Pardonne moi, but your French tongue is in my American ear…

17 Feb

In case you may be thinking we are going to discuss something tawdry, sorry to disappoint (some of) you, but hope you’ll stick around for the explanation. In trying to interpret how an American ear interprets the French language, I got a chuckle from thinking about the circa 1980’s commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups®.

Remember, “hey, you’ve got your chocolate in my peanut butter…” and vice versa? As a result of this fun, yet fattening (after satisfying my chocolate & peanut butter craving) promenade down memory lane, the metaphor of how the French language sounds to the American ear began to take shape. It can be a bizarre and awkward combination at first, but in the end, great for both and yes, can even be delicious!

In hearing how native French speakers speak English, it has really helped me get over the ‘literal hump’. By this I mean, I’ve actually learned more from French speakers who do not speak perfect English. They use French structured sentences as I use English structured ones, so in turn, I get to learn how to construct my phrases in the French way. Still confused? Ce n’est pas grave (no problem)! Let’s take some common French expressions and translate them into the literal English meaning:

Tout à fait ! (in French: “You’re right!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “All have done!”

Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (in French: “What is it?“)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “What is this that this is?

Ce n’est pas grave ! (in French: “No problem!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “This no is not serious” (Oh, contraire, I think it’s getting very serious!)

After learning some common and well used French vocabulary words, I thought, cool. I have the basics down, so when I hear those words spoken, I’ll immediately understand. Wow, isn’t French fun? I thought to myself. However; with the sentence structure being so different from English, I would often get stuck in the literal translation and become very frustrated to learn that I still could not make sense of the words when put into a standard French phrase. As my father would say, “I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it.” It sounded like a lot of random words, just thrown together with no rhyme or reason.

My ears would recognize someone say, ‘child….refrigerator…tonight’. But it was like playing connect the dots between French words. The words I recognized were either spoken so fast that I couldn’t understand them or they had not yet been added to my mental vocabulary bank. This resulted in multiple interpretations for the same phrase, such as “my child’s dinner is in the refrigerator for tonight” or “my child climbed in the refrigerator tonight,” I had no idea! It was a bizarre mix of clarity and confusion in one sentence (not sure which would represent clarity, the chocolate or the peanut butter–you decide).

There are also many words in French that have multiple meanings depending on how they are used in a sentence. Case in point: on my wedding day, my now mother-in-law (belle mèrereferred to my wedding outfit using the word, ‘toilette.’ Naturally, I thought she may have been asking me instead if I needed to go the toilet or perhaps did I want some’ eau de toilette‘ (perfume). So, I reflexively responded, “non, merci” (no, thank you) and then wondered, what if she really was comparing my outfit to the toilet in some way? Not the most comforting thought on your wedding day, but when I realized that “toilette” has the following meanings:

1) refers to your total outfit

2) to freshen up as in “faire la toilette”

3) “a cabinet de toilette” (dressing table) or “mettre sa toilette” the act of getting dressed

4) the bathroom

The veil of confusion finally lifted. My mother-in-law had actually complimented me on my outfit. Who could guess that it is possible to receive a compliment using the word, toilette in French? In the end, we all had a good laugh.

Putting all jokes and similes aside for a moment, learning French has been one of the greatest challenges of my life, and at 43, by golly, that’s saying something. Having learned Spanish in high school and college, I honestly thought learning French would be a breeze. Maybe it would have been if I was younger, I don’t know. Maybe age has nothing to do with it at all, but the fact remains, it has been much harder than I’d imagined. So I continue to press on (speaking French like a precocious 3rd grader now), knowing that the reward will far outweigh the frustration some day soon. Bonne toilette, y’all (and take that any way you like ;))!


Posted by on February 17, 2011 in Daily life in France


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8 responses to “Pardonne moi, but your French tongue is in my American ear…

  1. Tammi

    February 20, 2011 at 2:29 am

    I can totally relate to this post. At 48, I still don’t think I have the language mastered and I started learning at 23! I too took Spanish in high school with straight A’s. That whole toilette thing is new to me! Thanks for that education. I have always heard my family say “tout a fait” (sorry but my computer doesnt have the accent I need for the “a”) and wasn’t quite sure what it meant but thanks to you, I now know that I don’t need to say “tu as raison” which is the same thing but wondered why they never used it!

    Once again, great post! I hear what you’re saying about how they speak English which is easier for us to figure out to phrase the words when we speak French.

    • expatriotgames

      February 20, 2011 at 6:26 pm

      Whew, glad it’s not just me then, thanks Tammi. Shamefully, I still have my English keyboard so I have to go to the Google traslator and copy and paste the accents, lol! Thanks again for your great comments, as I do feel you are a kindred spririt for sure ;0).

      • Tammi

        February 20, 2011 at 8:37 pm

        so glad to hear you still have your English keyboard. When I sat down at my sister in law’s computer while there, I was totally blown away that what I was typing was not making any sense! Then I looked down and saw that the keyboard was totally different.

  2. stracciastella

    February 20, 2011 at 10:36 pm


    Like Tammi above, I can relate to you post as well!
    French is definitely a difficult languange. I’m 15 and live in Switzerland, where you’ve got French as one of the main subjects in school because French is one of our national languanges and I still feel like a beginner (After reading your post, I’m pretty sure that even your French is better than mine)…all those “accords” are making me crazy…
    I’ve also got Spanish in school, but French is rarely of use to me for learning Spanish – even English is more helpful!
    I personally don’t like French very much (after going 5 years through “grammaire” and such…), but I really admire you for voluntarily learning French! That’s tough and you’re already pretty good at it!

    • expatriotgames

      February 21, 2011 at 7:21 am

      Thank you are most kind, Ms. Stella! Well young lady, I think you are fab, because just being 15, you have started young enough to be great at whatever language you prefer! Most excellent and I’m happy for you! Thanks for the encouragement and please pick another language you enjoy and learn it well; it will serve you greatly! Thanks for reading sweet gal! ;0)

  3. wherewander

    February 22, 2011 at 8:32 am

    thing is you can speak a lousy English but native speakers of good will, will understand you.
    you cannot speak a lousy French because even natives of good will, won´t understand you. the phonetics is different, they have sounds that English doesn´t have. And that Spanish doesn´t have.
    And in reverse, hearing those sounds, well, it is as much difficult.
    It´s not your age, it´s your English ear that is adjusting little by little to the new tune.
    My Spanish ear still cannot understand Irish people, or Aussies, or Scotish!! and I listen and listen and listen … one day I´ll make it!!
    But hey, it´s definitely fun, isn´t it?

    • expatriotgames

      February 22, 2011 at 10:23 am

      Lol! Well, if it makes you feel better, many of us have trouble understanding people in other regions of the States. For instance, someone with a heavy Bronx, New York accent would have trouble understanding someone from the deep South. Thanks for explaining how your Spanish ear works. Once I get my French to a comfortable level, I plan to pick up my Spanish again. Como siempre, Ms. Ellen…muchas gracias!!!


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