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OLYMPICS

How France battles to keep French alive at Olympics

The French language will remain a staple part of the Olympic Games, and it's no easy task.

How France battles to keep French alive at Olympics
Photo: AFP
“Mesdames et messieurs – bienvenue à la cérémonie d'ouverture des Jeux Olympiques…”
 
Even if you don't speak a word of French, you probably understand the above after coming across it (or something similar) at each Olympic Games opening ceremony.
 
French may no longer be considered a global international language or even the language of Europe after the rise and rise of English in recent decades, but it is still an official language of the Olympics – a legacy of the Frenchman who founded the games Pierre de Coubertin.
 
And French authorities are determined to make sure their language remains one of the official languages of the Olympic Games.
 
It's perhaps no accident that French has managed to hold onto its place at the games in the past, with the International Organization of la Francophonie working hard to ensure it remains that way. 
 
The organization, which boasts 57 member countries, has sent a delegate, known as the Grand Temoin (Great witness) to each Olympics since 2004 to monitor that the French language is actually being used for the athletes and spectators, a move introduced after French started to become less popular as the use of English soared. 
 
At this year's games in Rio, the job has gone to jazz saxophonist Manu Dibango of Cameroon, who is there to perform but also to oversee that amount of French on hand.
 
'It's a struggle each time'
 
He told the New York Times that he saw the job as “being the flag-bearer of the 300 million people around the world who speak French”.
 
Dibango is expected to closely monitor the level of French used on signage and announcements and produce a report afterwards. Early signs look good too, with the announcements for the opening ceremony made in English, Brazil's national language Portuguese, and French.
 
Previous reports from other summer and winter games, however, have included complaints that some announcements weren't in French, or that new sports came without sufficient French terminology.
 
At the London 2012 Olympics the International Olympic Committee was forced to defend the sparse use of French at the Games.
 
Michaëlle Jean, the secretary general of the International organization of Francophonie, told the paper that the job of keeping the Olympics in French was “a struggle each time”. 
 
“We must be there to make sure the French signs and documents and information are there. We have 3,000 athletes and a lot of people in the public from Francophone countries,” she said.
 
So should everything be in French?
 
Well, quite simply, yes (according to the rules, at least). The Olympic charter specifically states that the games have two official languages, English and French.
 
This rule is a result of the fact that the modern games were invented by a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, but are no doubt in place as well considering the huge population of the world that speaks French. 
 
If we forget the rules, however, one can only wonder if having everything in three languages is really necessary. 
 
After all, there are more people in the world who speak Spanish (not to mention Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic) than French – so surely they should get a look in somehow?
 
And as for the live broadcasts, many countries will have their own native-speaking correspondents on the microphone anyway, talking over the often lengthy announcements in French, English, and Portuguese. 
 
So does French really still have a place at the Olympic Games? The jury is out on this one. 
 
So what future does the French language have?

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FRENCH LANGUAGE

The 13 French words that English-speakers just can’t stop using

One of the consequences of learning a foreign language is that some words end up integrating themselves into your everyday English, and after a while you end up speaking a weird mixture of French and English. Here are some of the most common French additions.

The 13 French words that English-speakers just can't stop using

Sometimes we pop these words into everyday chat out of laziness, if there is not a sufficient English equivalent for what we are trying to communicate or just because the French word sounds better.

The Local reached out to readers to ask for their suggestions, and here are some of those French words that people just can’t stop using, even if they are speaking English.

Kiffe

The verb is kiffer, and it is French slang for ‘to like’ or ‘to enjoy,’ but you can also say that you did something ‘just for the fun of it’ or ‘just for the kiffe.’ In French, the sentence is ‘pour le kiffe.’ This is a good one to introduce into your English vocabulary, especially if you’re describing an activity that is not very serious and you want to add another flair of fun to it.

Attestation

If you live in France, you need a lot of these. Most administrative processes require some form of ‘attestation‘ (pronounced ah-test-ah-see-own). While you could say ‘document’ or ‘form’ in English instead, you probably have gotten so used to needing attestations, that you just use the French word instead.

Croquettes

If you have a pet, you can kiss the boring “cat food” or “dog food” goodbye. The French word, croquettes (pronounced croh-ketts) is simply much more fun. You might think that this secret language to discuss your pet’s food might get past them, but you would be surprised how quickly your formerly anglophone pet learns what ‘croquettes‘ means too.

Quoi

One of The Local’s readers suggested this, and it is a great addition to the list. If you want to sound authentically French, you can just add a ‘quoi’ (pronounced kwah) at the end of a phrase. It is kind of like saying ‘You know?’ in English. You’ll find yourself starting to use it in English too, as a filler for the end of your sentence or just out of habit once you become too addicted to using it in French. “That’s it, quoi.”

