RSS

Tag Archives: language mistakes

Got Milk? A Curdling Tale of Culture

Courtesy of Google images

As you may already know, I talk about culture…a lot. Matter of fact, it’s the basis of everything I blog about. Never a time did this become more ironic, as now.

We needed some ‘niggly’ (trivial) work done on our flat and called in a handyman to help. Seems benign enough,right? We got chatting (having a ‘natter’ as the English say) and our handyman asked where I was from and then began as most do, talking about their trips to the US and comparing notes. I asked him, ‘do you really think there is a big difference between the English and American cultures? He was very quick to say, ‘Oh yes, definitely.’ He said that he felt Americans are much more open when speaking about themselves, and their thoughts, both good and bad. During our natter, I asked if he’d like a coffee or a ‘cuppa’ (cup of tea). He gave a big grin and said, “A cuppa would be lovely, cheers.” The word, ‘cheers’ in England is used in many ways: such as a greeting, as a thank you and¬†the same as we use it in the States, as a toast.

As an American, I find it a bit intimidating to serve tea to an English person. It’s like serving your best homemade meal to a chef. You feel certain it can never be as good as what they can do and they can only judge it in degrees of badness. As an US Southerner, we do pride ourselves on our sweet tea, but an English tea is a different matter.

So, I watched him with hopeful eyes, as he took his first sip, staring ahead in anticipation of my colonial attempt. He blew on it gently, displacing the bit of steam that slightly fogged his square glasses. I noticed an ever so slight flinch at his temples. He was gracious and I apologized quickly, as I knew it couldn’t be very good from his covered reaction. Only later, did I find that I had actually put curdled milk in this nice man’s tea. Nothing says welcome like a cuppa full of friendly bacteria with a side of, ” I’m so sorry I gave you curdled milk” biscuits. I felt like Bridget Jones with a southern drawl!

Given our previous conversation on the differences between English and American culture, the experience solidified one of the differences perfectly; in the English culture, it seems to be that mentioning that your tea has curdled milk in it is worse than actually having curdled milk in your tea to start. I think as a southern American, we may find an overly nice way to tell you that the milk is curdled, but the point being, we would say something and not grin and bear it, as my brave English friend did.

To bring this full circle, I guess to become ‘cultured’, you have to drink your share of curdled milk though the process of making mistakes and learning from them. Although curdled milk won’t kill you, I still wouldn’t recommend it with tea ūüėČ Cheers!

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 8, 2013 in Culture Choc

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is, “finish my sentences, SVP” carved on my forehead? (the sequel)

Courtesy of Google images (well, I did the carving bit)

Just when I thought that being corrected couldn’t become more unnerving, yet again, another piece of humble pie shows up on the menu. My last serving you may recall was (Is ‘correct my French’ carved on my forehead?) where I was castigated by an eight and ten-year old. OK, maybe that’s too harsh a description, but you get the point.

Last year, my husband’s family and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Champagne region of France for the La Route du Champagne en F√™te, where you get to sample the goods by walking from one producer to the next in a given region each year. This is a tradition in my husband’s family and so I wanted to assimilate the best I could and be part of what they already shared. Perhaps in my haste to ‘fit in’, I may have done myself more harm than good.

We were all excited, it was day one and we had purchased our ‘passports’ as they’re called, which is a book that has each producer’s information along with perforations on each page, that you tear off as tickets, in exchange for a tasting portion of Champagne. It’s a great system and one that anyone who doesn’t speak great french, can use. Or, so I thought. As we made our rounds, I realized that everyone was telling me which ticket to tear, as if I were challenged in this area. I thought I was doing fine, but evidently, this needed explaining, being unaware of any personal shortcomings. So, I shrugged it off, continued on with my champagne flute gently swinging from its handy lanyard with each step, in anticipation of the next sip.

Maybe the bubbles were going to my head and therefore my actions reflected that fact, but I continued to notice that the others were watching my every step by guiding me to other paths on the road or telling me that cars were behind me and so on, as if the sound of the cars were different from in the US or that paths were harder to navigate. Whatever the case, I began to feel like the others felt I was somehow, helpless.

The final straw came when we were sitting at a large table getting ready to have our aperitif when the proprietor of the hotel came to take our order. I think this may be the same ritual in any culture when the discussion is had on what everybody wants becomes a topic of conversation. We could easily think to ourselves what we want, then order it when we are asked by the server, but that’s not what happens. We like to discuss as a group what we are having and why. As a result of this bizarre yet common custom, I was in prime position to discuss what drink I wanted and why. I really wanted a Vodka martini but in Europe, martini’s are not the same as in the US. I was picturing my Sex And The City version, but in Europe, it’s something all together different.

