it inspires you to see beyond the stresses and worry of UCAS applications and predicted grades (that always seem to grind down students and their parents at this time of year), and want to read something for the sake of it which isn’t linked to university applications – university tutors love this by the way, as it shows your personal engagement to the subject as much as or even more than feeling you have to read Camus, Lorca or Hesse.

This summer I spent over two weeks in France camping, and after finishing the tense Jo Nesbo Oslo-based crime thriller I’d started in June, began the first of three Guillaume Musso books. This was great to read as with one hand I stirred the family meal on the camping stove in the evening sun, and my children rode bikes and played around our pitch. I mentioned some other titles by Musso last year and the fact he is the most read modern author in France and translated into 40 languages. Since his debut novel in 2004 sold more than two million copies, he has written an average of one book a year. They are real pages turners and remind me of all the French I don’t always use in the classroom but used to use when I lived in France, particularly the slang and idiom. He also writes some beautiful, literary French, particularly in his descriptions of physical and emotional situations and landscapes or weather conditions, for example, «le soleil éclaboussait l’horizon.» Some of this vocabulary (some for me and some I thought students would find useful) is listed at the end of this post.

‘Central Park’ (2014) is a great thriller that keeps the reader guessing throughout, and there is a brilliant twist. A Parisian policewoman, Alice, wakes up in the middle of Central Park handcuffed to a stranger, New Yorker Gabriel. It turns out he is a jazz musician. They steal money and a car. The book tells the story of how, together, they piece together how she had managed to be in Paris the day before, but woke in New York with no passport, money or ID, handcuffed to a stranger. We do not know who he is either – criminal, psychopath, policeman, really a musician? Their adventures take them all over the north of America and we meet many different people. It is not really possible to go into more detail without giving too much away, but the characters are well drawn, and the reader cares what happens to both of them. I really enjoyed it, especially under a Vendée sun.

‘L’instant présent’ (2015) tells the story of Arthur Costello, an ER doctor, who has inherited a lighthouse from his father that had been in the family for generations in a beautiful spot on the coast north of New York. Before his death, his dying father had taken Arthur to the basement area of the lighthouse, where he showed him a sealed door which apparently has a chamber beyond. Under no circumstances was he ever to open this door, says his father. Those who have entered have disappeared without trace. Of course, once his father passes away, he disobeys him, breaks the door down, enters the chamber, and is transported on a seemingly unending series of leaps through time. He meets a partner, Lisa, manages to maintain a relationship despite being absent through his time lapses/travel for up to 14 months at a time, has a daughter on whom he dotes. Each time he time travels, he”lands” in another year, the President has perhaps changed, new music tops the charts etc. His objective is to break the curse and live a normal life with his family. However, he is constantly reminded that his grandfather was the first to open the door, travelled in time like Arthur, but ended up with none of his loved ones  recognising him after the time of the curse had expired(including a wife and daughter he used to see whenever he himself “returned”). Again, there is a real twist, and we sympathise with both protagonists. Musso skilfully makes us waver between admiration for Arthur and feeling he is being an egotist, a madman, a loving hasband and father, or a fraud. I really enjoyed this one.

‘Et après’ (2004) is Musso’s aforementioned first novel. In my opinion the weakest of the three I read, it is nevertheless enjoyable, if stretching the limits of credulity beyond my usual limits. The summer sun and the odd glass of French wine helped me surmount this obstacle that I would not have put up with normally! Nathan del Amico is a highly successful American lawyer. A mysterious gentleman comes to his office one day for help and insists on meeting after hours. Intrigued, he meets him as requested after work one day, and discovers his visitor can predict when a stranger is going to die. Nathan witnesses a man commit suicide just after the mysterious friend tells him it is about to happen. This happens to another person a little later, and Nathan realises he is powerless to prevent it, despite knowing it is a going to occur. We discover Nathan actually drowned aged 8 rescuing the daughter of a rich businessman from a lake, and “came back to life” once in hospital. I cannot write more about the story without huge spoilers, so will refrain from doing so. As I mentioned, enjoyable, but a little laboured for my liking and a bit depressing ultimately. Musso’s subsequent books have left me with a faith in humanity that this one did not, and his written style and self-editing has matured somewhat. You can tell this is a first novel.

