With more than a half-billion Harry Potter books sold worldwide, there can be no doubt that J. K. Rowling is one of the most successful English language authors of all time. Does she also know French?
J. K. Rowling is fluent in French, having earned a degree in the language from the University of Exeter in her youth. She spent a year studying in Paris as part of her time in college and worked in London as a researcher and bilingual secretary. She also has some French ancestry and was given the highest order of merit available in the country by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
For more on J. K. Rowling’s French connection and her years dedicated to the language, read on.
Rowling has some French ancestry, with her great grandfather on her mother’s side, Louis Volant, awarded the Croix de guerre (War Cross) during World War I. Volant was awarded the honor for exceptional bravery while defending Courcelles-le-Comte, a French village.
Rowling had mistakenly believed that he had been awarded the Legion of Honor but later discovered that this had been a different Louis Volant. Ironically, Rowling herself received the Legion of Honor in 2009.
The War Cross was awarded to “ordinary” soldiers and Rowling felt that made it even more important, as her ancestor had worked as a waiter before joining the war.
Rowling studied languages exclusively between the ages of 16 and 18, learning English, French, and German. She opted for French as her college focus, unsuccessfully undertaking the Oxford University application process.
Instead, she attended the University of Exeter, studying French with an optional module in Classics. Rowling has stated that she did not do a great deal of work while at the university, instead spending her time reading the works of Dickens and Tolkien.
Charles Dickens remains one of the few authors with an individual novel that has sold more copies than “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, sold as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in the United States.
“A Tale of Two Cities” is considered the highest-selling fictional work of all time, having sold about 200 million copies worldwide since 1859. In fairness, Rowling’s 120 million copies have only been since 1997, so Dickens had a significant head start.
During her degree, Rowling moved to Paris for a year as part of a student exchange program, an experience that undoubtedly improved her fluency in the language.
After graduating, Rowling worked for Amnesty International in London as a researcher and bilingual secretary, putting her French to good use.
She later moved to Manchester with her boyfriend at the time and seemingly did not use French professionally after this point, although she did teach English as a foreign language in Portugal for a time.
Honored in France
Rowling was honored in France in 2009 and was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, known in English as the Legion of Honor.
The fifth book in her series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, earned a unique distinction in 2003 as the first book in English to top the French bestsellers list, before it was translated into French.
The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th Century and is considered the highest form of merit in France, similar to an English knighthood. Rowling was granted the honor by the French President at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy.
During Rowling’s acceptance speech, which she gave in French, she was keen to stress that she had not chosen the French-sounding name of Harry Potter’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort, out of a dislike of the French. She reminded them that Voldemort, real name Tom Riddle, remained completely English.
Rowling received the award for her service to literature and it is worth noting that, as of writing, she has not yet received England’s equivalent, a damehood.