Back to school: Learning to insult people – this time, in French

Rob Garratt has decided to pick up his French skills by returning to beginner’s French at Alliance Française Dubai. Rob Garratt
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I’ve been learning to insult people in French.

Wait – it’s not some weird, twisted affliction. I’ve been learning how to say nice things, too, and lots of other neutral things, all on the beginners’s syllabus at Alliance Française Dubai.

But I’ve definitely learned my fair share of offensive adjectives – rather more than I’d expect is normal, or necessary, for an elementary course in any other language.

Which leads me to wonder if it might say something about the culture. The French might be renowned for flowery romantic language, but from what I can gather for my all-ages text book, there appear to be a certain Germanic efficiency in the way they describe fellow human beings.

Choice nuggets include:

“Serge n’est pas beau du tout, il est très laid” (Serge is not at all beautiful, he is very ugly”).

“Elle fait un regime parce qu’elle est trop grosse” (She is on a diet because she is too fat”).

Now, maybe something has been lost in (my) translation, but these are sentences I can’t imagine ever uttering in English, even in the comfort of a trusted confidant. It’s simply, too… blunt. Too brazen. Too close to the bone.

I wasn’t the only one in class left slightly gobsmacked.

“Isn’t it rude to call someone ugly?” asked one classmate.

“Not in French,” laughed another.

The teacher shook his head, grinning. “Non,” he agreed.

C’est bizarre.

Rob Garratt is studying beginners's French at Alliance Française Dubai, a non-profit language and cultural institution established in 1982, which teaches French to more than 2,500 students every year. Find out more at