You could of course accuse Musso’s novels of being crass, facile airport fiction, but what is wrong with that? Also, you would be wrong. On one level, the stories are simplistic, but on another they are far more profound. They explore the human condition, issues such as love, passion, regret, loss, grief, death, birth, friendship, religion, immortality and mortality – you don’t have to read that far between the lines to get far more out of the books than a simple thriller. There is more to them for example than Jo Nesbo’s work, and I imagine they are very difficult to write well.

Finally, ‘Entre les murs’ (2006) is a book written by ex-teacher François Bégaudeau that our French Physics teacher, Dr Faille, passed on to me a few years back. Of course, for you cinephiles out there, it was the inspiration behind the Palme d’or winning film of the same name in 2008 (in the school library, students!) It was directed by Laurent Cantet with a cast of unknowns and Bégaudeau himself in the role of the teacher, François Marin. I read the book, as I know the film quite well, and wanted to compare the two, since I am/was considering teaching the film this year to replace another I had taught four times previously  at A Level.

The book charts a year in a sort of “Groundhog Day” style, where the same confrontational situations with difficult and disaffected pupils occur over and over and in most scenes in a French language class. Staff morale is low, there are endless problems. It is told in short vignettes, not chapters, which move from one classroom, to the staff room (far more than the film), parent meetings and students regularly being taken to the ‘proviseur’. The school is in the suburbs of Paris with very challenging pupils from a variety of backgrounds, and teaching them French is a huge undertaking. For example, they are unaware of negative phrases with ‘ne’ as they never say this, as well as a good deal of correct tense use and conjugation, and their speech is slang heavy. For many, French is a second language not spoken at home. One pupil, and one who figures much more in the film, Souleymane, insists on coming to lessons with his hoodie over his baseball cap, and the teacher has to tell him to remove it each time. Another scene that Cantet transfers to the film is the infamous ‘pétasse’ scene where the teacher catastrophically misjudges his use of slang that means something different to his young students. Unlike Musso’s books, this would be beyond anyone who has not lived (and integrated him or herself fully) in France for two or three years, as it is full of difficult slang, idiom, ‘gros mots’, Parisian verlan, culturally specific/historical references, and other very informal ways of speaking that a British student would find very difficult to comprehend.

I much prefer the film, as in the book, the vignettes of the daily life of a French teacher in a difficult school get a little repetitive in my view, whereas Cantet has edited, cut and cherry-picked the most effective scenes, as well as, I suspect with the author, written some new scenes whilst casting the student roles. Furthermore, the book is written by an adult recalling conversations, lessons, conseils de classe etc. and recalling and writing them as an adult. This makes some of the exchanges a little adult-biased and lacking authenticity in my opinion. The joy and genius of the film’s student dialogues is that the cast (all school students at the time) was selected through months of workshopping through improvisation of “situations” they would recognise from school life – “your teacher has insulted the class “, for example. The very loose script was formed around this, so their language and interaction with one another and the teacher are far more authentic than the book. The students’ dialogue is partly improvised and is their language, so therefore more authentic than the dialogue in the book which is recalled or concocted by Bégaudeau. They also have far more redeeming features than in the book, where they seem to me rather cardboard cutout “baddy” students. Cantet’s work delivers more balance, compassion and empathy, and shows some of the students as very bright, but from disadvantaged backgrounds. The film is altogether less judgemental. Finally, it better portrays, through expert cinematography, the claustrophobic and tense prison-like “entre les murs” atmosphere of the title.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have no real need to learn vocabulary or any more French, but like a musician of any level, I still need regular practice. I also do so to fuel my continued desire to keep learning and appreciating a language I’ve loved for over thirty years now. So without further ado, below is the aforementioned vocabulary list I noted to my phone as I read these books.

Students, please look some of them up and you can always borrow a Musso book from me if you wish. Just ask!

