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We are always keen to welcome new members to the Cercle Royal Polyglotte de Waterloo asbl. In fact, like any club or business, we need to grow the number of people involved in order to keep fees to a minimum and to enable us to enjoy a wider range of social activities. We would also like to expand the number of languages that we cover and to have enough people interested in those languages. We do not give lessons and the atmosphere at each table is essentially informal. The aim is to participate in ordinary everyday conversation, so that we all improve our ability to speak fluently in our chosen language.

The only requirement for membership is that you are able to hold a basic conversation in the language of the table that you want to join.

If you are interested in joining us, go to the top of this page, click 'Home' and then 'Inscription'.




by Brian Flack MCB

Learning a foreign language academically is rather like entering a minefield. After several years of study at a school or college, students pass their examinations and obtain certificates of proficiency. At work, they then have to learn to converse freely in the language, participate in business meetings, make presentations and write letters, e-mails and reports. However, is their standard of English perfect or is it just good enough for conversation among friends and colleagues?

In our polyglot meetings we are not seeking perfection but we are offering our members the opportunity to practise their chosen language and to minimise the number of mistakes they make. We cannot correct every single error – that would be too painful. However, we should declare our own uncertainties and diplomatically guide others if they make regular mistakes. In that way, we can all help each other to understand and to be more easily understood.

Children brought up in a bi-lingual or even multilingual family environment have an enormous advantage when they reach adulthood. They can usually speak the languages they learnt in infancy without any trace of accent. That is very rare for people who only studied a foreign language at school or college. However, your accent is of far less importance than your grammar. The use of the correct vocabulary and the proper structuring of sentences is the best route to comprehension.

When you visit English speaking countries, so long as you can make yourself understood, no-one will correct your errors but we all make mistakes in other languages and the staff in shops and restaurants may be confused if what you ask them is not clear. The purpose of this series of articles is, therefore, to highlight the most common errors.

For example, a frequently heard error is the phrase ‘has been’, which is often used by people who are not of English mother tongue, in contexts such as:

"My brother has been in England last week."

This simple phrase is incorrect! It should be:

"My brother was in England last week."

The expression ‘has been’ is mainly used to infer an event that took place recently, as in:

"My brother has been reading an excellent book" or "My son has been playing in the garden all afternoon". However, it can also be used to explain an event that happened to someone else – "My brother has been to England but I have not".

Is this perhaps a topic for discussion at the English table?

© Brian M. Flack



by Brian Flack MCB

The first article in this series dealt with errors that are frequently made in English by people who learnt the language as an adult. When using a foreign language, the vast majority of people cannot help but be influenced by the logic and rules of the dominant language in their head – the language in which they think. Even those who have had the experience of growing up in a totally bi-lingual or multi-lingual environment will usually have one language that is stronger for them.

In spoken English, so long as you can understand and make yourself understood, that is all that is necessary. If the listener does not fully understand the speaker, the opportunity to ask for clarification is usually available.

Even in the rare case that what you say does not contain a single grammatical error, there is usually either a ‘turn of phrase’ or an inappropriate adjective or an inflection that is ‘not quite right’ for someone of English mother tongue. This is not a sin or a grave criticism of non-English speakers because, as many would agree, we all have the same problem if we attempt to use a language other than our own. Even so, there is no harm in illustrating the traits that frequently identify the non-native speaker.

This time, I would like to draw attention to just two examples of popular words that stand out as being inappropriate for the context in which they are used:

Sensible. This adjective, when used in English, tends to be confusing for French speakers because it has an entirely different meaning in English to that applied in French. In English, it means the equivalent of sage or raisonnable. So, ‘A sensible person’ means ‘someone who behaves with intelligence or wisdom’. An alternative use would be ‘sensible clothing’, which means ‘clothing that is appropriate for the occasion’.

A typical misuse of the word would be ‘He is very sensible to the needs of his colleagues’. This should be ‘He is very sensitive to the needs of his colleagues’. Of course, there are many other possible misuses of this word but this example should help to demonstrate that care is needed with this particular ‘false friend’.

Thus. This word is very often used in English by Dutch speakers, probably due to the similarity of the Dutch word dus. Modern Dutch-English dictionaries translate dus as ‘so’ or ‘therefore’ and the reason for this is that ‘thus’ is now considered as ‘old-fashioned’ in English - it is too formal for everyday use. The word can still be found in legal and scientific documents but it is not used in everyday conversation. Other words in this category would be amongst (among), whilst (while) and hence (consequently), where the more modern equivalent is shown in brackets.

Discuss this topic among your fellow members at the English table.

© Brian M. Flack



by Brian Flack MCB

The first two articles in this series dealt with examples of errors that are frequently made in English by people of Dutch or French mother tongue.

We all have foreign friends or acquaintances who speak our mother tongue very well but, how many do you know who speak the language so perfectly you cannot hear a trace of a foreign accent. That certainly is rare but even more unusual is to encounter someone who can avoid making a single grammatical mistake or a phrasing error that immediately identifies them as having been educated in a different language.

