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Some random thoughts on the French language

In the midst of preparations to return home, I have a few more posts for you.  The first is about dealing with a foreign language.  People in foreign countries don’t necessarily speak English.  And, after all, why should they?  But what do you do if you don’t speak their language?

I learned many years ago that one of the least effective options is to speak English very slowly and loudly.  I learned this in college, the painful way – by being part of a choir tour, a couple of whose official chaperons practically defined the term “Ugly American.”  If there was an embarrassing and ignorant thing that could possibly be done, they did it.  One of them spoke nothing but English, and she was an expert at speaking English slowly, loudly, and in a condescending fashion.  It didn’t win any friends for America, I can tell you that.

Another non-effective option is the one I instinctively favor – looking at the ground and mumbling a few nouns.  And actually, I know quite a few nouns now, especially anything related to food, but I’m painfully short on verbs.  And conjugations aren’t really a specialty, either.  So I can say something like “Who bus?”  or “One piece tomato, please”, but anything more sophisticated is not really in the cards.  And even if I do put together a sentence that someone can understand, such as “Where are the toilets?” I may or may not be able to understand the answer.  If it involves anything more difficult than (picture someone pointing) “Right there, you idiot!” then things get pretty murky. And if I have managed to pronounce the words more or less correctly, things are even worse, because this gives people the impression that I know a lot more French than I do, and they immediately begin speaking rapidly and using complicated words.

I think that perhaps the best option is the one my friend Krista uses.  She speaks English, but with a French accent.  This is surprisingly effective.  First of all, it alerts people that you aren’t going to understand them if they answer you with more than single words and loads of gestures.  Second and perhaps more importantly, it helps you develop your language skills.  The fact is that a great many English words are derived from (and often spelled exactly the same as) the French words.  However, they don’t sound at all similar when spoken by a French person.  So a sentence may in fact contain a number of words that one would recognize if you saw them written down, but they don’t even make a ripple in one’s sea of incomprehension when you hear them.  But by speaking English as if you were actually a native French speaker, it helps to make those connections.  (You should throw in the occasional French word, to show that you are trying.  That goes a long way…)

I put this theory forth at lunch last week when talking to one of Tony’s American colleagues who speaks essentially no French.  He agreed immediately with the theory.  He said that he once spent six months in Germany, and knew no German when he came.  He didn’t really know much German when he left, either, but he had completely mastered broken English, and it got him through most situations.

And as a final illustration of how it perhaps works better than actually trying to speak French, last year Krista and I went to a restaurant in Nancy.  At one point Krista decided that we needed some butter.  Having ascertained from me that butter is “beurre,” (I told you I knew most of the food words,) and having been given a short primer in the (more or less) correct way to pronounce it, she summoned the waiter and said “beurre.”  Repeatedly.  He looked very mystified at first, but eventually disappeared, and returned, triumphantly bearing – a glass of ice.  I assume that he pegged us as Americans, and figured that if we were Americans and we wanted something, it was almost certainly ice.  However, someone else speculated that perhaps he thought she was saying “brr” and that meant ice. 

One of these years I’m determined that I’m going to be able to carry on a simple conversation in French.  At least, maybe, with a 3 year old.  Every year when we come back I find that I’ve remembered most of what I learned the previous year, so it isn’t like starting over.  But in the meantime, “Havez-vous any moustard?  My jambon ees tres tres sec…”



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