Paul Haywood, Head of Modern Foreign Languages, October 2016


Un indic
Bouche bée
La bouche à oreille
Jamais je n’aurais pu croire
Jus de canneberge
Le soleil éclaboussait l’horizon
Parcourir un texte ou un article
Une piste
Bar à narguilé
Être redevable à qqn
La piaule
Le mobile d’un crime
Une supérette
Un léger cheveu sur la langue
Sans vergogne
Pièces jointes – email
Une fenêtre à guillotine
Une capture d’écran
Un habitacle
Prendre du recul
Remettre à demain
J’avais l’impression de m’être fait avoir
Le toubib
Une mangeoire
Un paysage à couper le souffle
Abuser de votre crédulité
Casser la croûte au soleil
Reprendre le pool de la bête
Au peigne fin
Une Porte entrebâillante
Une taffe (tabac)
Un chevreuil
Dormir à points fermés
A pas de loup / à Deux pas de
Être débarrassé de qn/moi
Manger à Sa faim
Mettre la pédale douce Sur qqch
Servir de cobaye pour
Une garçonnière
S’échiner toute ta vie à faire
L’échine = dos (fig)
douillet (douleur)
Un en-cas= casse-croûte
Échapparoire à qqch
Qqch qui cloche dans une histoire
Rabaisser qn
Siffler la fin à
Avoir des tripes
Une planque – planquer
J’en ai pour/jusqu’à
Faut pas charrier
Un bourge hyperfriqué
Pendant que t’y es
J’espère que ce ne soit que…..
Illico (sl) – pronto
Gronder (pol)= engueuler

Bonne lecture!

30 Sep

One of the things I tell my Sixth Form students from day one of their A Level course is that they should read as often as possible in French to improve their passive knowledge and to enjoy the language beyond the constraints of examination syllabi. University admissions tutors I have spoken with have told me they do not care what students say they read in French at interview or on application forms, as long as they do read. From Marie Claire to broadsheet press, periodicals such as L’Express, novels such as Harry Potter in translation, or some short literature or poetry. All is good in their eyes. The 4A* predicted student who does not read a lot will not be accepted over someone with less good predictions who shows willing. They are at times wary of students who claim to only read the classics and nothing else, as they are experienced enough to realise this is more often than not a slight fabrication just  to impress! So some light fiction in the mix will set you up at interview, as a student will be able to talk about it meaningfully and more naturally beyond soundbites about some classical texts they do not necessarily fully understand. An appreciation of all reading material and the modern literary landscape and history/society also excites admissions tutors… will be able to appreciate a more modern literary movement or author they may have researched for example, once you begin their course.

All show that a student is interested and has the potential to succeed and the desire to read a selection of different literature.

This year, to continue my own quest for increased knowledge of the language, I again mixed my usual English pile of books with French novels, both serious literature and popular novels being read by the French now and widely available and advertised in France. I always (re)learn a lot of vocabulary and remind myself of expressions I may have heard/used when I lived in France but may be less used in my active vocabulary. It’s also nice to read a French novel I am not teaching and reminds me I have so much still to read and why I love teaching French.

So, below are my thoughts on that reading, and I hope any students/adults may be inspired to read some of them as well. They are all available in translation for non-French speakers.


Soumission by Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq is an author who is either lauded or detested and could be seen as the “marmite” of the serious French literary world. He is one of France’s most celebrated contemporary writers nevertheless. One outspoken reviewer I read recently wrote, “…(he) manages to offend stupid people across the board, (but) is primarily an extremely intelligent and literary and very enjoyable novelist…” His books are often very direct, crude and often controversial, so not for the easily offended. However, all good art down the ages has offended to a greater or lesser degree (even the Impressionists offended huge swathes of the population in the 1880s); so if you are offended, best not to read, but if you are serious about any art form, look beyond the potential offence at the ideas.

I see him and the nihilistic intellectual character he inhabits in his novels as a 21st century Meursault from Camus’s ‘l’Etranger he is often self-mocking/loathing, and his at times superficially misogynistic prose can in reality be seen to be mocking the male condition and obsession with sex, rather perhaps than his true feelings towards women. He has also been accused of islamophobia, but again, I do not think his novels set out to be polemical, but rather just fiction and a thought-piece. The character he writes as is not Houellebecq per se, but an exaggeration of his persona.

I had read Plateforme before this, the story of a tour operator, and have one of his most famous novels Les particules élémentaires (Atomised in English, and a hit novel here a few years ago) to read at some point.

