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Many of the reasons to travel have nothing to do with language. There are beautiful buildings and museums in London, you can get great food in Sydney, Toronto is wildly multicultural. All of these factors contribute to the “enlivening” aspect of travel; we pay more attention to life when we encounter new experiences. But contact with another language can make a particular contribution to one’s travel experience.

"An additional tongue?  Wall Street English!"  (ad in the Métro)

“An additional tongue? Wall Street English!” (ad in the métro)

The joke works even better in French, because langue is the primary word for “language,” while in English “tongue” is quaint. But it’s no joke when there’s a serious misunderstanding, or a complete inability to communicate!

There are several quite distinct aspects to the “language barrier.”

  • First and foremost is the universal desire to make oneself understood, and to understand others, in the normal transactions of daily life.
  • A second desire, applicable only to people who have studied the language, is to show off their skill.  This is almost an abstract game, somewhat independent of actual communication.
  • A third desire is to make communication fun, using language in ways that cause amusement, and appreciating when someone else is doing the same. [Added June 19, 2013]
  • Last but not least is the desire to fully enter into communication with local people, both individually and in group conversations.

The Basics.  The first concern — getting what you need — is easy to achieve, particularly in touristy areas.  The employees you encounter on the tourist track know at least the English words relevant to their role.  You can get a beer anywhere in the world!  Increasingly, even in France, younger people have studied English in school, whether or not they work in the tourist trade.  Their English may not be fluent, but it will get you pointed in the right direction.

When I first came to France, in the 60’s, many of the French people I interacted with seemed to have a chip on their shoulder. They pretended not to understand English at all, even when they clearly did.  And if you spoke to them in French, but made the slightest mistake, they wouldn’t respond because it “wasn’t French.” I interpret this as part of the grieving process over the displacement of French by English as the Lingua Franca. Another aspect may involve the French concern about doing things comme il faut.  Someone with an imperfect command of English wouldn’t say anything for fear of making himself ridiculous.  A final reason may relate to the fact that on my early trips I spent most of my time in the well-trodden tourist areas, where locals inevitably become calloused by constant contact with ill-mannered foreigners.  I was just one more of them.

The last-mentioned issue still exists in the tourist areas, which is one of the reasons I usually avoid them. But the other problems are completely gone. Today if you speak even a little French most people are pleased (if often also amused by one’s accent and grammatical errors). And since the people you will interact with often have some English, there’s a fall-back if your French falls short. The consequence is that daily transactions are relatively free of anxiety on either side. The language “barrier” as often results in an amusingly playful exchange as it does in a moment of confusion.

Playing the Game. I took a few years of French in High School and have enjoyed reading French books — with increasing facility — ever since. But I had little opportunity to practice spoken French before starting my Paris sojourns. Even here I don’t speak as much French as I expected, and would prefer, because so many people speak English. Nevertheless, I’ve become increasingly facile, albeit with many errors and occasional bouts of being tongue-tied.

I’ve previously mentioned a few of the classic confusions I’ve encountered:

  • My first year a friend and I wanted to look at the menu again to think about deserts.  I requested deux cartes (two menus).  He brought us deux tartes (the desert of the day). We shared one of them and sent the other back (it was delicious, by the way).
  • The clerk who asked me for quatre vingt-cinq euros (4.25) which I heard as quatre-vingt-cinq (.85).  I knew that wasn’t enough but I couldn’t initially understand why she was saying that.
  • The moment in the local cafe, after I had finished my kir, when I thought I would be a cool kid by asking for la note since there was only one item, instead of the normal  l’addition.  Unfortunately, the waiter thought I had said un autre (another) and brought me a second kir.  He was gracious when I explained the issue.

Some errors are due to simple stupidity rather than cultural or linguistic ignorance.  Last yearI saw what looked to me like a tasty melon being cut into slices in a neighborhood store.  I asked whether it was prêt a manger (ready to eat).  She gave me a funny look but said “yes.”  When I got it home I realized that it was a squash!

