The Famous Linguist List, or protecting the stupid versus rewarding the smart

Competition for things like university admission or a job can be brutal and public in France. Here’s how that works.

This is soooo French.  I’m applying to take the DALF test–the standardized test of French language proficiency.  I’m looking at the registration information on the web site, and I see this:

Screenshot 2016-02-11 09.29.46
Notice the third line: “results displayed on our premises in the hall of the main building.”  Picture source: screen shot from

This would be unthinkable in the United States today.  Publicizing test results would be considered a terrible invasion of privacy: someone might be embarrassed, right?  When I was a college student, the list of students was posted on the wall outside the classroom, with everyone’s grade.  By the time I graduated, the names were gone, replaced by your Social Security number.  When I was in grad school, the Social Security numbers were replaced by student ID numbers.  By the time I was teaching college courses, the student ID numbers were no longer allowed–I handed everyone the name of some famous linguist along with their blank final exam, and then posted grades outside the lab, using everyone’s famous linguist code name.  (Many times I discovered linguistics department faculty members looking at the grade sheets to see if they were included with Saussure, Bloomfield, Labov, Chomsky, and the like.)  By the time I finished graduate school, posting grades in public was not permitted at all.  Today, we’re not even allowed to email them–what if someone hacked your email account?

In France: totally different story.  Wanna know if you got into the university of your choice?  Go look for your list on the name of accepted students posted on the wall, like everyone else.  Wanna know who applied for a job at the National Center for Scientific Research this year?  Check their web site.  (If you’re French: note that the fact that one has applied for a job is considered very privileged information in the American system.)  Wanna know who’s going to get an offer?  Check the web site at the end of the competition, where you’ll find the lucky few, listed in order of the Center’s preference.

I don’t have any particular preference for either system.  I guess that one way to look at it is that in some sense, the American attitude protects the stupid, while the French attitude rewards the smart.  Both of those seem like admirable goals.  Some relevant vocabulary–definitions from

  • le concours (examen): competitive exam.  It’s also used to refer to the competition for a job, e.g. at the National Center for Scientific Research, or at INSERM (the French equivalent of the US National Institutes of Health), or similar organizations.
  • le concours (compétition): competition (e.g. le concours canin, “dog show”).
  • le concours (participation):  cooperation, support.
  • concourir: to compete or to take part in a competition.
  • concourir à: to contribute to (e.g. a project).
  • apporter son concours à: to make your contribution to, to provide support for.  (I have some good news and will be using this phrase in an email today, but more on that later.)



7 thoughts on “The Famous Linguist List, or protecting the stupid versus rewarding the smart”

  1. German Universities make public the information that a candidate was offered a chair, but declined. Not kind to the person who takes the job, and is publicly known to be not the first choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting comparison on perceptions around privacy. On the other hand, I am far more struck by the number of warnings and limitations about the results in the French system. Before you even start, they put you in your place. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Exam results on the wall? That’s fairly private, because in practice most people don’t have access to the wall. For proper dissemination, exam results, university admissions, etc, should be published in special supplements in the daily newspaper — as they were, in Australia, when I was of relevant age.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In mid-50s Britain, my Dad’s first and only employers wrote a letter of application TO him, because his Tripos result was published on a wall.


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