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Gimme 5 minutes to ‘splain!

Sometimes [I think] we forget that language is the basis of culture. It shapes our experiences and in how we relate to others. If living in another country is not adventurous enough, learning the language can seem like climbing Mount Everest! I can honestly say, I am about halfway up the mountain and on good footing. Have I slipped and almost fallen? Absolutely! Many of these moments, I have humbly chronicled here (in my blog) for your amusement, but more importantly, in hopes that you will be able to step outside of your own culture and laugh with me (OK, ‘at me’ is fine too). Before moving to France, I was in love with all things French, still am. I thought there is no more beautiful language in the world and it has always been a dream of mine, to speak French. Well, again, “be careful what you wish for..”, as the saying goes! I have made every language gaff imaginable, made people laugh, cry and even angry at times. A veritable plethora of human emotions, I have insighted in complete strangers, new friends and family. I guess there is a sense of freedom in knowing that you’ve screwed up so much, that whatever comes is nothing new and hence; nothing you can’t handle. French truly is a beautiful language and I stand by my conviction, but it is certainly not easy to learn, not even for the French. For instance, there are multiple uses for the same word such as ‘toilette‘ (besides the obvious) and different words for the same thing, such as: ‘armoire’ (free standing cabinet), ‘placard’ (built-in cabinet) and just plain old ‘cabinet’ (hanging cabinet, like the kitchen type).

The biggest difference between French and English, is the subtlety. In French, you have to learn the differences between the types of cabinets and other seemingly redundant words, that have very close to the same meaning. In English, not so. You may learn English quicker than French to start, but the subtleties of English come later. After the basics are mastered, the nuances can then be put in place. It seems bizarre to me that a French child could know the subtleties of cabinets and toilets, but somehow, they do!

My poor hubby is constantly bombarded with questions by me about language differences between French and English, and he takes it like a champ. It’s like having a kid ask, ‘but why?’ all the time I would imagine. Sometimes he looks at me like I was just possessed by a body-snatcher (as in, the ‘invasion of’) to “I’m so proud of you, sweetie”, which I must say, is the one I prefer most. But either way, he supports my learning, even after a long day at work. Again, I can only compare it [my situation] to how a parent must feel when they have worked all day, feeling exhausted and your child needs help with their homework. That is probably the most important thing for any expat to know and commit to heart, is that you cannot do it alone. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating; we cannot succeed as expats without the support of those in-country, whether it be a supportive spouse or someone at the local market who is willing to work with you on your language skills.

In learning this [philosophy] early on, you will curb many feelings you will experience that are natural progressions of learning in an expat environment. The ‘imposter effect’ which is best explained as a chronic feeling of pretentiousness. You feel like the new kid on the playground, waiting for someone to pick you to play. At some point, your pronunciation exceeds your actual knowledge and this is the most difficult time. Why? Because you sound like you know what you’re saying, more so than what I call ‘tourist’ language.

When you learn enough to remove some of your native accent and construct simple sentences in present tense, people think you understand EVERYTHING they are saying. This is the imposter syndrome at its full-blown capacity! You feel like you have ‘faked’ your accent enough to trick them into thinking you know more than you know. And as a result, you feel awful that they have to repeat what they’ve said (especially when it’s very personal) which makes them feel more embarrassed than you. To combat this feeling, I would simply nod and smile and I got through most of it, but I still felt terrible that they walked away thinking I understood them, when really, I didn’t. There are just so many times you can ask someone to ‘parlez doucement’ (speak slowly) or repeat themselves, before it becomes awkward. In a nutshell, the expression, “fake it ’till you make it” is necessary to push past these insecurities. I now understand that in the end, most people are happy for you to just listen, nod and smile anyway. My takeaway from this? You can still claim to be a good listener even when it’s not your native tongue; you’re still paying attention to what they’re saying, even though you don’t understand everything. To listen to one another without judgement or interruption, transcends all understanding and never needs explaining.

 
 

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“To listen to this message in French, press 1″…go ahead, I dare you!

Courtesy of Google

We’re all familiar with the customer service prompts, “Press 1 to hear this message in English or presione 2 para escuchar este mensaje en español.” I never really thought much about it until recently, but after I read a post from a friend and consequently, saw all the “likes” for the Facebook group: “Press 1 to hear this message in English, press 2 to learn English,” I felt my blood begin to boil!

After reading the post and feeling my blood pressure rise, I thought, you know, I’m not going to dignify that with a response. Well, my good intentions were spoiled again, as I couldn’t keep quiet about a subject that was so near and dear to me as a visitor and now resident in France. It has taken me everyday, a minimum of 2 hours a day for the past year and a half to learn basic French. This is not to be fluent mind you, far from it! Only now, am I at the point where I understand the larger part of conversations when someone speaks to me and at least the gist of those I don’t. Passive understanding (comprehension without having to concentrate) is still (hopefully) yet in my future, but if I continue, by the end of the year (a mere 2 years later) I should be close to academic fluency. To become truly fluent (e.g. nuance, colloquial understanding), will take many more years. I am so grateful, that this opinion is not shared by my French neighbors, as they have been very understanding and helpful with my language mistakes and have tried to help me any way they could. They seem to inately understand how difficult it is to learn French and have complimented my efforts.

