What can The Onion (or its French equivalent) teach us about language and culture?

Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh

Primary Source: Spencer Greenhalgh

I am a pretty big RSS junkie, and my Feedly is often in a state of flux as I add new cool feeds and trim down unnecessary ones.

One of my favorite recent additions to my Feedly is Le Gorafi, a French satirical news source that is as close as you can get to The Onion while remaining distinctly French. Like many of the feeds in my Feedly, I usually just skim over its headlines and only occasionally pay more attention to its stories than the occasional snicker. This morning, though, a couple of stories stood out, and I got to thinking about what role satirical news stories like those produced by Le Figaro or The Onion could play in a French class. We discussed literacy and the “new literacies” in two of my classes last semester, and I’ve been thinking ever since about a definition of literacy as “particular ways of thinking about and doing reading and writing in cultural contexts.” Understanding a satirical news story in a foreign language requires a few new ways of thinking about reading and writing: How do the French report the news? How do the French make fun of things? How do the French tell jokes and use satire? How do they do all three things at the same time?

I’d like to briefly discuss the two articles that caught my attention today and suggest how I think they could be used in a French class:

La SNCF aurait commandé 2000 rames de TER trop rapides pour son réseau

The SNCF has apparently ordered 2000 trains too fast for its network

The SNCF, the French national train service, recently got itself into a sticky situation when it ordered 2,000 new regional trains that are a little too wide for many of its train stations. This story by itself could be a fantastic way to teach French train vocabulary and how the French rail network is organized. As a bonus, you could even use it to start a conversation on French politics: To understand some of the details of the whys and wherefores of this blunder, it’s necessary to talk about French attitudes and history with private vs. public services.

This story, though, adds even more for a French class to talk about. The headlines uses the conditional perfect in a way that’s unique to French news reporting and differs from the way you learn to use the conditional perfect in a traditional grammar class. It wasn’t until I regularly started listening to and reading the French news (well after ten years into my French education) that I picked up on this usage myself, and I’ve always loved it because it’s one of the little nuances that you have to learn by just immersing yourself in the language and culture. Even better is the way that Le Gorafi changes the story. The issue is no longer that the trains are too wide, it’s that they’re too fast and too punctual to serve the SNCF’s purposes. Is there a better way to learn about French frustration with their regional trains than to have a satirical news article sport a headline like this one? Maybe, but I doubt it. It’s learning about a subtle cultural phenomenon from an authentic cultural source, and it makes you laugh, too (at least once you get the joke).

L’Académie Française valide finalement « Ils croivent » et « Faut qu’on voye »

The Académie Française finally validates « Ils croivent » et « Faut qu’on voye »

Every French student learns about the Académie Française and its crusade to keep French free of error, neologisms, and, worst of all, anglicisms. Those of us who leave our French classes to head to Paris, Dijon, or Toulouse expect our native hosts to follow the letter of every grammar law that our teachers have taught us, and we’re terrified of making mistakes that will give us away as foreigners.

The joke of this headline, then, is that « Ils croivent » and « Faut qu’on voye » are two of the most widespread errors in everyday, commonly-spoken French. There’s no way that the Académie Française would ever accept these changes unless they just gave up: They’re clearly wrong, but so many people get them wrong that it’s not worth wringing your hands over anymore. So, we could use this Gorafi article to help our students make sure that they get down the conjugation for croire and don’t fall into any pitfalls for the subjunctive mood. More fascinating, though, would be to use this article as a means of distinguishing prescriptive French from descriptive French: French as a grammar textbook teaches it and French as it is actually spoken. The fact is that plenty of French natives struggle with the subjunctive – while foreigners should definitely work on getting it down, it’s comforting to know that natives don’t always get it right either. The fact is that not all native French speakers can rattle off a conjugation chart for all the different verbs out there – let’s face it, conjugation charts are a necessary but not sufficient step for really understanding and appreciating the breathtaking beauty of what a language is.

Satire, Syntax, and Society

Anyone who’s spent a fair amount of time with a language understands that getting the humor, the idioms, and the practices of the language takes longer than assimilating the vocabulary and grammar. This is the first time, though, that I’ve wondered whether The Onion has a role to play in an English as a Second Language class or if I can smuggle some articles from Le Gorafi into the next French lesson I teach. Successful satire relies a lot on its intended audience understanding its winks and nods, and understanding that as a foreigner means figuring out how a native speaker would also understand those winks and nods. That takes a little more work, but I also find it a lot more rewarding.


Street, B. (2003). What’s “new” in new literacy studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 5, 77-91.

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Hi there! My name is Spencer Greenhalgh, and I am a student in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral program at Michigan State University. I came to Michigan State University with a strong belief in the importance of an education grounded in the humanities. As an undergraduate, I studied French and political science and worked as a teaching assistant in both fields. After graduation, I taught French, debate, and keyboarding in a Utah private school before coming to MSU, where I plan to study how technology can be used to help students connect the humanities with their lives. I have a particular interest in the use of games and simulations to promote ethical reasoning and explore moral dilemmas, but am eager to study any technology that can help students see the relevance of studying language, culture, history, and government.