In this article, I will attempt to illustrate some of the differences in style which tend to confirm that the speaker is not of English mother tongue. One of the most striking differences between English and both French and Dutch concerns nouns that have no plural version in English, even though the plural exists in French and/or Dutch. Typical examples are ‘training’ and ‘information’. This type of noun is known as non-countable because it identifies something that has no numerical value – it is intangible.

Training is an English word that has been adopted into both French and Dutch as a result of globalisation in the age of technology. However, while you have the plural versions, ‘opleidingen’ in Dutch and ‘formations’ in French, we do not have ‘trainings’ in English – instead, we have ‘training courses’ or ‘training sessions’. This concept is sometimes difficult to grasp but the logic behind it is that ‘training’ is a process or procedure based on the verb ‘to train’. As a noun, it could, for example, be used in the sentence, "Training is given to students on a training course" or, "The training given on the course was intensive".

Information is another non-countable noun in English. It has the plural form ‘informations’ in French and, although it is frequently found in Flemish texts as ‘informaties’, this is incorrect because Dutch grammar treats this word in the same way as English. We can use the same word with both the singular and plural sense or we can talk about an ‘item of information’ or a number of ‘items of information’. However, in the global sense, the word describes an intangible substance so information cannot be counted.

The plural versions of both of these words are very often used by people whose mother-tongue is not English.

See if you can find any other examples to discuss at the English table.

© Brian M. Flack



by Brian Flack MCB


The topic for this edition is the apostrophe – a subject that certainly causes native English writers quite a lot of difficulty. Consequently, people of other mother tongues should not be embarrassed if they get it wrong. However, the placement of the apostrophe can make a significant difference to the meaning of the sentence so it is important to ensure that it is used correctly in written documents.

Let us start from the premise that, in both Dutch and French, the apostrophe is used, as in English, to indicate missing letters in a contraction. However, it is not used in French to indicate possession whereas it is used in Dutch to pluralise a noun. There is, therefore, a substantial risk of making a mistake during translation.

In written English, the apostrophe is used in only two situations: contraction and possession.

Contraction: When two words are allowed to run together, for simplicity of speech, the apostrophe is used to indicate the missing letters that are deleted in the process. For example, I am can be contracted to I’m so the apostrophe indicates the missing space and letter ‘a’. Another example would be I cannot or I can not, which can both be shortened to I can’t. There are many other examples, including such expressions as I will not, which contracts into I won’t. (In some regional dialects, this becomes I willn’t). However, I don’t want to get sidetracked by trying to justify illogical contractions.

Possession: In its simplest form, the apostrophe+s added to a noun, indicates ownership of an item as in John’s book or the ship’s compass. It gets a bit confusing if the noun ends with an s because the rule is then that the s following the apostrophe disappears, as in Jesus’ book or James’ car. It should be noted that, in the case of multiple ownership, where the noun is plural, the apostrophe remains in the same position as in the singular form. For example, it is the children’s toys and not the childrens’ toys.

One of the most frequent incorrect uses of the apostrophe is in pluralisation. In English, there is no case for using an apostrophe to pluralise a noun or an acronym, as in How many George’s are there in your office? This should be How many Georges are there in your office? A frequently incorrect use of apostrophes with acronyms is a number of CD’s or DVD’s, which should simply be a number of CDs or DVDs.

There are evidently many more examples that I could cite but my intention in these short articles is only to highlight the importance of correctness for those of you who want to write correctly in English.

© Brian M. Flack



by Brian Flack MCB*


One of the aspects of English that I frequently have to discuss with Belgian friends is syntax. The purpose of this article is, therefore, to provide a simple explanation of the rules that govern English sentence structure.


Excessively long sentences are an annoyance in any language, particularly when it is necessary to read the sentence while making a speech. (The speaker may run out of breath before the sentence is completed.) We therefore generally endeavour to keep sentences reasonably short. However, we also have to adhere to the grammatical rules of sentence structure otherwise what we write becomes nonsense.


In English, the fundamental rule is that any sentence must contain at least a ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’. The ‘subject’ is evidently what the sentence is about while the ‘predicate’ is what the sentence tells the reader about the ‘subject’. For example, “My brother, George, arrived at his office early this morning”, where the ‘subject’ of the sentence is in red and the ‘predicate’ is in blue. The ‘subject’ is always a noun or a noun phrase while the ‘predicate’ always contains a verb. A subsidiary rule is that a sentence cannot start with a ‘conjunction’ (particularly and, but, or & nor). Although you may sometimes see sentences starting with a conjunction in articles written by native English writers, strictly speaking this is incorrect. That’s because the primary purpose of a conjunction is to join two sentences together. If a long sentence is broken into two short sentences, the conjunction is no longer necessary and can be removed. You may notice that the example used above makes perfect sense as a statement and that is a fundamental aspect of an English sentence. It must be understandable in isolation.


