The Linguist

The Linguist 53,5

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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8 The Linguist OCTOBER/NOVEMBER LANGUAGES AT WAR From makeshift lessons to trench phrasebooks, how troops learnt French on the Western Front. By Krista Cowman Despite the Entente Cordiale and the need for close cooperation between officers of the British and French forces on the Western Front, there was little formal language education for the thousands of British volunteers and conscripts sent to France in the First World War. There was no guarantee that even elite combatants could speak French. Indeed, a Daily Express article about the role being played by interpreters, published on 18 November 1915, pointed out that of the key government ministers overseeing the war, only Arthur Balfour spoke French, although Lloyd George was taking lessons. Others relied on interpreters, as did most of the French ministers at the time. The problem was worse lower down the ranks. Private John Gibbons recalled that 'out of roughly nearly a thousand men we might have had perhaps a dozen who by some accident of civil employment could speak real French; and then we might have had another 50 or so who would once have learned French at school. The remaining nine hundred men would know no French at all.' 1 School French could prove rusty and unreliable, making essential tasks, such as finding suitable billets, almost impossible if no interpreter was available. How, then, did men who had little or no language skills manage to learn French? In many British towns with large army camps, volunteers set up evening classes. In army recreation huts in France, the YMCA ran classes that were extremely popular with troops eager to be able to converse with the local population. In France, men might also find classes by native speakers, again organised on a voluntary basis, or persuade locals to teach them a few words. These classes were of varied quality. A report in The Daily Express on 24 August 1914 described a British Expeditionary Force camp where several lessons were taking place at once: 'one group of five had a ten-year-old French Boy Scout as instructor; the next group of three were being taught by a group of three pretty peasant girls; the next group… talked with an old man and his wife.' Such descriptions made good reading for a British population hungry to know every detail of the war, but it is unlikely such lessons would have delivered much beyond a few basic words. Phrasebooks for the Front With few formal lessons on offer, a growing market developed in phrasebooks designed to give soldiers help with pronunciation, basic vocabulary and grammar. Some were attached to broader language-learning series. London publishers E Marlborough, whose list included The Soldiers' Language Manual by Ajax and E F Harris' French for the Front, recommended the shilling edition of their 'Self-Taught' System for Phonetic Pronunciation, along with a companion volume, French Grammar Self-Taught by J Laffitte. Harris ran classes in Plymouth using his own text, but the books were really intended for personal use. Many developed special techniques to facilitate rapid solo learning. Country Life magazine published French Lessons for Soldiers: The adventures of Corporal Atkins, a selection of nine comic playlets with translation and vocabulary. French for the Front arranged basic phrases into short catchy rhymes, which soldiers could chant on the march. More than 100 rhymes were included, covering situations ranging from the mundane (Donnez-moi/s'il vous plait/du tabac/à fumer) to the potentially life-saving (Amis! Anglais!/ Ne tirez pas! Nous sommes allies!!). Unlike existing phrasebooks for tourists, the vocabulary was geared to almost every imaginable military situation. Walter M Gallichan's The Soldiers' English-French Conversation Book was a very small pocket book of just over 150 pages, but it managed to fit in sections on landing, marching, billeting, camping, action and convoys, as well as a highly technical section on aircraft offering translations for phrases such as 'start the propeller' and 'one cylinder misses fire.' In the confusion of trench warfare some vocabulary could ensure survival. French for the Front cited a letter from a soldier who had been separated from his regiment and fired on by the French because he did not know to shout Anglais; three of his companions were killed in this incident. Another wrote of being saved in similar circumstances by shouting du pain, the only French words he knew. There was also great emphasis on words for describing injuries and pain. French for the Getting stuck in the trenches

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