In which we enter a new world and attempt to learn a new language – twice…
When we first moved to France almost 13 years ago, armed with our reasonable school French and an extra dose of advanced grammar, we were happily confident that we could cope on an everyday level with the language barrier. How swiftly we were brought to earth with an ego bruising thud. No matter what we said and no matter how beautifully we thought we had said it, we were faced with an endless round of puzzled looks, furrowed brows and head to one side confusion. Every now and then a light bulb would go on and someone would say ‘”Et alors! Vous voulez un pain!” – Oh, OK, you want some bread! Isn’t that exactly what we just we said? We would look at each other in total confusion and nod enthusiastically, “Mais oui s’il vous plaît!” “Comment?”, What’s that? would be the frustrating reply. Our very good classroom accents were clearly incomprehensible rubbish to a Frenchman and instead of French, for the most part we might as well have been speaking Chinese.
When it came to understanding what was said to us, it was a little like tuning into a radio station with a dodgy signal – every 7 or 8 words we might pick up something we understood only to have the hiss and crackle reappear like a heavy cloud to obscure the sense of everything and leave us feeling like partially deaf people missing out on the chat at a cocktail party.
We were very lucky in those early days to work with a Frenchman who spoke pretty reasonable English. Between the three of us we were able to comminicate very effectively and our French improved in leaps and bounds, including, unfortunately, our knowledge of rather more ‘colloquial’ and earthy French words we had unwittingly absorbed and which we innocently trotted out with great enthusiasm on a number of embarassing occasions.
Despite the awkward moments and difficulties along the way, we recognised very early on that to stand a chance of communicating and making a real life for ourselves here we must make a serious effort to learn the language.
So with dictionaries to hand at all times and with a couple of friends who unerringly correct our every mistake of grammar and pronunciation we find ourselves some years later speaking fluently if not faultlessly, thinking and even dreaming in our adoptive tongue. Lately I have actually been asked where I come from (they mean by that are you American or European – I shall never be taken for ‘une Française’ – my accent will always catch me out eventually) and I have even achieved the astonishing accolade of being mistaken for a Belgian rather than greeted with the automatic – ‘Oh! you’re English!’ the moment I say the ‘Bon’ from Bonjour. There is still plenty to learn of course and endless refinements to acquire in this most elegant of languages but we can at long last relax a little.
And so now I decide to start writing a blog and all at once I’m dumped back again into the foreign country where they speak Chinese and refuse to understand English.
Simple templates and blog forums are littered with unintelligible jargon and I now find myself grappling with my gadgets, worrying about my widgets, feeding my burns or burning my feeds, collecting chicklets, enriching my snippets and generally falling flat on my RSS.
Help! Find me a translator! Bring back the dictionaries and schoolbooks, I think I’m going to need them.