Good reasons to watch TV – part 3

The Big Bang Theory is currently shown on NRJ12 in France. This is the closest portrayal of real life as a researcher since Beaker got a job as a technician working for Dr Honeydew at Muppet Labs.

The Big Bang Theory features a gang of roommates, labmates, and neighbours, all trying to live the dream in Pasadena, California. Each of the characters is striving for professional success in scientific or artistic spheres while searching for romance and friendship.


1. Words for the life scientific. Although the science fiction and US college references make many jokes hard to understand, there is plenty of realistic lab-related banter to learn from in and around the apartment of theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper. Listen out for the vocabulary and references to grant proposals, competition for funding, difficult bosses and cloying colleagues, international competitors, animal experimentation, university management, the pharmaceutical industry, awards, formulae, publication, qualifications and personal ambitions.

 2. Be a walking thesaurus. Watch out for neurobiologist Amy who is played by the qualified neuroscientist Mayim Bialik. Amy and Sheldon revel in technical conversations. The comic results are a good reminder for biologists to keep communication simple  (see Good reasons to watch TV – part 2). However sometimes technical terms are unavoidable and can actually be useful so we must master them. A good exercise to improve your vocabulary is to start with a simple word or idea and then make it as complicated as possible. For example, my mug of milky tea might make me think of words like ceramic, porcelain, cup, receptacle, vessel, container, drink, beverage, thirst-quenching, Camellia sinensis leaves, infusion, water, aqueous, lacteal fluid, nunc est bibendum. We arrive very rapidly at complicated technical terms that are often rooted on Latin or Greek words describing those very same simple concepts like cup, water or milk. The writers of the Big Bang Theory have done exactly the same exercise with the titles of each episode, like The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification or The Prestidigitation Approximation.

Go to the official CBS Big Bang Theory YouTube channel for classic clips from the series.

Good reasons to watch TV – part 2

We continue our tour of television series that are currently broadcast in France. With the audio set to the original English and by paying a little bit more attention than usual, you can easily improve your English by learning short phrases or new vocabulary. NCIS, the award-winning CBS drama, has been a mainstay of Friday evenings on M6 for almost a decade now. There’s a great deal of science and technology woven into the stories of forensic investigations into deaths of the accident-prone US navy.


1. Interruption. Medical examiner Donald ‘Ducky’ Mallard is an affectionate caricature of an ageing British academic. Actor David McCallum attended early-morning autopsies to learn all the gestures real pathologists use. Ducky is easily distracted and enjoys reminsicing or telling an anecdote from his long and eminent career. The rest of the team have to bring his attention back to the corpse lying in the mortuary. How do they interrupt him? How do they interrupt gently or more forcefully? What words or phrases would you use to interrupt an eminent colleague?

2. Keep it simple. Abby, the spectrometer-loving forensic scientist (actress Pauley Perette studied criminal science at college), and computer whizzkid Tim McGee often have to explain their scientific methods to the technophobe Gibbs. What is worse, he is always in a rush for results. How do Abby and Tim explain a complex idea in simple words? Could you do the same if Gibbs was your boss? Practise. Choose a technique you used in the lab today and describe your science to Gibbs in words of less than 4 syllables. Now time yourself. Can you explain the idea in less than 20 seconds?

TV Guide Magazine cover

Happy viewing.


Good reasons to watch TV – part 1

Your mum, your boss and Jack Lang would perhaps not agree but watching foreign TV programmes can be good for you. You can improve your English in the comfort of your own home. Never before has French TV offered such a range of quality viewing in version originale, some repeated ad infinitum so you can even go back and revise. It is homework as it should be. Over the next few posts I will highlight some of the best series broadcast in France and the lessons you can learn while being entertained.

Downton Abbey, the internationally acclaimed ITV1 drama, is the story of the people who live, love, work and die in a stately home in the north of England at the beginning of the 20th century. The third series is currently broadcast on TMC in France on Saturday evenings. One advantage of this slow-moving drama with its exquisite sets and costume is that it is very easy to listen to the clear and crisp dialogue. You can hear every word. The steady pace may even inspire you to catch up on your dusting and ironing.


1. Different accents.  Listen carefully to how the different characters speak. No money has been spared on their education so the upper-class Crawley girls speak the Queen’s English perfectly. The servants all have stronger regional accents. Yorkshire accents might be easier for non-native speakers to understand than ‘accepted pronunciation’. Even among the servants there is a hierarchy. Anna, the head housemaid, pronounces her words carefully, while Mrs Patmore, the cook, drops her h’s all over the kitchen. The same hierarchy exists among French speakers of English. Scottish (Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper), Irish (Tom, the chauffeur) and American (Cora Crawley) accents are thrown in for good measure. Can you distinguish between the different accents? Which ones are easier to understand?

2. Forms of address, etiquette, politeness.  There is a lot of coming and going at Downton. As a grand-daughter of a housemaid my sympathies lie firmly ‘below stairs’. Fortunately, we no longer need to bow or curtsey every time a superior enters or leaves a room or add ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ to every phrase. A little politeness still goes a long though and Carson can help you. Watch to see how people greet or welcome each other. Try and find a new phrase you could use to greet, acknowledge or thank someone. For example, “That will be all, Carson.”

That will be all for now.


Help is at hand

Understanding English is essential for today’s biologist. As my undergraduate and postgraduate students reluctantly admit, if you choose a career in biology, you also choose English. Reading, writing, speaking, listening to and searching for information in English are as much a part of the working day for professional biologists as feeding your lab animals, grinding up cells, amplifying DNA or brandishing a scalpel.

French researchers are certainly at a disadvantage in this internationally competitive field. Do not worry though. The aim of this blog is, post by post, to relieve some of the stress of dealing with English everyday in the lab. I will give plenty of advice, some deliciously simple, some more complex. I will look at particular words and phrases that can be hard for French speakers to understand and use. I will point to online resources and review books. This blog is dedicated to specifically helping French life scientists, but scientists of other nationalities and language groups are more than welcome too.

You can sign up to receive each new post on the right. If you find that any of the posts are helpful, please share them on social media. If you need individual help for editing a paper you can contact me directly via Emendo Bioscience any time. If you have a problem or question that you would like me to deal with on the blog, please get in touch in French or in English via the comments below, Facebook or Twitter.

In the meantime, sit back and relax in the knowledge that help is at hand.

Sit back and relax (Shutterstock image)
Sit back and relax.

Photo credit: Shutterstock