Soumission (Submission) is his most recent effort. It came out purely coincidentally on the day of the terrible “Charlie Hebdo” massacre in January 2015, and given its subject matter, this made it an even more controversial novel than it would have been. It should be read as a thought-piece, and it is certainly not islamophobic (I agree with a review that it is more admiring of Islam as a faith). Rather it is a satire of 21st century French/Western society and its insecurities from the perspective of an imagined character.

An Islamic party achieves political power in France in 2022 as both it and the National Front gain most votes in the First Round of the two-round French Presidential elections (it is never explained how this could happen in a country whose population is 6% Muslim, but that is by the by). The population is utterly disenchanted by centre ground politics and has voted with its feet. It is therefore left with a second-round choice between these two parties and plumps for the perceived non-extremist party. In 2002, the National Front did reach the second round in reality, so the majority of the French voted Jacques Chirac to stop an FN presidency. You could argue this is not a great step into fiction beyond this event!

The protagonist, Francois, a noted academic at the Sorbonne and scholar of the poet Huysman’s is cast out of the academic establishment months after the election, as he is not muslim. All around him society is contorting itself to create an illusion of continuity, but others are leaving. There is a mass Jewish exodus to Israel, which includes the protagonist’s Jewish girlfriend. Women begin being veiled in the streets (of their own volition in many cases, and Houellebecq never states this as being a bad thing), and are obliged to do so in educational establishments. All education is now Islamic from nursery to tertiary. Is the protagonist willing to undergo a religious conversion to make his life easier?

He does indeed end up accepting his old position at an increased salary, and does not shy away from the opportunity to have at least three wives that he can afford to support. He is convinced by his old Head of Faculty and gets to attend high-level dinner parties at the lovely ‘Institut du monde arabe’ in Paris (near Bastille) where he meets high-ranking Islamic leaders. This suits him, as does Islamic patriarchy and polygamy (as Houellebecq sees it anyway). After all, his life is hardly stimulating him, so what’s to stop him converting for a more fulfilling life, both professionally and spiritually?

Houellebecq’s skill here is that the resulting cultural clash is not explosive but a slow-burning conversion to Islamic society, which is all the more unsettling for the reader. It is very effective in imagining the personal and political acts of self-interest by which Western society would quickly ‘submit’ (Soumission of the title) or bow down to a new regime if the chips were really down.

As usual with the author, this novel is fairly politically incorrect and likely to rub a lot of people up the wrong way, but it’s a great thought-piece. I found it intriguing, particularly in its use of living and serving politicians who become part of this government in 2022, betraying their values for the sake of power, making it all the more realistic. I found myself laughing despite myself at some points. Some British press reviews of it from earlier this year include those below:

The narration is enjoyably sardonic, a pungent mixture of deadpan jokes about sexual politics and close reading…Darkly clever and funny.” (Guardian)

“A fine, deeply literary work…It is genuinely more admiring than critical of Islam…It’s electrifying; no recent English-language novel compares.” (Spectator)

“Houellebecq’s placid dystopias have been among the only contemporary novels worth dropping things for – and this is arguably the best of the lot…a bleakly funny satire on submission and salvation…I can’t think of another contemporary writer who bares their soul so fearlessly – or with such rewards.” (Evening Standard)

“Submission is both a more subtle and less immediately scandalous satire than the brouhaha surrounding it might suggest…All described with lashings of Houellebecq’s characteristically phosphorescent bile…That we feel Houellebecq’s satire….is only half in jest makes reading Submission a shifty,discomfiting affair: we’re never sure quite how many steps aheadof us the author is; how much of the nastiness is meant and how much mere drôlerie; how many levels lie beneath, just waiting to suck us down from our moral high ground.” (Observer)


Thérèse Desqueroux by François Mauriac was my end of Summer Term and into the holiday read. It was written in 1927 and I had never read it either at university or subsequently. I loved the wonderful mid-19th century Madame Bovary by Flaubert that I had read at university and knew Mauriac’s novel was similar in terms of stultifying female marital boredom, sexual dissatisfaction and constraints by a patriarchal society which gave women no sense of self, so I’ve put it off until now. Could Flaubert be bettered? Well it’s not a case of bettered, but it is a wholly different novel on so many levels, but principally it is not Romantic in style. Rather it is fairly bleak and ascetic. Yes, Mauriac writes beautifully when describing the Argelouse (near Bordeaux) countryside and the pine forests, but the reader feels a sense of ineluctable destiny and perhaps doom throughout.

