Can I sleep now?

Well, everyone, today marks the end of my first week of intensive training to become a teacher of English to speakers of other languages. That’s 5 days down and 21 to go. I don’t have much time to indulge in the leisurely activity of blogging at the moment, so I’ll just share an edited Facebook status I posted this evening when I first got home. I think it sums up the first week pretty nicely.

  • I’m exhausted! In the last two nights, I’ve slept a total of 9 hours. I don’t expect this to get much better any time soon, either. Methodology and language analysis sessions every morning + teaching practice or observation every afternoon + 4 or 5 hours of lesson planning or homework every night = a hard row to hoe.
  • Writing lesson plans is truly an art … and a time-consuming one at that. Thank all the good teachers in your life for putting the effort into making good plans for what they taught you. Most of us have no idea how much thought and work go into that. That’s probably because the best teachers just make it look so easy.
  • My first lesson to a group of real, live students was on Tuesday afternoon. It went really well even though I was nervous enough to feel like throwing up for two hours before it even started. My second lesson on Thursday was personally disappointing. I felt extremely stressed because of last-minute changes to the lesson plan. According to my evaluator, though, it went well. Today’s lesson, on the other hand, was nothing short of a disaster. I tried to accomplish too much, and my instructions weren’t clear enough or adequately reinforced. My evaluator didn’t argue with my self-assessment, but at least I didn’t get raked over the coals. Instead, she pointed out my strengths and was glad to see that I immediately recognized the areas where I overstretched. Maybe it’s a training rule not to crush your spirit at the outset? (By the way, “freer stage” lessons—for anyone who’s familiar with the concept—are not as easy as they seem.) Continue reading Can I sleep now?

Suspense. It’s French … sort of.


a : mental uncertainty : anxiety
   b : pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome <a novel of suspense>

— from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Suspense is a “French English” word that has a few meanings in our language but is used most often to describe a sense of nervous anticipation, whether the circumstances involve dread or eagerness. For instance, we feel suspense when we’re waiting for someone to make a decision that’s out of our hands :

“Oh, please, please! Let them make a decent offer on my apartment so I can finally sell it!”

“When am I going to hear back from the prefecture? And what am I going to do if they end up refusing to renew my visa?”  

But we can also feel it when we’re watching a television show and the episode ends with a dramatic event, while leaving the story unresolved :

“What in the world are they going to do now? Is he alive or dead? And what am I supposed to do with myself until next week?!”

                                                              … or when we’re reading a book, the chapter ends with a cliffhanger, and despite the fact that we have to get up early the next morning, we just have to start the next one. 

“Suspense” came into Middle English from Anglo-French, one of those lexical imports during the first few centuries after the Norman Conquest. Its first recorded English use was in 1306 in the legal term “en suspens” meaning “not executed, unfulfilled.” By 1440, the word had also developed the sense of a “state of mental uncertainty” … because, I guess, whatever legal judgment that was “en suspens” had not yet been carried out and the future was stressfully unclear. The Anglo-French “suspens” itself derives from the Old French “suspens,” from the Latin  “suspensus” (the past participle of the verb “suspendere“) meaning “delayed.” Continue reading Suspense. It’s French … sort of.

Got a chimney? It’s French.

A while back, I posted about how much of the English language comes from French. Perhaps surprisingly, more English vocabulary comes from French than from any other language source, even Anglo-Saxon—some 30% in fact. Speaking English words of French origin doesn’t make us French speakers, of course, but stumbling across these cognates can be pretty useful if you’re in a French class … or even trying to decipher a French menu. Being an etymology nerd myself (and inspired by my blogger friend over at Le mot du (bon)jour), I decided to create a new “column” on je parle américain: the French English Word of the Week. Every week or so, I’ll write a short post about an ordinary English word that we inherited from French. Sometimes, the French and English words will have exactly the same meanings. Sometimes, though, they’ll be faux amis (“false friends”), because the words have evolved differently over time. Those can be the most interesting!

So, this week’s French English word? Given the record-breaking cold temps affecting many of my readers, I’ve decided to kick things off with:


Everybody knows what a chimney is, of course. In its primary sense, chimney means “a vertical structure incorporated into a building and enclosing a flue or flues that carry off smoke; especially : the part of such a structure extending above a roof.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

“Chimney” comes to us from the Anglo-Norman chiminee from the Old French cheminée from Late Latin caminata from Latin caminus from Greek kaminos, meaning “furnace.”

In American English, we use the word almost exclusively for the structures that carry off smoke from our homes. We generally call the industrial versions or the versions on steam locomotives and steamships “smokestacks.” In England, by contrast, such smokestacks are often called chimneys and, in some English dialects, chimney can also mean a “fireplace or hearth,” especially a large one, like those found in old castles.

Continue reading Got a chimney? It’s French.

