5/16/2009

Speaking French Can Get You Killed

There has been a lot of talk about how French air controllers' poor English skills or refusal to speak the tongue that Shakspere spake endangers people's lives. The following blog post from strategypage.com shows that the French military doesn't do a better job: it doesn't teach its soldiers enough English before sending them to operate in joint international operations. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows France well from the inside: French foreign language learning standards being very low, many French think they speak good English when they don't, while few are conscious that failure to practise will result in loss of fluency. The educated are often the worst as many have the most thwarted notions of what English should be (they revere French grammar rules and refuse to accept that those don't necessarily apply to other tongues).


May 15, 2009: While the French Army has recognized the importance of smart bombs and missiles, they found themselves poorly prepared to make the best use of these weapons when they sent troops to Afghanistan. They had several problems. First, they did not have enough FACs (Forward Air Controllers, teams trained to call in warplanes and smart bombs), and those FACs they had often lacked good enough English to deal with the non-French pilots. NATO pilots, like international commercial aviation pilots, use English as a standard language (for working with ground controllers and each other). Unlike pilots, the French FACs don't practice their English regularly, and have problems communicating with non-French pilots. Another problem was that the French FACs didn't have the Rover terminal (which allows U.S., and most NATO, FACs to see what pilots see via their targeting pods).

Many of these French problems arise from France having left the NATO military organization back in the 1960s. France remained in NATO, but its armed forces did not participate in training and standardization efforts with other NATO troops. There were some problems with this back in 1990, when France sent troops to join the effort to throw Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. But in 1991 the solution was to place the French division out on the western flank, where they did not have to worry about interoperability with other NATO forces. In Afghanistan, everyone shares the same pool of warplanes and helicopters, and many other forms of support as well. Interoperability is essential. Decades of NATO efforts to develop interoperability standards for basic things like communications, air and artillery support, supply and medical evacuation, have paid off. Not perfect, but not a lot of costly confusion either. The French now have to play catch up after decades on their own.

Hat tip: O. Mayer


24 comments:

Edward J. Cunningham said...

Good post. I'm sure that the French soldiers working in NATO operations in Afghanistan will learn English, just as recruits in the Foreign Legion learn French. They'll learn because they have to. The better question to ask is when will the rest of France?

Edward J. Cunningham said...

Speaking of air-traffic controllers use of English, here's a recent debate about it I found on-line:

Control Tower/Air Traffic Control
- Language
On May 25, 2000 there was a collision between two planes on a runway at Charles De Gaulle airport. Fortunately, there was only one fatality, but one of the contributing factors was that the air traffic controller was speaking French to one of the planes and English tot he other. Here's the official report. They tried to change the rules at CDG Airport so that French pilots would have to speak to the tower in English, but backed down after public opposition.

Safer air language set for long haul

Snake Oil Baron said...

I suppose we must not interfere with the French public's right to die because of their own language. I wonder how many non-French they will take with them while exercising that right.

Anonymous said...

Les primates anglophones feignent de se donner de bonnes raisons d'oublier que l'imprécision intrinsèque de leur langue de singes a causé 583 morts lors du pire accident aérien, le 27 mars 1977...

Trop drôle.

Déni, illusion, lâcheté, stupidité : concentré d'anglosphère.

John said...

Now that's Interesting!
Learn Language Skills

Frogologist said...

Personally, I would prefer that France keep its military at home and copy Switzerland, which should be the model for all rational countries.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

Switerland has been relatively lucky. I don't think bigger countries---including France---have the luxury to NOT have an army and avoid military conflicts altogether.

Oh, and as for "Anonymous"---he apparently knows enough English (possibly with the help of Google) to know what is being said here, but won't post a reply in English. For my part, I do not post snarky comments on French message board, but if I did, you can be assured that my reply would be in French.

Unfrench Frenchman said...

Well, Anonymous is suggesting that the March, 27th 1977 Tenerife airport disaster was caused by the imprecision of the English language, when we all know that it was caused by the Spanish controllers' poor English (What is so ambiguous or imprecise about such a sentence as, "we're at takeoff"?)