It is skilfully plotted and does not follow a linear narrative one would expect. We begin with Thérèse leaving the courthouse with two self-interested men (her father and lawyer) who obviously ignore her after a no guilty verdict…we know not what for. Our sympathies immediately lie with her regardless of her back story. We accompany her on her lonely journey through the night back to the lonely house at Argelouse and judgement at the hands of a spurned husband whose false testimony has saved her from prison/death. We then flashback to her life pre-marriage, meeting and marrying Bernard, and the effects the expectations that he and his family, as well as the landscape, have on her state of mind. She talks of ‘cet affreux devoir’ when referring to her wedding night consummation of the marriage, and never enjoys sex – Bernard simply wants an heir, there is no sense of it being a pleasurable experience for either of them. She does not find him attractive either physically or intellectually: he hunts, he eats voraciously and loudly, is bigoted and narrow-minded, mistrustful of any disruptive outside influences, and he lacks social skills. He has no ambition beyond his inherited pines, how is family is regarded and his fortune. All this serves to lead Thérèse to become quickly alienated after the marriage. The novel has been seen as very Catholic in tone, the fact that love in marriage is spiritual purity and the means for procreation that belongs to God, and not sexual passion or ‘sins of the flesh’ for pleasure.

On the other hand, her childhood friend, Anne, Bernard’s sister (when young, the two girls were extremely close and spent school holidays together) is carefree and seeks passion. She finds love with a handsome young man, Jean Azévédo, and becomes besotted, writing long letters about him to Thérèse whilst she is on honeymoon with Bernard (highlighting her own unhappiness further). She experiences what Anne never will in her marriage, but Thérèse’s failure to back Anne when the family wish her to break off the relationship and drive him away, leads to an irreparable rift. Thérèse’s jealousy of Anne’s happiness leads to more sadness.

She becomes so desperate, she poisons Bernard gradually by forging prescriptions for medication he is taking for a mild heart complaint, and giving him enormous doses of it rather than the counted drops he is supposed to ingest.

The crime is discovered and Thérèse is kept in the house and goes to church with her husband to maintain appearances (so important in polite society). She refuses food, smokes incessantly and loses a lot of weight. By this time, Thérèse has given birth to a daughter, but following the discovery of her crime, Anne replaces her as mother, as Thérèse is not deemed fit to look after the small child. Thérèse never has maternal feelings for her daughter and cannot stop her crying as Anne can.

Bernard eventually relents when Thérèse becomes so desperate in her isolation, and the story does not end with the doom one expects throughout the novel. Thérèse does not know why she poisoned her husband. Even Mauriac said, ‘ce fait que nos actes ne nous ressemblent pas’. This maked it interesting for the reader.

I enjoyed this read a lot, and the jumping back and forth kept me engaged. It is one of those novels where there is not a redeeming feature of any character. I did not like Thérèse, I respected her immensely for her courage, but she is not likeable. The Desqueroux family are cold and manipulative in my view. Fundamentally it is a great exploration of the human condition in all its complexity: relationships, religion, food, happiness, love and sex, marriage, freedom, ambition. Well worth a read and a must in French for Year 13. It was also recently made into a film with Audrey Tautou as Thérèse.



An Officer and a Spy is a novel in English by the acclaimed writer, Robert Harris whose historical fiction I have always enjoyed. I read it partly as it is about pre-World War Two French History and partly because I had studied the Dreyfus Affair at university and written essays about it; however I had not remembered how long the affair lasted (from the mid 1894 to 1906) or how much political corruption lay behind the wish to brand Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, with the crime of spying for the Germans. The huge cast of characters is so well drawn and the dirty tricks played by the police, army and secret service are thrilling. The central character, Picquart, is a likeable (unlike very other character in the novel) and morally upstanding person, who was involved in the conviction of Dreyfus and his exile to Devil’s Island of the South American Coast, but who comes to realise the whole thing was a set-up. We of course ‘meet’ well-known historical figures such as presidents of France, and Emile Zola, who wrote the now famous  ‘J’accuse’ in response to the government’s anti-semitic handling of the affair, and others. Picquart risks his career and life to prove Dreyfus (whom he does not like, and is not a character we warm to in any way) an innocent man.