Another mission — to find new shoelaces — was relatively successful, if a tad awkward.  There’s lots of miscellaneous stuff in the  local grocery, like an American drug store, so I asked there first.  I was able to say in French that I was looking for something whose name I didn’t know in French, the “little cord that ties your shoes;” pointing to the current ones was a helpful visual aid.  I was told that the grocery didn’t have them, but when I asked what store did another patron pointed me just next door.  As any fool knows you buy shoelaces in a hardware store (Quincaillerie).

Others issues are due to the language itself.  There was a moment of confusion when I mentioned to Alexis Lézard Café.  He had heard Les Arts Café.  When we sorted this out he said it wasn’t my fault because the words are pronounced identically.  On some occasions I have added a little hint of the missing letter to help make myself better understood but I have been sternly corrected.  That’s not French!

Having Fun. When the person you’re speaking with is under time pressure, or in a bad mood, making yourself understood is the best you can hope for. And when you are yourself anxious about getting your meaning across you can’t afford to add additional complexity to the interaction. But when you speak with someone who seems friendly or playful, and if you have enough confidence in your ability to both create and (if necessary) smooth over a bit of confusion, you can start having some serious language fun. Success can leave both you and the other person with a smile on their face.

My entrée is often related to the language game. Yesterday a handsome young store clerk switched to English when he picked up my accent. Unwilling to give in so easily, I said, “Ah, c’est Anglais? How … are … you. Nice … to … meet … you.” — as if my English was even worse than my French. He winked and asked in French whether I had a “fidelity card,” which a regular local might have but a foreign tourist would not. I replied in French that I didn’t have a fidelity card but if I had a nice experience in the store I might return to request one. He said with a broad smile that he would be waiting.

Another example from yesterday wasn’t language related, however. Last week I had snagged the last two seats at a sold-out Fills Monkey drum show by sweet talking a couple of young woman in the venue office. They couldn’t give me real tickets but they gave me a handwritten paper with an official stamp. I noticed one of the women leaving the theater while Jared and I waited in line for the show. I said to her with a mock-anxious expression that we didn’t have real tickets, we just had this piece of paper. She said not to worry, that she had thought of everything. I smiled, and said I had just been joking, since I had every confidence in her. We wished one other a nice evening with smiles all around.

Understanding French humor is even harder than making a little plaisanterie yourself. You have to know what would be normal in the situation before you can even hope to pick up on intentional irony or word play. My friend’s substitution a few years back of mànege (merry-go-round) for ménage (household) in the English phrase ménage-à-trois had to be explained in unfunny pedestrian detail before I could “get the joke.” All you can do is pay attention, especially when a remark is accompanied by a wink.

Really Communicating.  The first thing about communication is that the language you use doesn’t particularly matter.  If your goal is to understand and be understood, it doesn’t matter what medium is used.  Most of my friends are more fluent in English than I am in French, and our goal is communication, so we speak English.  That gets me no points in the “game” but it would be silly to use a less effective means of communication from the perspective of mutual understanding.

I have just one friend with whom I speak primarily in French. Jacques actually knows a fair amount of English — and is learning more on the job — but from the beginning — more than three years ago — we have spoken mostly in French. Sometimes he corrects me, but most often he just furrows his brow a bit and soldiers on. It can involve a few false starts, and moments of confusion, but we have had quite profound and serious conversations, about both politics and our personal histories. While I could always be mistaken, I feel that we understand one another — even, or especially when we don’t agree — rather well.  In fact I think I have learned as much from my occasional conversations with Jacques as in all my daily interactions with shopkeepers, etc. put together.

Mount Everest for me, however — quite possibly never to be scaled — is to be able to follow and participate in a lively conversation among native francophones, particularly Parisians. When someone is speaking with me he can slow down and limit his vocabulary. He can also see when I seem to be following and when he is losing me. But it would be tragic for me to slow a group conversation down to my level, and when Parisians get going they speak very rapidly, with few pauses between words or sentences, and using lots of slang and abbreviations. I’m usually lost most of the time, and can contribute something only when I happen hear a few intelligible phrases. Practice is the only way to overcome this. I’m off this evening to a small dinner party with three French natives; wish me luck!