The French Language

“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”  Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’

Eventually an old lady in an extravagant floral blouse and with a worn out old dog for a companion appeared from an adjacent room and enquired if we were there for the tour and we told her that yes we were.  She went to a great deal of trouble to explain that her English was poor and clutching her stomach she told us that her doctor had advised her against speaking in English because this made her ill. I’m not a medical person but this seemed a bit unlikely to me and she had no credible explanation for a diagnosis of stomach cramps just through speaking English and as we set off she proceeded to speak perfectly even though it was in a hushed and croaky voice.

This was really excellent, we were the only people on the tour and we were getting an exceptional commentary all around the interior and the exterior of the Cathedral. But then disaster struck as party of French people gate-crashed the party and after a short debate about language preferences with these unwelcome latecomers she continued for the rest of the tour in about 75% French.

She apologised to us for that and lamented that “English people cannot speak French and French people will not speak English!” This shouldn’t have surprised us of course, we know how precious they can be about their secondary World language so we just had to accept the inevitable and struggle to make sense of the French and be grateful for the few snippets of English that infrequently came our way.

‘The problem is not that French is impossible to learn: you can hear it spoken perfectly in Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco. No, the real problem with French is that it is a useless language’. Jeremy Paxman (UK Journalist)

There is no good reason for the French to be so stuck-up about their language, after all it is only the eighteenth most used in the World, Chinese is first, followed by Spanish and then English. More people even speak Portuguese (sixth) and worst of all German (tenth). The French, it seems, need to come to terms with the balance of linguistic power.

The French are proud of their language of course and their reluctance to communicate in or even simply acknowledge English gives me the opportunity to demonstrate my fluency in everyday essentials when I am in a restaurant:

Vin blanc sil vous plait’                                                                                                                ‘Vin rouge sil vous plait’                                                                                                            ‘bier grande sil vous plait’                                                                                                        ‘bier grande vite’.                                                                                                                                   And so on.

Now the French don’t especially like making things easy for visitors and sometimes I get the distinct impression that they would rather not have us in their country at all and a restaurant in La Rochelle on 17th April 2007 was no exception as it was clear that they could barely tolerate us.

The menu was exclusively in French (I’ve no objection to that – we don’t have multi-lingual menus in the UK) which made meal selection a little challenging but we were not put off by this because we have tackled menus in Latvian, Croatian and Polish and by comparison this was a piece of cake. I attempted some multilingual conversation with the waiter but he was clearly not impressed and I gave up therefore when he announced with the hint of a sneer that passed for an apology that there were no mussels left tonight.

We ordered an alternative and then we had an incident over condiments. He didn’t provide us with any and forced us to request them in what little French we knew while he kept up a bulwark against international relations while steadfastly refusing to understand us. We got passed salt and pepper but got stuck on vinegar.  I tried in several different ways of pronunciation and even mimed shaking a bottle but this fellow totally refused to comprehend and brought us a selection of various sauce accompaniments but never any vinegar.

I am convinced he knew exactly what we wanted but was enjoying watching us struggle. We finished our meal and left and I made a point of collecting up every last cent of change and didn’t leave him a tip and we agreed that we wouldn’t be dining there again this week.

One way around this problem is to rehearse in advance what you want to say. On another visit to France, this time to Boulogne in 2009 we needed some postage stamps so I rehearsed over and again ‘quatre timbre sil vous plait’ and by the time we found a shop was practically word perfect.  The problem with this of course is that having impressed with the opening sentence then the shop assistant replies immediately in impenetrable French and the only two options are to nod vigorously and hope you are making the appropriate response or just stand there flapping and looking a complete twat!  I did a combination of the two and it must have worked because I got the stamps and they were the correct ones for postcards to England. Merci beaucoup!

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5 responses to “The French Language

  1. My French has deteriorated badly to the extent that when I try to speak it Spanish comes out of my mouth instead!

    • A much nicer language in my opinion and so much more tolerant. I find it easier to undestand and learn a few words and when I try it the Spanish people don’t generally mock when I get it wrong!

  2. All your article is based on the thought that French people could speak English but pretend not to bother you . It’s not true . Most French people are unable to speak or understand English . When you say vinegar with an English pronounciation it is so far from the original vinaigre pronounciation, even if it looks similar when written, that an average French worker can’t see the connection .
    I often found this idea in US minds but I don’t know where it comes from . Most French don’t understand English . I know it, I’m French .
    About menus in French, I never found a menu in America or UK written in English and French, and it’s the same in Spain or Italy, out of tourist traps .
    A last thing : if you don’t respect French politeness rules, the people you meet think you’re a rude fellow and treat you in the same way . Of course they have no idea that in your country your behavior is normal, because they don’t know their own rules are not universal . It’s the case for most people in the world, but if you travel in a foreign country the least you can do is to learn what the local customs are . This is the cause of the majority of misunderstandings between US tourists and French locals .
    Oh, and a stamp is not “un poste” . La poste is the post office or the postal service . A stamp is ” un timbre” . You were lucky to be understood in spite of your complete mistake . .

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. My post was of course meant to be light hearted nonsense, not to be taken too seriously and not intended to offend! Your English is excellent, I wish my French was only 10% as good!

  3. Pingback: Greek Islands, Naxos and the Cathedral Tour | Have Bag, Will Travel

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