The point being, I’m not sure that those who are so insistent that we learn the language of the said, mono-linguist, truly understand the monumental task they have placed upon the heads of others (themselves, obviously excluded by default). I did in fact respond to the post and here is the excerpt;

POST: Happy Memorial Day!  Press 1 for English, Press 2 to learn English

me: Ouch, that’s a tough one on my end! My French has improved, so guess I pressed 2 to learn but am glad the French have been kind while I was learning. Maybe ‘Press 3’ for patience with those of us learning a new language? ;).

monophonic friend: When in France, speak French. When in USA, English baby! Enjoy France. Miss ya.

Well, I do miss him too, he’s a great guy, but I have to say, I was very stunned that someone who I thought to be intelligent, kind and considerate would still feel this way. Deep down, the devil in me one day hopes, that he will go on vacation or live in a place where he will have to learn a (at least some) foreign language to get by OR run into someone who speaks perfect English, who loves to correct him. I can dream, can’t I?

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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Franco-American gray matter(s)

Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Mignon, a very reserved and refined French gentleman in his early 70’s, who lives across from us. He is as quiet as a church mouse and most of the time, I don’t even know if he’s home. I do know that he enjoys his weekly Saturday morning visits to the boulangerie (bakery) between 8-10AM, to have a fresh pastry and read the paper in the same place each week without fail. He always sits with his back to the window in the next to last row of seats, I assume, to have full purview of all those coming in, without being up against the window. When passing by, I always look for the back of his head, as I recognize it as well as his face, and it makes me smile. Most Saturdays, I pass by without making my presence known, but just observe that he is there, enjoying his routine, undisturbed. And on other days, I walk around, just to by chance find his glance, give a simple wave and continue on my way. In retrospect, I ask myself, would I have done this before living in France? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Image courtesy of Google

Being a Southerner, we are taught from a tender age, to always acknowledge those you know and engage them in conversation to make them feel comfortable. This Southern mindset is all well and good (southernese for well-intended), but sometimes, don’t you just want to be left alone? Left to your thoughts–undisturbed, without having to explain why you are there, what you are thinking or finding something relevant to say, without being intrusive? This was always the internal debate that replayed itself whenever I ran into someone I knew. Be polite, make them feel at ease, as I was taught. I became trapped in a cultural box of congeniality. It’s not that I don’t want to be nice, quite the contrary, but at what point did it become obligatory for me? This had been a grey area for me: how to be myself (nice), but not at the expense of myself? Luckily, la France came to my rescue!

Part of my brain is still and I’m sure always will be, uniquely Southern. But the other side is becoming more  Franco-phillic to the  French mindset: not bound by rules, allowing people their privacy and without the social expectancy of minding your P’s and Q’s to the Nth degree (sorry, thought it would be fun to use as many letters as I could there.). This is not to say that the French are rude, far from it in fact, in my experience. I would even go as far to say that they are genuinely nicer than most Americans I’ve met. The candy coating is not there, but the feelings are–kind, considerate yet respectfully private. Particularly Americans from the south have this candy coating, because it has been ingrained in us. Please understand, my intention is not to say that Southerners are fake, it just means that we are programmed to respond respectfully, even before the respect may be earned, which to some can sound disingenuous, without understanding our culture.

For example, we say “yes/no, ma’am and yes/no, sir” to everyone, not just our parents as a sign of respect, not servitude. As mentioned, we are also taught to engage people and make them feel at ease. This is a wonderful thing and has been a key reason to my love for people and successful integration into the French culture. I made others feel comfortable even when I wasn’t. The difference is, I now understand balance when I didn’t before. Now, I realize that not every occasion warrants an hour discussion (are you listening mother?). Sometimes a head nod, smile or simple wave can let someone know you care and wish them a good day.

This may sound strange, but the French don’t expect you to put them first, but when you do, they are incredibly appreciative. Using dear Mr. Mignon as an example: when we had snow, I would shovel our community stairs and everyone’s ‘stoop’ (as my grandmother, Mimi, would call it) and thought my good deed had gone unnoticed. Not that I was looking for applause or even a “merci”, again, it was just how I was raised, to be ‘neighborly’ as it’s called. I never knew it, but Mr. Mignon must have seen me without my knowledge. Just like me, he left me to my thoughts, just as I did with him at the boulangerie. We finally did meet face-to-face at the boulangerie and he made the effort to thank me for all I did and tried to pay me for shoveling the snow (naturally, I didn’t take it). That’s what I mean when I say that the expectation is not there, but the heartfelt thanks is evident. I was already shoveling for myself, so it was easy just to spend ten more minutes to help everybody and consequently, it keeps the snow from being blown or tracked back on my stoop, simple logic really. But in the French mindset, it was evidently an act worthy of payment, because that is not the expectation.

The expectation in the US is just the opposite, people EXPECT you to be kind and when you aren’t, they get angry. There are those of us (I was one) in the US that may have been slightly upset if we were not thanked at the time or if someone didn’t bother to shovel our snow as well, because it would have only taken a few extra minutes. When this standard is set so high, how can anyone measure up all the time? I often didn’t live up to my standard many times, but it didn’t stop me from holding that measuring stick up to everyone else. When you expect too much, you are bound to be disappointed. I didn’t realize that my ‘standard’ had morphed into something not originally intended from my upbringing. One cannot impose these congenial standards at the expense of one’s self. You only end up getting hurt by expecting too much and the truth be told, it really is a selfish way to live, when you begin peeling back the onion of the unconscious mind.

All this being said, I prefer the French way. My dad has an expression, “don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed.” Which although true, has a bit of a negative spin. I think the French put a positive spin on my dad’s philosophy and would probably go something like this…”don’t expect anything, but appreciate it when it happens.”

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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

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 ;))!

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

 

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