Previous Post

To tide you over until the next post from je parle américain, allow me to share this humorous article from my blogger friend over at Le mot du (bon)jour. (To read the whole article, click on the link “Reblogged from Le mot du (bon)jour” above.) I recently wrote about how much French is actually in the English we speak, and her post highlights the confusion that can arise from mixing French and English without considering how a French person will interpret it. Now, as a die-hard Clemson Tiger, I have to take issue with the first sentence of her post because, well, if I were at Williams-Brice, it would be to cheer for the other team! Nevertheless, today’s “mot rigolo” (“funny word”) is guaranteed to make you chuckle!

And come back Sunday for the next post from je parle américain!

Le mot du (bon)jour

If you ever go to a USC (that is University of South Carolina) football game, you will find yourself screaming “Go cocks!”… Very strange at first! We brought my French sister and brother-in-law to a game a couple of years ago, and we could not stop laughing because the other side of the stadium was prompted to scream “Game”, and our side had to scream “Cocks”… this lasted a whole game. So we translated with the alternative meaning of cock=rooster (so right, the other meaning…), and in French, that is: “Allez les bites!” (We wanted to text it to the big board but it did not work… I wish! I would have taken a picture!).

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How much French do you speak?

Just the other day, I was watching my latest favorite television series, Downton Abbey, and I heard one of the characters use a French word I’d never heard used before in an English sentence: “She’s found her métier—farm laboring.” That struck me as the height of pretension, but then again, it is a show about English aristocrats during the First World War. In any case, métier means “profession, occupation, or trade.” I knew this word from my French classes, of course, but I never knew that we used it in English. I guess being a country boy from South Carolina, I wasn’t high-class enough to have trotted it out in my own conversations. It got me thinking, though, about how much French there actually is in English. As it turns out, between the recent imports and what we inherited from the Normans, there’s a lot more than you might imagine.

Recent Imports

Métier is one of those French words that entered the English lexicon in recent centuries through literature, the arts, and other cultural exchanges. Because we “adopted” them directly into English, they’ve preserved their unmistakable character as Gallicisms even when we don’t pronounce them exactly right. Originally, these words were used primarily by the upper echelons of society (Look, there’s another one!), those privileged enough to have spent their time reading, visiting art exhibits, and traveling to France. As such, although they may be recognizable by a broad segment of today’s English-speaking population, they aren’t used in the normal course by most of us … except perhaps when we want to sound chichi.

used under license from CartoonStock
used under license from CartoonStock

Continue reading How much French do you speak?

Why do I speak American?

“Je parle américain” means “I speak American.” It’s a catchy title for the blog of an American expat in France, but why do I say that? After all, I speak English, right?

The fact of the matter is that, while we Americans might say we speak English, as far as the French are concerned, we speak something else. When I enrolled in French courses here in France, I always listed “anglais” as my native language, of course, but I had already learned by then that many French think of my native language as something other than English. I can still remember the first time someone in France asked me how we say something in “American.” I chuckled at the time, thinking it was an odd thing to ask … until I quickly realized that it was a serious question and no joke was intended. After all, when kids in France learn English at school, they learn the Queen’s English, and what comes of out my mouth when I speak is certainly not that!

Of course, the differences between what we speak in America and what they speak in Britain are far greater than just our accents. Accent is, after all, just the way you pronounce the same words: “You say tomato; I say tomato …” Well, it doesn’t make much sense when you read it, but you understand.  Continue reading Why do I speak American?

I SPEAK American, but I TEACH English.

When I moved to Paris sixteen months ago, I had what I thought was a pretty good plan: 20 hours a week as a French student and 20 hours a week as an English teacher. After all, I had always been attracted to the idea of teaching, even though I had never pursued it as a career. “Why not try it now?” I thought. “This is the perfect time, and this is the perfect place to start.” I had been assured that teaching English was the “easiest field to get into here” and, as an overeducated former lawyer, I thought I had a pretty impressive résumé.

As it turns out, it wasn’t going to be that easy. The truth of the matter is that native English speakers are a dime a dozen in this city, and most good teaching positions require a certification that I don’t have. The disappointment of discovering that I wasn’t a ready-made English teacher plus the demands of my own French classes ended up putting my plan on the back burner … that is, until I recently looked at my bank account and decided that it was high time to turn the heat up again. Continue reading I SPEAK American, but I TEACH English.


As an English-speaker living in France, I know what it’s like to be in a room full of people speaking French, not understanding everything that’s being said. You hear the “sound” of the language, peppered here and there with words and phrases that are familiar; you struggle to put it all together and make sense of the situation. Here’s a brilliant take on what it must sound like for a non-English speaker to listen to us speak our language. Bravo to the writers, the director, and the actors in this excellent short film!

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

What do you mean, I can’t work for myself?

I’ve been spending my day working on my CV, trying to convert my “lawyer” CV into one that screams:


I spent almost 8 years of my life working as a lawyer for a big firm in Washington, DC. Many of my clients were big financial institutions from Wall Street and most of my work was for them. When I left that job back in 2009, I decided to pursue a different course, but I wasn’t quite sure which one to take. Continue reading What do you mean, I can’t work for myself?