Nadia Jordan debunks a common misconception that may have put you off trying to exercise or improve your French while in l’Hexagone…
Most foreigners attempting to speak French will have experienced the pained look of incomprehension that a French person wears when they clearly have no idea what it is you’re actually trying to say. They appear horrified that you’re mauling their language or, at least, that’s what one always imagines they’re feeling.
Only since having fluent French speaking children have I understood that this isn’t quite the case. The reason that the French language is so beautiful is mainly down to the way the sounds are produced – spoken well, it’s pure poetry. Conversely, if you produce these sounds in the wrong way, it becomes something else entirely.
This means that French people genuinely don’t understand you if you mispronounce a word and that pained look isn’t the agony of hearing what you’re doing to their language, rather the effort of trying to understand what it is you’re attempting to say.
My husband’s schoolboy French has got him into all sorts of difficulties and caused plenty of confusion since we’ve been living in France. He’s been known to end up with a glass of red wine in a café at 10am when he was, in fact, trying to order a glass of water with his coffee.
During one presidential election debate, he was convinced that the French really are obsessed with food when he watched Sarkozy and Hollande debate for over an hour about croissants. At least, that’s what he understood they were talking about – in fact they were discussing economic growth or ‘croissance’ but, to a foreign ear, there’s very little difference between the words, especially here in south-west France, where the local accent stresses the last syllable.
Most embarrassing, at least for the children, was when my husband dropped them at their primary school after the spring holidays and shook hands with the teacher, telling him that he was looking ‘very yellow’. He was, in fact, trying to pay the teacher a compliment, by telling him that he looked younger without his beard. However, jaune (yellow) and jeune (young) are very easily mispronounced!
Luckily, we’ve found the people in our part of France to be unfailingly good humoured about our linguistic failings. In fact, a daily dose of humility is probably no bad thing and it’s only by speaking and understanding French that one begins to get an insight into the culture and psyche of the local people.
Words, depending on how they’re used, express more than their actual meaning. Only once you understand the nuances of the language can you share a joke or realise that someone is saying something completely different to what they really mean.
That realisation gives you a whole new perspective on France and the French. When you meet people in their own context and talk to them in their native language, only then can you begin to make real connections.
So, whatever you do, don’t allow language misunderstandings and pained expressions to put you off speaking French as you’ll slowly but surely improve and a whole new world will open up. If you’re in doubt, a smile and a shrug never fails to work!
Nadia has lived in the Ariège in South West France since 2003, along with her husband and four children, where she runs the property search agency www.foothillsoffrance.com