Vintage Martini & Rossi Ad

If you order a ‘martini’ in Europe (not UK), you will get vermouth, just like the vintage posters. Knowing this, all eyes were on me, everyone ready to see what I had decided and how well I would do at ordering it. I tried to explain the drink by deconstructing it; naming its individual components. This left me grappling for words and then the carnage began. Everyone started guessing what it was that I was trying to order. I was doing fine, until I got to the elusive cranberry juice (le jus de canneberge). The scene became like a bad 70’s game show. Who would win the prize if they guessed the right ingredient? Finally, after saying no, to each person who gave it their all to guess the right one, I threw in the towel in defeat by ordering a sparkling water (eau p√©tillante) instead. I could hear the imaginary announcer in my head saying, ‘thank you for playing and we have some lovely parting gifts for you.’ I felt like a first class loser. Not only because I couldn’t explain myself properly, but because I got angry with how everyone was trying to finish my sentences; not giving me time to think. I was so busy saying, ‘no’ to the contestants, that I couldn’t find the right word.

Do I blame them? No, I don’t. Why? Because they were trying their best to help and the more they tried to guess, the more they were trying to help me. This I understand now, but in that moment, it became so frustrating that I couldn’t appreciate that the ‘game show’ was an act of love, not a display of disappointment or embarrassment of my failure. Innately, I knew they were trying to be helpful, but my artful combination of vulnerability and hubris yet again, clouded my understanding and judgement of the real intention. I did apologize for my behavior and they of course were gracious, which made me feel even worse.

We just returned from our last pilgrimage to the Route du Champagne en F√™te, hence my memory of how much all has changed from last year. Of course, my French has improved some, but maybe we all have gotten a bit wiser. I never said why I got upset before, but I think they knew and understood my perspective better than I did. Now, that deserves a toast–sant√© (good health, cheers)!

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Culture Choc

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is “correct my French, SVP” carved on my forehead?

SVP: is the abbreviated, formal French phrase for 'please' (s'il vous pla√ģt), used often on public signage

Let’s face it, no one LIKES to be corrected; we just try to stay open to it because it’s for our own good, right? Well, for many years, I have been open to being corrected. It was a long hard road, but I can honestly say, I don’t mind (not to be confused with like) correction. No matter the subject, I seem to be one of those people whom¬†others feel a need (or is compulsion a better description?)¬†to correct. Is it because I am constantly screwing things up and they take pity on me? It’s possible. Is it¬†because I seem open to correction, that¬†people are free to dole out the “you mean…” and “you should have said…” comments? Or is it because my past is coming back to haunt me after¬†all the times I’ve corrected others,¬†oblivious to the damage I was inflicting? Now, there’s a stark realization! My father always said I had a ‘noggin (southernese for head)’ made of wood, but I never thought the expression would have such literal impact (gee, thanks dad!).

OK, I readily admit, I was a ‘chronic corrector.’ My parents did it to me, so by golly, I should pass it on! After all, it really is in their best interest in the end, I told myself. But was I correcting others to help them or was I correcting only to prove [impress upon them] how much I knew? Regardless of the reason, I’ve had to re-evaluate my stance on correction and being corrected. This flawed logic kept me from not only understanding how hurtful over-correcting¬†can be, but¬†also¬†how it can significantly undermine your learning.¬†When everything needs correction, we don’t have the confidence to open our mouths, not just in learning a language, but in other things as well.¬†We begin to cultivate an attitude of giving up before we start. I certainly agree that correction is needed at times¬†and if someone cares about you, they will and should correct you. But every time¬†is not necessary and being selective and compassionate in how you do it, makes all the difference. Guess you’ve figured out, I have a story about this one? Well, of course, you’re right again.

My husband and I joined some of his family (we were not married then) in Provence¬†for vacation and naturally, we had a wonderful time. I got to spend time with his nieces and we decided why not take them with us to our place in the French Alps¬†before they went back home to Belgium? Sounded like a great idea (and truly, it was) at the time. The girls were about¬†eight¬†and¬†ten years old, so we got to be silly and goofy together; laughing, dancing and singing.¬†My French was minimal, as I was¬†just learning then. We communicated with my basic vocabulary, supplemented heavily with¬†a plethora of hand gestures and facial expressions. It seemed like a pretty good system we had going. Maybe, I should have stuck to it a bit longer…

As I began to get to know them better over the past week, I began to speak more in French, but every word was greeted with some sort of correction. At first, I was OK and rolled with it, but then, after a while,¬†I began to get¬†disheartened¬†and then, just darn mad! Yes, they were just children, I kept reminding myself.¬†And¬†because of that fact, it¬†made it even harder to be corrected and consequently, not get angry about it. I was stuck! How could I get angry at them? After all, being children, they didn’t have the understanding that I had, the compassion, the…wait!

And there it was…the realization that¬†our nieces¬†were responding in the same way I had for years. Oblivious to the hurt that it caused, they thought they were helping, and they were, just not on my time schedule. Amazing, how we continue in the same mistakes and selfishly, we don’t ‘get it’ until we are greeted with the same emotions, but from a different perspective. What goes around always does come around. At 44 years old, I finally have lived long enough to see it happen, not just in my life, but also in the lives of others.

With all that being said, yes…I do apparently have, “correct my French, SVP (please)” carved on my forehead. It was being forged many years ago and now it has been a sign well-weathered from the expat experience. I have visions of one of those carved wooden signs, that we’ve seen at many a crafts fair. I can still smell the faint br√Ľler (French for burning) of the wood, as each helpful correction is forging¬†its mark, to make me a better person. So, please do correct the ones you love, just beware of¬†how you do it–because you may soon smell the burning wood from your forehead, when you least expect it.

