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Ça plane por moi! Or how to help children who are learning a second language. With help from Plastic Bertrand and The Boss Hoss!

Date posted: Tuesday 30th September 2014

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I am ze King of ze Divan/ Ooh ooh ooh ooh
Plastic Bertrand: Ca Plane Pour Moi

In 1978 many people in the UK were ignorant about Belgium. A popular joke went like this:
Can you name three famous Belgians?
No? How about Hercule Poirot, Tin Tin and Hertz Van Rental?

In that same year Margaret Thatcher was leader of the Conservative party, who at the time were Her Majesty’s Opposition. We couldn’t have imagined it then, but a few years later Maggie would be Prime Minister, and life in Britain would never be the same again. The Conservatives of late have become divided about whether the UK being part of the European Union is a good idea or not. In 1978 the Shadow Cabinet was very clear about the EU: certain influences from continental Europe were eating away at the very fabric of British society. The most serious European threat- and particularly to our youth- came from Belgium. He was called Plastic Bertrand, and he was a punk.

Bertrand’s song, Ca Plane Pour Moi was Belgium’s anthem for disaffected youth. It was their Anarchy in the UK. And it was in French. It was massive all over Europe, and apparently it’s still number 1 in Luxembourg. When The Beatles released Michelle, with its verses in French, Britain’s teens suddenly rushed to take up GCSE French. Learning French was suddenly very sexy, and you could argue that many of these youngsters were so enamoured by their second language that they went on to pass the ‘A’ Level and thus bolstered their chances of getting a place at a university (or at least a polytechnic), and eventually walking into a job and adding to the country’s economic wellbeing.

But Plastic Bertrand’s song was the very antithesis of the sugar-sweet McCartney number. At the time, it felt like you could walk down any British street and you’d hear the heady lyrics blaring out from squats and drug dens where punks were frantically pogo-ing along to the Belgian’s anti-social outpourings. He was Belgian, the song was in French, and it sounded dangerous. Suddenly every punk was alive to what he had missed at school, and was queuing up to do night classes in French. Everyone wanted to be talking like Plastic.

Plastic Bertrand: Ca plane pour moi!!

Secret minutes of Shadow Cabinet meetings in 1978, just released, reveal how close Bertrand’s song came to causing Britain’s withdrawal from Europe. The potential crisis began with an inexperienced teacher of French, working in an exclusive girls’ school (so sensitive is this document that the name of the school has been ‘redacted’). Apparently the girls found their French lessons extremely boring, so our intrepid young teacher, who was hip to the zeitgeist of the times, decided to play Ca Plane Pour Moi at the beginning of every lesson. His intention was to turn the girls on to the grooviness of the language, and make them hang on his every French word. He decided to ask the girls to have a go at translating the song. This was to be his undoing.

Maybe you could have a go. What do you think the phrase Poupe de Cellophane means? Well it seems that some of the girls thought it meant ‘Wrap your sh*t in cling film,’ and wrote these immortal lines in their exercise books. No-one involved is prepared to verify exactly what happened next, but the Head got to see some of the girls’ work and was so shocked that the unfortunate French teacher was immediately fired. And there the matter might have ended, but the damage had been done. Teenage girls (even the posh ones) are the same as teenage boys: once they got a sniff of something being classed as taboo by the powers that be, they just have to partake of the very fruit that has been forbidden.

At the time, it felt like you could walk down the corridor outside any British public school dormitory and you’d hear the heady lyrics blaring out, where posh teens were frantically pogo-ing along to the Belgian’s anti-social outpourings. I guess, like any craze that takes over a school, if you ignore it the kids will eventually get bored and move onto something else (whatever happened to ‘Clackers’ and ‘POGS’, for example?) But ‘Plastic Fever’ carried on unabated. Things came to a head in June 1978 when two public schoolgirls took their ‘A’ Level French oral exam. They were very nervous, and I guess the fear of talking in French to a stranger just completely took over their ability to think and act rationally.

So when the examiner asked, in French, a question about Madame Bovary, the girls’ minds went completely blank. The brain is a wonderful thing. No-one knows how it works, and to this day no-one has been able to explain what happened next in the girls’ brains. Instead of describing how Madame Bovary was deeply dissatisfied with her provincial life and marriage to a country doctor, which led her to become involved in reckless passionate liaisons, the girls blurted out the first thing that came into their heads: i.e. ‘Poupe de cellophane/ You are ze king of ze divan/ C’est un grand connard/ Oooh ooh ooh ooh/Ca plane pour moi!’

Both girls failed their French ‘A’ Level, and instead of going on to an exclusive finishing school in the Alps ended up going to Keele through clearing, and getting a 2:2 in Sociology. ‘Big deal’, you might say. And you would be right: it was a very big deal, because the girls’ fathers were none other than two members of Maggie Thatcher’s future cabinet. Thatch got to hear about the scandal of the terrible exam results coming out of the elite independent schools and decided, there and then, that if the Tories ever came to power, not only would they bring the unions to their knees and give away the nationalised industries for a pittance, but they would pull the UK out of Europe. The Iron Lady did two of those things, but Britain is still a member of the European Union… but the debate rumbles on.