Perturbé

Ah, the joys of French public transport. If you live in France or have visited for more than a few days, then you have seen this word light up on the boards inside of Metro or train stations. Perturbé (pronounced pair-tehr-bay) translates to ‘disrupted’ which does not seem to fit quite as well as the original French word. In the traffic-sense, it is referring to trains running slowly or being out of order, signalling that you are in for some waiting time on the platform. You might start telling your friends you are running late because “the train was perturbé.” Oh well.

READ MORE: The 9 ‘English’ phrases that will only make sense if you live in France

J’adore

This one is self-explanatory. “I love that” in English feels a bit hollow in comparison to a well-enunciated j’adore (pronounced jah-door) in French. If someone compliments your outfit with a “j’adore” it feels a bit more special. 

RIB

Because what is the English equivalent of RIB? A bank statement? That does not quite fit, because the RIB (pronounced reeb – an acronym of Relevé d’Identité Bancaire) is a special French bank summary document that contains your IBAN number and is necessary for all exchanges of money in France.

As there is not a great English translation, you’ll find yourself saying things like “Oops I forgot my RIB at home” or “Do you want me to send you my RIB?” (Another anglophone on vacation might be a bit confused why you would be sending your friend something that belongs on the barbecue.)

La rentrée

This is basically the French new year, when everyone returns to work from their holidays, the government launches a new programme of legislation and many people start signing up for fitness classes again and lists off their goals for the next year.

But in English, there really is not a good translation – you could say ‘back-to-school’ or ‘the start of the school year’ but that does not quite fit, particularly if you are not someone in school or with school-aged children. Only la rentrée (pronounced lah rahn-tray) seems to capture the resolutions-making spirit of la rentrée.

Bon courage

If your friend has a cumbersome task ahead – such as a trip to the préfecture – you might have started saying ‘well, bon courage.

It becomes a staple in one’s French and English lexicon, particularly once you begin to realise that it is not quite the same as the English ‘good luck’. Bon courage (pronounced bohn core-ahj) has a bit of a sarcastic twinge to it – as if you know your friend is embarking on a difficult journey and they’ll need that extra bit of courage they can muster up.

Brocante

It’s sort of a vintage sale, almost antiques, though not quite. It is not really a yard sale either. If you enjoy spending your Saturdays doing some second-hand shopping, you’ve probably given up on finding the English translation for brocante (pronounced bro-cahnt) and instead you just say “I bought this amazing tea set at a brocante this morning.”

Fonctionnaire 

This is technically a civil servant or public sector worker, but the French term is much more encompassing than that. You likely see the French government referring to this group of workers in the news often, but when you actually look up who is a fonctionnaire (pronounced funk-shee-ohn-air) you might be hesitant to apply the English “civil servant” because it is much wider than an English speaker might have in mind, including police officers and teachers as well as office workers.

The English ‘civil servant’ also doesn’t quite convey the awesome power of the French fonctionnaire who has the capability to either process your paperwork or utter the most dreaded sentence in the French language “votre dossier est incomplet“.

Dossier

Which brings us, naturally, to dossier. This translates as a file and can also be used in the sense of a portfolio in English, to denote the responsibilities of a certain role, usually in government.

But the most common usage is the dossier which must be completed in order to do administrative tasks such as securing your vital residency or healthcare cards. This is a collection of documents usually including proof of address, ID and financial status but it varies depending on the task you are doing and only when these documents are all assembled to the satisfaction of the person you are dealing with will your request be processed. 

Télétravail (or other télé- words)

This word really took hold during the pandemic, when everyone had to begin working from home.

With so many people and government officials talking about télétravail (pronounced tehleh-trah-vie), it became one of those words that you hear so often that you almost forget it has a translation. “Are you doing télétravail this week?” or “I get two télétravail days a week” are phrases that would be common amongst two anglophones living in France. 

The pre-fix “télé” has also extended out, after life became more online during Covid-19 lockdowns. You can have a ‘telehealth‘ or ‘télémedicine‘ appointment or a téléconference (zoom call) this afternoon.

And finally – the best for last – the essential French swear words that just feel stronger and more damning than their English equivalents:

Bordel, Merde, and Putain – the trifecta.

Sometimes it is instinctual to swear in English, but other times, when the house is a mess, and you cannot find anything you are looking for, all you want to say is that “It is a ‘bordel!” in there! 

You step in dog mess on the streets, ‘damn’ could be the word that comes out of your mouth, or a loud and frustrated merde (pronounced maird) might feel more appropriate.

And then there is the classic ‘putain‘ (pronounced poo-tahn) – the more time you spend with French people, the more this rubs off on you. From minor conveniences to serious infractions, putain begins to roll off your tongue faster than the English word starting with an F.

Conversely though, the French seem to really enjoy saying ‘fuck’, so you’re quite likely to hear that too, sometimes in situations that might seem surprising. 

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