Leaving the Anglophone world is both a shock and an inconvenience. It’s was a shock for me because I’ve always had this completely irrational notion that everybody speaks English. The French, like the rest of the world, are just gagging to speak the language of Shakespeare, aren’t they? It was an inconvenience because I found learning French really hard work. There are some people who come to live in France and don’t bother to learn the language at all. I met a guy in a hypermarket in Caen a couple of years after I’d arrived. He told me he’d given up learning French because it was too difficult. He didn’t need to learn French because he’d got English television and he could read the papers on the internet. What’s the point? He asked.
Je Ne Pas Comprendre (I not to understand)
I arrived in France with a rather limited French vocabulary. Basically, all I could say was ‘bonjour’ and most of my early conversations in French were very short. However the fact that you can start a conversation in French does give you a big advantage over non-francophones.
I remember being behind a British tourist at the ticket office at the railway station in Caen. The guy ahead of me asked for his ticket by saying ‘English?’ in a rather menacing tone. I gave him a condescending look as he moved away. I smiled at the man in the booth, said ‘bonjour’ and then mimed the fact that I wanted a ticket to Paris. It was quite useful for me at that time that I resembled Mr. Bean. Yes, I found that miming was a very good way of augmenting my meagre linguistic resources.
After a while I discovered loads of new words and I even started putting them in sentences. One very useful phrase I put together was ‘Je ne pas comprendre”(sic). I found I could use this in all sorts of conversations. However, it soon became clear to me that I needed to go to French classes. If you want to communicate in French you’ve got to think about grammar all the time. I’ve never, consciously, learned English grammar but the structure of the French language is so different from English that learning French grammar in a necessity. There is also the problem that the same words can mean vastly different things depending on context. In English a piece is a bit of something. In French ‘pièce’ can also be a bit of something but it can also be a coin, a room in a building, something you see on the stage, something you can use to repair an item of clothing or somewhere you can plant crops.
Cultural language problems
The sound of the language is also a problem. A particular difficulty for Anglophones is the fact that, once you get away from people that work in the tourist industry, you can’t hear anything that’s said to you or make people understand what you say. This is because the frequency of the sounds of the spoken language are very hard to decipher and the same sounds are very difficult for a foreigner to pronounce. Physically producing French words with an Anglophone throat is really difficult.
Once you get accustomed to the sound of French you hit another problem; French culture. One day I was reading a newspaper article in Le Figaro. I thought I was doing very well but then the journalist cited something from ‘Voyage au Bout de la Nuit’ by Céline. This was rather difficult for me to process. I didn’t know Celine Dion wrote novels or even that she spoke French. Perhaps it was a reference to that scene from the Titanic, where she sings ‘My Heart Will Go On’.
Once you’ve got culture sorted, there’s slang. Appuyer sur le champignon has got nothing to do with mushrooms. It means ‘putting your foot down’ when driving. The French also love abbreviations, ‘aprèm,’ ( afternoon) and ‘apéro’(aperitif) for example. The abbreviation that really puzzled me was a description about a character in a TV show. ‘Elle travaille dans le pub,’ had me thinking the character was a barmaid. She worked in an advertising agency. ‘Pub’ is an abbreviation for ‘publicité’.
It does help a bit that the French sometimes use English words, something can be ‘un peu too much, quoi’. Sometimes they get things wrong. A common mistake is that they don’t pronounce the ‘s’ at the end of English words. A famous singer sang an old Frank Sinatra song in English on a Saturday night TV show. He sang; ‘Stranger in the Night,” the audience loved it, unphased by the phonological faux pas.
Learn French with French films!
Another piece of advice for apprentice Francophones is to watch French films. And at the cinema, about half the films on offer are US films dubbed into French. Bugs Bunny will say; “Quoi de neuf, docteur?” and a certain British spy will say; “Je m’appelle Bond, Jams Bond”. Sometimes a foreign film, despite being dubbed into French, will retain its English title. If you want to buy a ticket at the box-office you have to pronounce English words with a French accent. ‘Minority Report’ for example is ‘Meanority Raapor’.
There are a lot of French films that are complete rubbish. A lot of these are about people from Paris going somewhere else in France to; have a crisis, have sex, do nothing and think about suicide. Sometimes, all at once. There are also a lot of films where a character meets his or her prospective parents-in-law whilst hiding some important secret.
Brilliant French films
There are, fortunately, some absolute gems. One of the most successful Francophone films of all time is the 2008 film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis. It’s a comedy film about a southern French Post Office manager who is forced by his employer to take up a post in the north of France in the town of Bergues close to the Belgian border. There are a lot of clichés about this part of France. It rains all the time and the locals (the Ch’tis) speak an incomprehensible dialect.
Learning a language is the work of a lifetime, you never stop learning. There are still things I don’t understand but after living here for twenty years at least I can now say: Je ne comprends pas.
Philip Cahill is a retired accounting academic living in Caen, Normandy. In 2020 he published his first novel ‘Noystria’, an account of life in 26th century Normandy.