I knew the outcome of the story, as it is historical fiction, but could barely put this book down. If you like thrillers, French and History generally, it is a fantastic read. As usual, and as with his other historical fiction novels, it is exceptionally well researched, much of the what he writes actually happened, but he skilfully weaves a complex web of intrigue with believable and rounded characters around the heavily researched fact (the references section is large, and the story obviously took over Harris’s life for a couple of years!) It is also extremely realistic and accompanying Picquart through the streets of Paris, it’s suburbs and the corridors of the secret service offices, you can almost see, hear and smell as he does. ‘Pas de spoilers’ regarding Dreyfus’ fate, but a must read for Years 12-13 in my eyes. Really enjoyable and difficult to put down once begun!


From midway through the Spring term last year, I also read three books by the contemporary thriller writer Guillaume Musso that have kept me intrigued and provided me with enjoyable and light reads. They are full of great French and remind me of the expressions and slang I use when I am in France, but rarely use in the classroom due to their idiomatic nature.

Musso’s novels are not or do not claim to be serious literature, but he is read by millions of French people and was the number 2 most read author in 2011. Books do not have to be classic literature to be good for one’s language or intellectual growth!

His books have sold worldwide and been translated in to 34 languages. I have seen many people reading his novels on holiday campsites in France, by the pool, on the beach, when you do not really want to necessarily be reading Mauriac or Camus! We all need some down time after all.

Many of the stories are set both in France and America, as Musso lived there for a time in the early 1990s. He either knows the locations or evidently has a proxy researcher who checks his street names and routes are authentic. They are stylistically similar to Stieg Larsson or Jo Nesbo in terms of red herrings and a rip-roaring pace, but without the grisly crime element. You also have to seriously suspend your disbelief at some of the plot twists or serendipitous meetings, but characters are well drawn and the dialogue reads very authentically. Musso does not claim to be writing realistic fiction, and a car accident in 2001 gave him an interest in near death experience and the possibility of an afterlife that informs some plot devices in his writing.

The three stories I have read are Demain, Que serais-je sans toi, and Sept ans après. The first is my favourite, as the plot twist is a real surprise, and original…..but no spoilers here. The second is set in the world of art theft and is set across decades in Paris and the USA. The latter is a fast paced, crazy story about disappearance of two teenagers which brings a couple back together to investigate their whereabouts across several countries seven years after their acrimonious divorce.

This year, I plan to read Et si c’était vrai by Marc Lévy, a hit novel from 2001. From reviews, I think it is in the same vein as Musso, not too demanding, but well written and plotted with red herrings and an unexpected dénouement.  Also, Un secret by Philippe Grimbert will be on the new A Level specifications and one I hope to teach – a number of academics and teachers have recommended it to me since publication.

Do try some of the above titles, as they are well worth your time.

Paul Haywood, Subject Leader, September 2015

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

20 May

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela

I have been a little remiss during this busy year, not having written a post since September, so here are some of my latest thoughts.

A recent school exchange to Paris reminded me, as indeed it has for the last 15 years, that languages are simply a means of communication, and really no big deal for most people outside the worlds of school/academia who use them. I relish my week of full immersion, having a multitude of conversations about a whole host of deep and trite topics alike. For school students with exams on the near horizon, that is sadly too easy to forget. This is not their fault at all, but if there is one, it is that of the exam system where a grade is the only means by which they can progress to A Levels, get a good UCAS reference and go to the university of their choice. It is too easy to forget what the whole point of languages really is.

Back to Paris then, and as you would expect, the English-teacher friends/colleagues I enjoy staying with (the husband teaches at the famous Henri IV school) are both complete anglophiles/americanophiles. They are so enthusiastic about all things English, and the husband has a real obsession with Banksy and street-art generally. He is constantly reading English, watching youtube clips or showing televised BBC News reports to his students. One evening this year, we watched an episode of “House of Cards”, a show they love. They do need the English subtitles, as even for me, some of the slang is difficult to understand. Last year, they were trawling through the West Wing DVD box set, and are obsessed with Downton Abbey.