In an effort to keep sentences short, I find that non-English writers will frequently do nothing more than chop English sentences into disparate parts. I cannot pretend to mimic the ways in which people of other mother tongues structure English text but I often see articles that have paragraphs made up of short sentences that the English would regard as nothing more than long sentences broken up by punctuation. Those breaks are often made by inserting a full-stop (.) in front of a conjunction or a noun phrase.  The result breaks the rules of English grammar. An example might be:

“I enjoy a glass of wine. And I also like beer.” This is incorrect. It should be either:

“I enjoy a glass of wine and I also like beer.” or “I enjoy a glass of wine. I also like beer.”

It is important not to confuse the laziness of spoken English with the essential formality of printed documents.


This basic guideline should help you to recognise the fundamentals of short sentence structure. There are several other rules but those mainly relate to longer, more complex sentences.


© Brian M. Flack

*Member of the British Association of Communicators in Business



by Brian Flack MCB*


This article revisits the topic of grammatical ‘false friends’ – those words that are either pronounced similarly or have the same spelling in another language but have a different meaning. You usually meet them when you are about to say something spontaneously – the word is almost out of your mouth but you hesitate because you are not sure if it has the meaning you want to convey.


In an earlier article, I mentioned the confusion between the French and English meanings of the word ‘sensible’ (in French, it means ‘sensitive’ but in English, it means ‘intelligent’). However, there are many other examples of both French and Dutch words that are identical or close to English words but have different meanings.


One such word in English is the adjective, actual, meaning ‘real’ – something that truly exists. The very similar word in French ‘actuel/actuelle’ means ‘current’ – something that exists at present. The meaning is similar but not the same. The Dutch word ‘actueel/actuele’ also means ‘current’ but is also employed to mean ‘topical’. So, English people are likely to be confused by the title of the French magazine, “Femme Actuelle”, because they would be tempted to interpret it as “Real Woman” – not quite the image that the publishers would want to convey.


Another word that causes a considerable amount of confusion is the adjective, eventual and its corresponding adverb, ‘eventually’. In English, these words mean ‘final’ or ‘finally’. In French, the words ‘éventuel(le)’ and ‘éventuellement’ mean ‘possible’ and ‘possibly’. In Dutch, the word ‘eventueel’ can be used both as an adjective and an adverb but has the same meaning as the French versions.


There are so many of these words that it is impossible to list them all here. Furthermore, there are so many of these ‘false friends’ in common use that we all have a duty to correct each other if we hear or read such words being used wrongly. In my translation work, I am often asked to correct English texts that have been written or translated by someone who is not of English mother tongue. Frequently, the general structure of those documents is very good and they would receive an ‘Excellent’ score in an exam. However, they are not good enough for publication because they contain those little nuances that confirm their non-English origin. On the other hand, they are a very good source for articles like this one.


© Brian M. Flack

*Member of the British Association of Communicators in Business





by Brian Flack MCB*


‘Mastery’ of a foreign language is an ideal that is often sought by people who have a flair for languages. Not satisfied with being ‘excellent’ in their ability with a language, they seek to be so good that they hope to pass for a native speaker/writer. Unfortunately, apart from rare instances of extraordinary ability, this is a goal that is virtually unattainable. Even those who are raised in a bilingual family are more likely to be deficient in both languages or to excel in one - but rarely in both. Consequently, most of us who are familiar with the world of language have to accept that nature dictates our ability to deal with foreign languages at a lower level than that of our mother tongue.


The greatest risk for those who seek perfection in a foreign language is that their efforts become exaggerated and they make the mistake of using the language in a way that the native would regard as ‘excessively correct’. The fact is that most writers and speakers do not use their mother-tongue with grammatical perfection. It is only in elite literature that we find a level of language that we admire for its excellence rather than for its ability to convey an everyday message.


If we accept then that the most important requirement of language is to communicate effectively, we must also accept that the speaker/writer has to be able to use every twist and turn of the language in its contemporary form. In the world of publicity, in particular, that is a vital requirement. Just one flawed word or a phrase that fails to ‘click’ with the target audience and the whole campaign is in ruins. Unfortunately, the reason for the failure of the campaign is not always evident. The copywriter speaks and writes excellent French, Dutch and English, even though his mother tongue is actually one of the Scandinavian languages. The writer is linguistically talented but, sadly, his writing in all three of the campaign languages - although great for most purposes - lacks the final touch that is needed to inspire the target purchaser to go out and buy the product.


Although this is a totally fictitious scenario, it serves to emphasise the added value that a native copywriter brings to the table when there is an important message to communicate. This applies not only to English but to any modern language in which the impact of the words used is dependent on a level of mastery that is unlikely to be found in anyone but a native speaker/writer of the language of the intended reader.


The only way to be sure that there is a 100% connection between the writer/speaker and the audience is that both interpret the message in exactly the same way.



© Brian M. Flack