Speaking With a Forked French
by Mad Dog
can tell if they really like you because they shorten the greeting even more to
just the "Ç", which comes out like a long hissing sound. Or maybe
thats what they do when they know youre American.
|| Its easy to feel
stupid when youre in a foreign country. After all, everyone speaks the language
except you. Even the dogs here are smarter than methey understand their owners
commands and I dont.
Speaking French isnt easy.
Especially since the version they use here has absolutely no relation to the one we were
taught in school. I know theyre both called the same thing, but face it, Richard
Simmons and Arnold Schwarzenegger are both called men too. If you come to France and want to speak with the
people here I have one piece of advice: Forget everything they taught you in high school.
As if you havent already.
For starters, no one here uses any of the conversational
phrases we learned. They dont say "Comment allez-vous?" for
"How are you?". They say "Ça va bien?", or more casually
"Ça va?". One thing you learn right off is that the French are big on
variants of speech that change depending on how well you know the person youre
speaking to. You can tell if they really like you because they shorten the greeting
even more to just the "Ç", which comes out like a long hissing sound. Or
maybe thats what they do when they know youre American. One plus about not
knowing a language well is you can take a lot of freedom in how personally you take
It only took a couple of days here before my high school
French started coming back to me. A few phrases here, a couple of words there. I never
would have dreamed Id have remembered so much! Unfortunately its not often you
need to tell someone to ouvrez la fenêtre or fermez votre boucheits
early spring so most windows will stay closed, plus if I tell too many people to shut
their mouths theyll kick my American butt and Ill be saying hasta la vista,
baby before you know it.
I get a copy of Ouest France. The first
three pages are all devoted to the situation in Kosovo, but after a half hour with the
French-English dictionary all I really get out of it is that Yougoslavie is French
|| Most people
you meet are very helpful. They listen patiently, smile sweetly, then wrap up the pickled
horse tail I accidentally order instead of a pork chop and thank god for foreigners or
theyd never get rid of these things.
Some people nicely correct me, like the woman in the pharmacy who
taught me the French pronunciation of ibuprofène when I needed some Advil because
of the headache I had when I left the butchers. Others act like they cant
understand a word Im saying, making me repeat myself several times because, well, I
have a funny accent. Youd think theyd try to be a little more understanding of
my French. After all, if it wasnt for us theyd be speaking German.
Simple things become interesting. Endives were on sale, and
since Im in France and Ive never eaten them, I buy a couple. How could I go
wrong? Besides, there was a free recipe pamphlet to tell me how to cook them. After an
hour with my French-English dictionary I figure out that "dans une grande poêle"
doesnt mean I should dance in a big swimming pool, but rather I should put the
endives in a big frying pan. From there it was an easy coast downhill and they turned out
pretty damned tasty if I do say so myself.
News is a problem. The bombing raids on Kosovo started two
nights ago. I dont have a TV and the radio stations are all non-English except for
the BBC from Jersey, which absolutely hates to interrupt the farm reports and bird
watching programs for something as inconsequential as a NATO-backed bombing attack a few
countries away. So I get my news tidbits from a brief daily email news update and friends
who are begging me to wear my Canada-Niagara Falls sweatshirt so no one spits on my
baguette as I walk down the street.
I decide to go to the nearest tabac to get the
International Herald Tribune and find out whats happening, but they dont have
it. At least thats what I assume after the old man working there spends five minutes
searching through the newspaper rack while muttering non-stop to me in rapid fire, but
friendly, French. I smile and nod my head the whole time, wondering when it will dawn on
him that if I understood his French I wouldnt be making him search for an English
Since he cant find one, I decide to get a copy of Ouest
France, the regional daily newspaper. The first three pages are all devoted to the
situation in Kosovo, but unfortunately after a half hour with the French-English
dictionary all I really get out of it is that Yougoslavie is French for Yugoslavia.
Try not to get a sore throat while youre
here or you wont be able to speak French. What we call a rolled R is
actually a guttural back-of-the-throat sound, much like gargling without the salt water.
|| In order to make
your next visit to France a bit easier, and save you some of what I had to learn the hard
way, here are a few language tips Ive put together to help make your stay here a
1. Always use terms of respect when you say
hello. Its "Bonjour monsieur", "Bonjour madame",
and "Bonjour mademoiselle." If youre not sure whether a woman is a madame
or a mademoiselle, mumble. It makes you sound more French anyway.
2. Learn the phrase "non problème", which loosely translates as
"no problem". Its pronounced like English, means the same as in English,
and will make you feel very worldly.
3. Be careful about using nicknames. For example, Mad Dog doesnt translate well.
In French its Chien Fou, but no one here would use that for a nickname so I
dont either. As a result, everyone here thinks my name is Matt Dogue.
4. The phrasebooks say "Parlez plus lentement, sil vous plaît"
means "Please speak slower." It doesnt. It actually means "Smile
knowingly and say it again as fast as you can."
5. Try not to get a sore throat while youre here or you wont be able to
speak French. What we call a rolled R is actually a guttural
back-of-the-throat sound, much like gargling without the salt water. Every word has this
sound in it, whether theres an R in it or not. French people who have a
sore throat speak Esperanto, so make sure you get an Esperanto-French dictionary before
you come here.
6. If you dont know the French word for something, say the English word the way
Inspector Clouseau would, its usually amazingly close. Besides, theyll
probably think youre doing a Jerry Lewis imitation and hoist you on their shoulders
and carry you around the Bastille a few times, which is quite an honor since theres
no trace of the Bastille left. When they finally put you down, be polite and say "merci",
which means "thank you." Then get the hell out of there before they correct your
horrible pronunciation and spit on your baguette.
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