So why are we even thinking about the impenetrable lyrics of a Belgian punk? Adults often feel under pressure when talking in public. I only have to think of answering a question in an interview and my mind goes blank. For young children learning a second language, or even developing their first, pressure can build up very quickly when we are talking with them. What we think is a nice cosy chat can suddenly become a bit strained and hard work for child and adult. Children, like adults, can panic and freeze up, if not given enough time to respond to questions. When we ask a child a question, he needs time to process what we have said, formulate an answer and then say what he wants to say. When I ask a question, I count to 10 in my head, and if the child looks confused or has not responded, I follow it up with another, simpler question or some other helpful remark that helps the child understand what I mean. This technique has helped me become a better communicator with young children developing language, and anyone learning English as a second language.

Plastic is still going strong, and spreading his ideas for anarchy and revolution, as you can see from this clip with Germany’s legendary country band, The Boss Hoss. Yee hah!!
By the way, in case you were wondering, ‘poupe de cellophane’ can be translated as ‘plastic doll’.

The Boss Hoss & Plastic Bertrand. Still rockin’ Europe to its foundations

Take care out there.


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6 responses to “Ça plane por moi! Or how to help children who are learning a second language. With help from Plastic Bertrand and The Boss Hoss!”

  1. We are working on reducing over prompting at school at the moment. Trying to turn out young people who are not highly prompt dependent. Encouraging independent doers and talkers. Try explaining to OFSTED how waiting (counting in your head)and ostensibly doing nothing, are well-thought out ways of actually doing something extremely valuable. We are planning to try.

    Have I ever banged on to you about pithy song lyrics before. IE forms of words that sum up a whole story in one line. If I have then I will have quoted my all time favourite from Every Day is like Sunday by Steven Patrick Morrissey.

    “Trudging back over wet sand to the bench where my clothes were stolen”

    Can’t possibly be beaten as an opening line for a song can it?

    I have a new contender at the moment though. Not so much a story as how to pick two things that describe how much you love someone that say it all, without sounding like a schmaltzy birthday card, T shirt print or motivational poster that someone might tweet.

    From, Thats Us/Wild Combination, by the mighty, multi faceted and sadly no longer with us, Arthur Russell.

    “He’s a talk in the dark. He’s a walk in the morning”

    We do think a lot about language here. I think that the language we use about the things we do with children, or what they do, is a good starting point for honing the language you use to interact with children and young people. Me and my lovely deputy head(my line manager) are planning a training session where we unpick phrases and words that get bandied about (special) schools a lot. “feeding” “toiletting” “kicking off” etc etc. My colleagues are all lovely and child centred but my point is that if you are telling yourself that you are “toiletting” someone then they are passive and you are active from the outset.Theres an inherent loss of dignity straight off the bat in my mind. The counter argument would be that “it’s just words, it doesn’t make any difference as long as you are being sensitive, kind and professional” I would disagree strongly. No one thought they were being any less kind, sensitive or professional when I first started in this work, when some of the pupils we were teaching were referred to as “mongols” An extreme comparison I’ll admit. But we were all smoking in the staff room then as well and that seems unthinkable now.
    My point isn’t that we all move on in terms of the language we use, rather that the words we use to describe what we do affect what we do consciously and unconsciously IMHO (actually anybody who uses H for humble probably isn’t being humble at all). Also that it’s us that should think about and change the language and consequently the practice:Not wait for it to change and then catch up.

    Pip Pip, yours thought showering, rather than brainstorming (have you encountered that debate????)
    PS what does “Ca plane pour moi” actually mean? I’ve never known. “That’ll do for me” ??I really don’t know

    • Michael Jones says:

      Wow Tim, there’s lots in there!
      An ill-advised journalist once asked Dylan what ‘They’re selling portraits of the hanging/they’ve painted thd passports brown’ means. Dylan was furious and shouted ‘No one asks Bertrand what ‘Ca plane pour moi means. It just is man, it just is!’

  2. John Rice says:

    I quite agree about the power of language. Conversely, the more subtle its use often the more influential it can become: your passive/active analysis is an excellent example.

    Thought showers vs brainstorming? This was all due to ridiculous over-pc-ing back in the day when some individuals thought that sufferers of epilepsy might be in some manner affronted by the term. Of course, they weren’t and it would take quite an un-pc leap of imagination to imagine that they could have been!

  3. Indeed it just is, it just is.
    I wish i could remember who said about music “it ain’t got to be correct, just right”
    Best Dylan reply to idiotic question. “How many protest singers are there?”
    “232” (or something).
    For brilliant use of language in interviews see any Bob Marley interviews.
    John, I heard of someone in an NHS meeting who actually claimed to be offended by a request to join in a brainstorming session. Unbelievable.
    Favourite over used word? Mine is “devastated” followed closely by “nightmare”. What can you say if something happens to you that has truly nightmarish qualities or is actually devastating? Where do you go linguistically…. A Howl I suppose.

    • Michael Jones says:

      That’s very funny!
      I love the expression ‘Tongue in cheek’ (which is essentially my approach to talking about most serious things in life). Try talking with your tongue in your cheek and you will realise what a bizarre saying it is!

      Of course I obviously find it difficult to listen to anyone who repeatedly says ‘Of course’ and ‘obviously’!
      Was it Nigel Tufnell from Spinal Tap who made the comment about things not needing to be correct but right?
      Other classics of his include: “I’m writing a piece that is between Mahler and Bach. I refer to this style as ‘Mach’
      You can find out what he calls the piece by visiting
      Michael. for more Spinal Tap nonsense!

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