However, in the world beyond the English teaching staff, who let’s be frank, should be as enthusiastic about English as we French teachers should be about all things French, it is their spouses and friends who fascinate me; they have not studied English for, in many cases, 35 or 40 years. A few of them work with English a great deal, some are just natural anglophiles who grew up with Anglo-American culture: Vietnam, the Beatles and the Stones, Bob Dylan. One husband is a nuclear physicist. He has travelled extensively and worked in the US . His English is very impressive, full of wordplay, puns (of varying quality!), idiom and some very suspect Pythonsesque jokes.

Another husband, works in a high position in a French company and regularly does business in London and Spain. His English is actually better than many of my English teacher colleagues in Paris. He has a natural facility for languages and again, can use slang and idiom authentically. Apparently, he learnt Spanish in a short time, and can now conduct business meetings in Spanish with his Hispanic counterparts; no mean feat, especially as I suspect millions of euros can be on the line in such meetings. I am annually impressed by his naturally slipping in and out of English. For him, it is just talking and interacting with another human being. Other friends and teachers of other subjects other than English who are involved with the exchange get by admirably in our language. They are interested in communicating. They may make mistakes, search for words, or hesitate, but they are unafraid to take risks and just get their point across. They expect me to fill in the gaps if there are any. They have real personality in English; it does not stunt their humour or humanity.

I have occasionally returned to my host’s apartment late on a Saturday evening to find the final guests at the dinner party still in full discussion. They come from all walks of life: teachers, music producers, airline pilots, theatre directors, but they all speak either passable English, which they try out on me, or another European language….well.

I have a friend who was a barrister in London, then moved on to work for the UN in Kosovo, Vietnam, and now Thailand. As well as being an excellent French speaker, he learnt very good Kosovan, Croatian (his partner is Croatian), and can write and speak Vietnamese. He is now learning Thai. What really impresses me is his unwavering desire to learn the language of the country is is working in, as this will make him more successful in his UN work meeting foreign dignatories.

I clearly remember a week long Spanish course I took in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria about 9 years ago. As a real sign of what foreign languages mean to us Brits, I was the only student from the UK in a large-ish class. The rest were all German with two Dutch nationals and, without exception, they spoke excellent English and impressive Spanish. I had to work hard to keep up with them! A few worked in English a great deal, on the phone from Stuttgart or Frankfurt to America or Tokyo, but many were just Germans who wanted to live in Gran Canaria (windsurfing is big there, and is a popular German sport), and others who came every year on holiday and wanted to speak the language rather than English or German to waiters.

While doing the course, I was staying with my brother and sister-in-law and their three children who live in the hills above Las Palmas. Magali is French, Rob English, and their three truly European children, trilingual. They attend a British school and switch from language to language depending on their audience. They were quite young at the time of my course, and I found it very amusing that they were utterly perplexed as to why I was a) going to school in the summer holidays and b) having to learn Spanish when they could speak it far better than me having never learnt it at school. I don’t think they will really realise how lucky they are to speak three languages until they come to the UK to go to university in a couple of years’ time, and see how rare it is. My sister-in-law comes from Southern France, speaks brilliant English (with an Essex twang!), has a real flair for languages, and after 15 years in Gran Canaria with no formal study, is a fluent and accentless Spanish speaker. She just loves talking to people – it is a very Southern French (and Essex) trait.

For GCSE, AS and A Level students who have exams and A* or A grades foremost in their minds at this time of year, remember that ultimately these grades are fairly meaningless once you have progressed to the next stage. What is important to those who love languages, is simply enjoying communicating with people. Language is after all the miraculous phenomenon which makes us human and sets us apart from every close primate relative. Through study and going to / living in the country, we are able to understand a culture far more deeply than we would if we could only write an essay or translate a text, important as those skills may be.

To any student who may be reading this, I would say the following: if, like my non-English specialist French friends, UN lawyer friend or sister-in-law, you love the mechanics of modern languages and conversing just for the sake of it because you are interested in others and their culture, the fantastic examination grade you seek will just happen with very little effort. Communicating in different languages should fascinate us and we should embrace the cultural diversity and depth they bring. As an MFL-obsessed Dalek might well say, “Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!”, or as Ludwig Wittgenstein put it far more eloquently, “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.”  (“The boundaries of my language signify the boundaries of my world”)

Paul Haywood, Head of Modern Languages.