Pardon my French

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You would think that speaking French would be easy given that something like 30% of English words come  from the French language.  It’s no coincidence that words like nouveau, espionage, cuisine, etiquette, encore and meringue, sound a little French and fancy.   However, the list does not end there, no it goes on and on…(google Wikipedia just to see how long…).  There are many more words, some less obvious than others, such as comfortable, ponder, air, garage, orange, and even car.    In fact, when you are in France, you will be amazed at how many words you recognise in the written form….words like pavilion, regrete, fatigue.

However, this is where the similarity ends..You may think you know French but do you really?   You might be able to sing along to the words of Kylie Minogue’s hit song perfectly, (remember, Je ne sais pas pourquoi?) or  you may find yourself using French/English words in your everyday conversation with ease…such as when asking your beau for a rendezvous!  You might even write RSVP on the bottom of every invite and actually know what it stands for.  In fact, since watching Master chef, you probably know the difference  between a terrine and a gratin…..or better still, maybe you pepper your sentences with real French words like voila!  But does this mean you can speak French?  And more importantly can you be understood?

We all know it’s a disaster  to try and say many of these French  origin words phonetically…. somehow, we just know how to say them (those familiar to us, anyway).   But can you think back to when you first tried to say any of these or other French sounding words?  Did you cringe when someone corrected you ( its not fox pas…its foe pah!).  Did you first whisper it quietly before feeling bolder and more confident to talk about your “déjà  vu moment while having  hors d’ouvers at the haute coutture shop?”

The words you already know may seem like child’s play…but what about all the rest..e.g the ENTIRE French language…what do you think then…  Do you think you’ll just be able to fake it by putting on a French accent and sounding all posh?!  Well…. close enough…pronouncing any of the words with a French flair is defintiely a good start.

So when WE  got to France, I was feeling particularly smug.  Firstly, I had a background in Italian and some Spanish so this was just another one  of those Latin languages.  I also found, that I could recognise many of the words I saw, I just couldn’t say them in a way that was understood by anyone except for me.

Somehow, an ocean exists between the way I say  a french word and the way it’s meant to be said….  When we were in South America, I cringed when I heard someone pronounce   “hola”  like they were some rodeo riding a bucking bronco…  (oooohhh laaaa). I thought, how could they get it so wrong… but then I found myself in France, wondering how my request for “creme brulee” was not understood, then mistaken for cafe au lait, until finally I had to point to the word on the menu… ahh,  ickkrrrreme brulayy!. That’s what I thought I said, but no..

I met someone who told me, the French aren’t rude, they just don’t understand what your saying.  I think there is a lot of truth in that.

I remember my Italian cousin finding it hard to differentiate between the sounds of  beach and bitch.  There is a huge difference, and you don’t want to make the mistake of getting it wrong.  So when your speaking French, do you really know what it is that your actually asking for!  Carrying flash cards or miming the words might just be safer!

The French people we met weren’t as arrogant as I originally thought or as the stereotype suggests.  When I asked ” parlay vou anglais”  the answer usually was: yes a little.   This had changed from ten years ago when as a backpacker in France, the answer back then, was almost always no.  Given that we are struggling with speaking French, I gather the French might also be finding it somewhat difficult speaking English…..a bit of vis-a-vis.

French is not the sort of language, you can learn from your French phrasebook, no it’s not that simple and no you can’t be that lazy…. even the phonetics to help you with the pronunciation are way off the mark…. no, French is a language that must be learned by audio means.  So for this visit to France I packed a beginners 1 & 2 learning french audio CD pack.

Even my eldest son couldn’t get it quite right…. Up til that point he was doing brilliantly, repeating a word he heard once and getting the pronounciation perfect immediately.   Yet we arrived in France, and he couldn’t quite seem to get bonjour right, preferring to say bonjour’d.   Let’s say, I stopped asking him to “repeat after me”….

We found google translate useful, if not hilarious at times.  We had to write several emails to book camping accomodation for ourselves and confirming a spot for our two donkeys.   One email confirmation returned to us google translated  as “yes, we have room for you and your asses”!     It was funny because it sounded so correct and yet was horribly incorrect – the French would never be so crude, well not in a first email.   You will find the French to be unusually polite – addressing someone as madame or monsieur.  This form of greeting is not just reserved for the “older” generation, but used all the time.  It helps if you greet this way also upon entering a shop or store.    

So what is the best thing you can do to help  in the foreign language speaking department?  Start young and early.   There is a reason why many German and Dutch people speak English almost better than you.  Language learning starts early and its offered more than 30 minutes per week, more like 30 minutes per day.  I would often find myself forgetting that the German person I was conversing with was speaking to me in their second or third language.

However, if you didn’t quite start at age 3, never fear.  It can be harder learning  a new language as you get older as it requires more effort.  However, it’s never too late.   Visit a tourist country and you’ll find locals with very little schooling and who are sometimes a lot older than you (in their 60s+)  conversing in 4, 5 or 6 languages.  Unfortunately, a native English speaker  often has the expectation and assumption that everyone can or should speak English, no matter where they are in the world.

There is nothing quite like the experience of being misunderstood and the frustration of miscommunication to be more sympathetic to those who you encounter in the same position whether it be while travelling or meeting a non English speaker in your own country.  There’s nothing quite like a bit of humour, empathy, understanding and some patience to help someone get their message across or at least let them know that what they need to say is important even if it is a struggle.  So even if its talking in monosyllables,  a series of unintelligible grunts, pointing fingers and comic hand gestures….,we’ve all been there at some point…even if we have to think way back to our toddler years!