Learning French and UNese: Two Weeks In

As part of my own professional development, I have decided to bone up on my French for the upcoming UN exam. Admittedly, I have given myself very low odds of passing, but I do not like failure in any of its forms so this test has presented me with a challenge: don’t get blown out of the water. In addition, I view this opportunity to show my language skills as an apt litmus test for my methods of learning French to become a French (and Spanish) into English editor.

As French as I do.

I have started learning French four times before. In high school, college, grad school and once just a year ago. The very basics do not escape me, my pronunciation is coming along and my comprehension leaves a bit to be desired. Nonetheless, I will march into the UN testing center and take their pen-and-paper test. What I am doing now is different than all of my previous attempts; this time I am focusing 80% of my energy to reading, 15% to writing and 5% to speaking and comprehension.


Because I don’t need to understand oral language necessarily to be able to translate and edit texts out of French. I am doing very few traditional grammar exercises because those work my expressive skills while I want to center on my receptive skills (written, not verbal, comprehension). Being a native English speaker I will never be charged with translating or editing in any other language. (Some do, I won’t.)

The UN network of websites are a great source of practice material. All of their documents are public and most are translated into its official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. I found a few documents in both French and English and I started reading. My background in Spanish helps, I recognize syntax and verb tenses, many vocabulary terms are similar to either Spanish or English. For terms, verbs, phrases, constructions and other things I don’t know, I look them up. I am constantly switching between dictionaries, Google Translate, language forums and the document in French; I keep a notebook and have made flashcards galore. I concentrate on preposition usage and how that can change the meaning of a verb or phrase, false friends and cognates, and set phrases or what I call “power terms”. Don’t ask me why.

Here are a few examples of what I have learned in the first two weeks:

remettre: to put back (something)

But if you use it with en cause it becomes a power term meaning: to challenge, question, undermine

«…en ce qu’il vient remettre en cause le développement social et économique dans le monde entier…»

“…in that it undermines social and economic development throughout the world.”

lier: to tie (up), to bind, to join

In this next sentence, it comes to mean “related”

«...y compris toutes les questions qui y sont liées.»

“…including all matters related thereto.”

faire avancer: to take forward — faire part de: to express, to convey

From a seemingly endless list of what you can do with faire, here are two.

«Les membres de la Conférence ont fait part de leurs vues sur la Réunion de haut niveau destinée à revitaliser les travaux de la Conférence du désarmement et à faire avancer les négociations multilatérales sur le désarmement, tenue le 24 septembre 2010, et sur les débats de suivi de cette Réunion.»

“Members of the Conference expressed their views on the High-Level Meeting (HLM) held on 24 September 2010 on revitalizing the work of the Conference on Disarmament and taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations and on its follow-up debates.”

I have until July to get my language up to speed. This is how I intend to get there and I will keep you all up to date on my progress. Because I know you care.

What do you think? Tell me what I am doing wrong in the comments section!


  1. Addy

    hi dusto! actually, the picture caught my eye because of your bag. i LIKE it. is it the same one you had years ago? anyhoo, yeah french is super hard. maybe you should go the Cannes Riviera hotel… and listen to seagulls at night that sound like my Auntie “Iching” and then you can try to speak French with the train ticket seller man. “Ummm… HI.”

    • Addo!
      The bag is the same I had a long time ago but not when we went to France together. I always remember your aunt and those seagulls, especially when Amaia or I are sick 🙂

      French is hard but I love learning. I am also taking Dutch courses, talk about hard!

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I do care! (in answer to your statement). But taking French and Dutch at the same time must be … interesting.

    ‘Fraid I can’t be any help. I was dismal at Spanish, even though I did it for many years, and I only took two years of French back around 2000ish. Thankfully my French teacher knew Spanish so she was able to figure out why I put a Spanish words down on the test accidentally 😉

    She gave me a CD of French Christmas songs though. I love that thing.

  3. Hi Niki,
    Thanks for the comment, and for caring [blush] 🙂

    Learning French and Dutch concurrently is quite the adventure but I am finding it convenient to balance myself out. When I get tired of French, I switch, and vice versa.

    By the way, I love how active you are at posting. Keep it up!!


  4. nolú

    Hey great 😀 If you need any help you know you can ask me 😉
    What is the UN ? I don´t know them !
    Good luck, ánimo con los gabachos 😉

  5. mustafa

    hey my name is mustafa ı am refugee in the USA and ı need work in the UN as translate . ı can speake turksh and arabic and english and kurdish how can ı apply to UN ?

    • Hi Mustafa,

      Thanks for the comment. Check out http://unjobs.org/duty_stations and there you can see the listings for all the jobs (not just language specific ones) for all of the UN duty stations. If you see a listing that interests you, you then apply through their online application site to list your qualifications, education, references, etc.

      If you are serious about becoming a translator, I would start by evaluating your native language skills. Speaking four languages is not enough to become a language professional, what is important is the quality of the languages you wield, not necessarily the quantity. I wish you the best of luck in your career!


  6. Pingback: The UN English Editors’ Exam: Final Thoughts « roughly translated

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