France has a highly competitive education system. Your score on the high school exit exam–the baccalauréat général, usually referred to as the bac–does a lot to determine where you will go in your life afterwards. Odd career paths like mine would be even less likely in France than they are in the US.
The bac is not easy. Here are some example questions from the philosophy épreuve (see below), taken from this web page (and yes, philosophy is a required subject for high school students in France):
- Is man condemned to create illusions about himself?
- Can we prove a scientific hypothesis?
- Does language betray thought?
- Does historical objectivity presuppose an impartial historian?
As Nadeau and Barlow’s excellent book on France describes it: “The Bac exams in June are always covered by the media, starting with talk shows that invite guests to discuss and comment on the questions for the philosophy exam.”
Forget being able to pass the bac–thanks to Zipf’s Law, I have enough trouble just reading the analysis of the bac in the papers. Here are some words that I had to look up from today’s article:
- le dessous: as a preposition, it can mean on the bottom, underneath, under, or below. As a noun, it has many meanings, including the downstairs apartment; bottom or underside; underwear; secrets, what lies behind something, hidden facts. The headline of today’s newspaper story is Les dessous d’une note–good luck figuring out which sense is intended without reading the whole article!
- la note: a number of meanings, including “note,” but also rating, mark, or grade–presumably the intended meaning here.
- une épreuve: many meanings–in this case, part of an exam. The article begins Après des épreuves de maths et de physique-chimie jugées trop dures, des consignes de clémence auraient été données aux correcteurs.
- la consigne: a number of meanings. In this case, an order or instruction, but also a baggage-checking room, as well as a deposit, as in a deposit on something that has to be returned. When you get into verbal and adjectival forms, it gets even more amusingly diverse, but we’ll leave that for another time. (Addition: later in the day, I ran into this in an email from the director of the Institute regarding various and sundry things that people needed to do regarding the aménagement (layout, arrangement, set-up) of the new equipment room: Merci à tous de respecter ces consignes.)
There are, of course, many other words that Zipf’s Law brings us in the rest of the article, but at least now we can read the first sentence! Almost, at any rate: I can’t even figure out what tense auraient été is, let alone what it means!