Other factors played a role as well according to Wikipedia:

"However, a simultaneous radio call from the Pan Am crew at that precise moment caused mutual interference on the radio frequency and all that was audible in the KLM cockpit was a heterodyne beat tone, making the crucial latter portion of the tower's response inaudible to the KLM pilots. The Pan Am crew's transmission, which was also critical, was reporting that "We're still taxiing down the runway, the Clipper 1736." This message was also blocked by the heterodyne and inaudible to the KLM crew. Either message, if broadcast separately, would have been audible in the KLM cockpit and given the KLM crew time to abort its takeoff.

Due to the fog, neither crew was able to see the other plane on the runway ahead of them. In addition, neither of the aircraft could be seen from the control tower, and the airport was not equipped with ground radar."

Edward J. Cunningham said...

Thank you very much, Unfrench.

Regarding the precision of language, English can be as precise as it needs to be. If it's a matter or life or death, people who use English don't need to ask permission from Oxford to change vocabulary or tweak grammar. So I don't see English as being inherently more "imprecise" than French.

Unfrench Frenchman said...

Well, Anonymous tell the millions of scientists and academics writing English-language research around the world (including in France) that they have made the wrong choice.

Maybe he thinks they should pick German.

Unluckily, even German isn't immune to ambiguity (cf. the various meanings and functions of "der", "die", "ihr", or "den"). And I'm not even talking about French.

Frogologist said...

Edward J Cunningham said...

Switerland has been relatively lucky. I don't think bigger countries---including France---have the luxury to NOT have an army and avoid military conflicts altogether.

Switzerland has an army. Every man must do ten years service in the Swiss reserves, which make up the bulk of the country's armed forces. Switzerland has however chosen to remain neutral in Europe's recent wars, which is only made possible by having half a million men who can be called up in just 24 hours.

I was suggesting that France pursue the same policy, with all men between 18-35 given one year training and then assigned to a reserve unit. Other than that I think France should maintain a policy of neutrality, leaving other countries to themselves, and working on securing the Hexagon.

Needless to say, if France did pursue a policy of neutrality it would not be a member of the United Nations, the European Union or NATO. As part of this friendly relations with Germany should be paramount.

Of course, since I am dreaming anyway the top ten percent of French society would almost be compelled to learn English, with German as a close second. The remainder of French society would be taught French in school and a trade and otherwise would be free to go on without any further interference from the state, other than annual military drills.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

I can see France leaving NATO if the political winds start blowing in different directions, but the European Union? Not anytime soon...

Frogologist said...

Have you seen this?

In some French speaking regions of Canada French is beginning to blend with English due to the influence of the media.

Frogologist said...

Have you seen this?

In some French speaking regions of Canada French is beginning to blend with English due to the influence of the media.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

I'm sure this is going to wind up on UnFrench's blog very, very soon...

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8143780.stm

If you don't think this link is detailed enough, try Google. It's all over the net right now...

Frogologist said...

I think you posted an article about bad French tourists to the comment section of this blog several months ago, which is why the article may be all over the internet.

Ronduck said...

From the looks of the table posted near the article it seems Americans come in the middle of the pack, while the article mentions Spain, Greece and France as being the worst.

Having two southern European countries in the same place on the list as France adds weight to my suspicion that France is culturally a southern European country, not a northern European country. This would explain why the US comes in the middle of the pack since the US is a combination of southern and northern European.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

I think you posted an article about bad French tourists to the comment section of this blog several months ago, which is why the article may be all over the internet.

This is new. The French were voted worst tourists last year by Expedia's poll, and I think it was links to THAT poll which were posted previously. This new poll was just released a few days ago.

Ronduck said...

Unfrench, can I send you a book?

Unfrench Frenchman said...

A book? Why, thank you, but be careful of porto since I live in Europe. Email me at ddthgg@gmail.com to tell me more.

Unfrench Frenchman said...

Sorry, Ron, I meant to write, "be careful of postal charges (and customs)".

Ronduck said...

Thanks, I didn't even look at your profile to see if you have an email address posted.

I should have looked instead of sullying up your comment thread, sorry.

An email will be in your box shortly.

Edward J. Cunningham said...

I wonder if this is the book in question:

I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do): Living In A Small Town In Brittainy

This is the link from Amazon's French website:

Same book from Amazon.fr

Edward J. Cunningham said...

Perhaps this might be included in a future entry?