A part of the French dream prior to moving to France is the idea of being fully integrated into French society. Not only through understanding the difference between things like a saucisse and a saucisson, or remembering to say hello when you walk into a shop (even if you can’t see anyone) and accepting that paperwork and industrial strikes are sacrosanct, but more importantly to know…….just what is going on here in France. How to do that though if you have limited French language skills?
The best way to learn to speak French is to listen to French. But of course, c’est plus facile à dire qu’à faire. When we moved to France, I am ashamed to say that we fell very easily into reinstalling our Sky box so we could watch TV in English. So we carried on watching the BBC news just as we had in Oxford before moving. And of course we ended up knowing more about what is happening in the UK than in France. Crazy. But living here full time, is it not important to delve deeper into this country’s psyche and cultural references?
Watching the news on French TV or listening to French radio requires concentration and dedication even with a strong level of French. Not many of us can find the time and effort to do this so how to find out what’s is going on in our adopted country?
For me, this information shortfall on day-to-day French current affairs changed three years ago when I started working for a small radio station based in Paris. The station, EnglishWaves radio, was established largely as an English-language learning resource and counts the Ministry of the Interior as a client. But its programmes can be enjoyed by anyone: French and other nationalities living in France, expats and English students.
It offers a range of programmes – all in English – from an environmental programme (to which I contribute) to tech talk and cookery, from books to famous American personalities and the British Royal family. Many are presented in a variety of accents including received pronunciation (a ‘normal’ British accent) to American and Indian accents and I have personally produced programmes in a Scouse. The radio founders have a background in language education and a strong understanding of a broad and varied approach to language learning.
My main role as a radio journalist for EnglishWaves is to write and present a daily news bulletin. This bulletin is based on mainstream French news and which I then convert to an audio version for radio broadcast. Aside from the various technical challenges at the start (I’m sure I sounded like a strangled cat for my first broadcast), I absolutely love this job! I learn so much.
Despite still squirming at the sound of my own voice when I audio edit (even three years later), my enjoyment of receiving a daily dose of French news has not diminished and through the very nature of the job , I am now always up to date on what’s going on here on l’hexagon (so called due to France’s shape).
I’m no Angela Rippon despite my best friend nicknaming me after the British newsreader from the 1980s (entirely for her own amusement)and there are sometimes some tongue-twisting challenges to keep me on my toes. Try saying Guingamp (a town in Brittany) or Sibeth Ndiaye (the government’s spokeswoman) correctly. But at least I now know where and who they are thanks to my radio role.
There is so much to learn. Brexit, thankfully, rarely makes an appearance in French headline news – it might hit page 8! Stories frequently mention President Macron’s comings-and-goings, recent Gilets Jaunes action, court judgements on cases which may go back years and the latest French sporting successes.
I now have a knowledge of historical police cases such as that of Grégory Villemin, a little boy who disappeared and was murdered back in 1984 (a case which has yet to be fully resolved) and which still echoes through the French memory, much in the same way the Madeleine McCann case does in the UK.
There are frequently socially-related items such as unemployment when large factories, such as the Ford plant in Bordeaux, are closed down. Or the fire at the Lubrizol chemical factory in Rouen which has hugely impacted local farmers through the resulting pollution. When such events are taken into account, a link can be made to recent social unrest and strike action, reactions which suddenly have a context.
I now know the names of the key players in the French government, have a better understanding of how elections here work and the power of French unions. And on a less political note, an awareness of the insane popularity of Johnny Hallyday, a singer barely heard of outside French-speaking nations.
Being up on even the basics in French current affairs has two main benefits: firstly, it makes you feel more personally integrated when you understand what is happening in French society and secondly, a knock-on effect is that it gives you more confidence in chatting to French friends and neighbours without fear of sounding like an ignorant expat! Apart from the blindingly obvious fact that we all really should know what is going on in the country we live in!
It struck me that there can’t be too many radio stations in France who broadcast French news in English and that it isn’t therefore just language students who can benefit from the bulletins produced by EnglishWaves. English-speaking folk who want to hear top line French news in a succinct, easily-digestible manner can just as easily listen in – the news is free! Check out the website and have a listen. I present the midday news but you can listen to my colleagues in the morning and evening too.
Sarah Heath in collaboration with TVUFWS