Things that I think and do
Those of you who have ever been in a foreign country and tried to communicate with native speakers will be aware of one or both of the usual results of this naive and misguided attempt to ingratiate yourself with the locals. Either you get blank looks and a shrug, or a lengthy reply in the native language that you barely understand at all (or occasionally you get both at once if you’re lucky).
Furthermore, you’ll probably be aware that speaking a language in a cosy English classroom with friendly classmates and jolly teachers is much easier than actually constructing a useful, understandable sentence in the country itself.
Even with seven years of school and two further years of university studying French, I sometimes struggle to form coherent sentences on the spot. One example is the occasion that I described our group – consisting of two girls and myself – as “four female English students of the music”. I hope I’m correct in supposing that for foreign chaps the English language provides an equally difficult mountain to climb.
English is a complex language, with very specific idioms and a sentence structure unlike that of most European countries and particularly the Latin languages. You may have seen some images of hilariously mis-translated signs from around the world (and if you haven’t, I recommend that you do). We know that English is not a simple tongue to master.
So how is it that many of the youths I met in France during my year abroad didn’t have just a passing acquaintance with English but in fact were thoroughly capable of conversing with me, and with each other, better than many native English-speakers?
All three of the couch-surfers I stayed with during my week in Strasbourg spoke near-perfect English, and certainly better English than my French. Not only this, they had some fairly uncommon words and idioms in their English vocabulary – “stevedore” (I’m not even sure I know what that is), “forensics”, “figure something out”, and “keep us posted” being some examples.
Other people that I met on my meanderings around the city also proved more than capable of holding a conversation in English, and the bank manager that we met in HSBC spoke perfectly clear English even though he appeared to struggle somewhat with forming sentences.
If people cannot find the quite particular grammatical sentence structure of English very easily they are willing to translate directly from French, which is actually a very endearing way of communicating. At one point this bank chap had to go and find something, and as he went off he said “I’m arrive”; this makes little sense in English until you know that in French, saying “j’arrive” means “I’m sorting it out” or “I’m doing that now”.
Even having a reasonably good command of French (and, if I say so myself, I think I do) it’s not a simple matter of regurgitating what you’ve learnt for years and written down in your little coloured notebooks at school.
At said school you are taught to speak French in order to be understood by “sympathetic native speakers” – in fact you’re largely taught formal, archaic, written French – and at university you go up a notch into the realm of “unsympathetic native speakers” (presumably after this point you have to be able to talk to “unpleasantly hostile native speakers”).
As merry as all this sounds, you will rarely deal with what you could accurately describe as a “sympathetic” native speaker. Particularly in the early days of settling in a foreign country, you are most likely to talk to people of whom you require a service of some kind, and therefore people who have a lot of work to do and as a result are not particularly impressed by your schoolboy attempts to use the subjunctive tense.
Even when you meet new people and make friends who speak native French, your years of memorising verb tables and vocabulary come in little use, because you’ll find that your use of the language makes the opposite party feel as if they’re being formally interviewed by someone from the eighteenth century. Although you may have nailed that subjunctive conjugation and mastered the passé composé, you sound as if you’ve been taught by Alexandre Dumas – and it’s not cool.
On my second night in Strasbourg I was at a soirée hosted by my friendly neighbourhood couch-surfer with seven or eight of his friends. After the meal most of the party formed conversations in pairs or threes, and in between my own stilted conversations I listened to some of the other chats going on, and discovered that I could barely follow it at all.
I understood perhaps 40 or 50 per cent of the conversation, which isn’t really enough to accurately judge the topic and is nowhere near enough to make an informed and witty comment to the other participants. As far as I could make out, the conversation drifted rapidly from how the week at work had been, to the problem of making mango mousse without properly tying your shoelaces, finishing with the difficulties in the Eurozone and the views of Kermit the Frog on film piracy.
The problem isn’t just that they speak quickly, it’s also that when French friends get together and chat they use an entirely different level of language – a mixture of text-speak, shortened words, adapted English words and a total disregard of the grammar rules we all know and love.
The extent of my casual-conversational French is that “ouais” means “yeah” and that you don’t need to use “ne” for negative sentences as long as you include the “pas” afterwards. So if I was asked what François had just said to me, I could say “je sais pas” as opposed to the drastically more time-consuming and far geekier “je ne sais pas“.
I have also slowly picked up that to sound really French you need to drop in the occasional extra word in your sentence such as “quoi” or “fin” – “what” and “end” literally translated, but in context meaning something like “innit”.
Clearly I have a long way to go. As long as I concentrate really hard on not describing myself as a girl, things should all turn out fine.
PS – For the benefit of my parents (and any one else with a vested interest in my education), I should mention that I did improve over the year and can now definitely hold a full conversation in French with relative ease. So there.