 
 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Voila, dude!

Merci Google Images

The longer I live in France, the more I see a melding of the American¬†and French cultures. Even in the commercials, there is a lot of English used. I’m not sure if the French culture is aware to what degree, as they may think it is simply advertising¬†speech¬†or an unfamiliar French word that they have now learned. The same is happening in American¬†culture as well with the French language. Some feel that this melding of cultures¬†is dangerous while others think that it is a natural and welcomed evolution for both. Whatever your school of thought, things are changing. The world is becoming smaller and better connected through¬†the amalgamation of movies,¬†TV, streaming video/radio, social networking,¬†podcasts, blogs,¬†you name it. No surprises there, but it did get me thinking about language similarities between French and English.

For just one example, the French use the word voil√† like Americans use the word, dude (It’s OK, I still say it too). It reminds me of the Rob Schneider skit where he compares the word ‘dude’ to ‘Aloha.’

When I first arrived in France, I heard people use voil√†, as my dad would say, like it was ‚Äėgoin’ out of style’ (Southernese¬†for ‘a lot’). People used it in so many¬†ways, it took me a while to understand the differences. Voil√† literally is a contraction of ‚Äėvoir’ (to see) and ‚Äėla’ in this instance, meaning ‚Äėthere.’ In the US, it has more of a ‚Äėpresto’ connotation, which is also one of the French uses along with many others. Voil√† can be used in the following ways as translated to English:

1) See there¬†or¬†it’s there.

2) That’s it!

3) There you go!

4) That’s obvious (should be obvious).

5) So be it (what can you do about it?) Somewhat futile situation, apathy.

6) You’re right.

7) You’ve got it! (the hang of it.)

8) A response to surprise or like presto

The word also comes equipped¬†with a sound effect, similar to what we would call a ‚Äėraspberry’ or dare I say, fake flatulence noise? Just for fun, try holding air in your mouth with your cheeks puffed out. Then, let the air out quickly to make the sound effect.¬†To¬†release the air quickly and to¬†fine tune your sound effect, you can use your index finger and gently poke¬†one of your air-filled cheeks to let just enough air out¬†to sound authentic.¬†My¬†belle¬†soeur¬†(sister-in-law who¬†is¬†a French-speaking Belgian)¬†is a pro at this and I¬†credit her with the¬†perfect technique.¬†

Literally, for the first 3 months, I simply learned the¬†word used¬†in all the appropriate scenarios¬†and many French had no idea that I didn’t speak the language. It was the perfect answer when you have no answer! The word dude may be the closest thing to it, but I think¬†it still¬†may fall¬†a bit short.¬†Perhaps using a¬†‘what’s up’ as a compliment may get you closer to the meaning. So, Voil√† (insert sound effect-ppbbtt) my friends, if you can understand the multiple¬†usages of¬†the word and master the technique of the sound effect afterward, you¬†too can survive in France! As you can see, it really is an amazingly versatile word. Use it freely, just don’t forget the accent at the end, s’il vous pla√ģt!

 
7 Comments

Posted by on April 14, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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¬ģ.

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¬†√† 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, ‚ÄúI 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¬†‚Äúmy child’s dinner is in the refrigerator for tonight” or¬†‚Äúmy 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¬†m√®re)¬†referred 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, ‚Äúnon, 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 ‚Äúfaire la toilette”

3)¬†‚Äúa cabinet de toilette” (dressing table)¬†or ‚Äúmettre 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 ;))!

 
8 Comments

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

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Oh my, I said WHAT in French?

Created by New Orleans artist, Dr. Bob

As you can imagine, the language barrier is a biggie, so I would be remiss not to post (first of several) about this particular hairy monster that we must adapt and adjust to as best we can. To sum up the language ‘thing’, the motto is just, ‘be nice’. As a Southerner might say, “when you don’t know the language from a hill of beans, it’s best, just to be nice.” When I was fresh off the plane, I smiled so much, my cheeks hurt, but now I just have really strong cheek muscles and it has served me well. When I arrived, my french was relegated to just the basics–‘bonjour’, ‘merci’, ‘au revoir’ and of course those that all of us learned from Lady Marmalade in the 70’s (we all know the ones, let’s leave it at that!). Needless to say, a big portion of humble pie is always on the menu when you are learning a new language.

Let me tell you about one particular piece of humble pie I ate. I was already nervous, because I was to meet my husband’s family for the first time. I worked overtime before they arrived, cranking out the french lessons one after another using my language software, zipping through each one before the characteristic harp noise could signify that the right answer was chosen. Man, I was ready and thought I would be OK, as long as the topics stayed simple (insert misconception #1). But no one ever talked about dogs, cats, airplanes or boats, which is the useless dribble you learn first. I tried to insert the topics when I could, but frankly, I was even boring myself in doing so. Then, to add insult to injury, I mispronounced one of the simplest responses, ‘merci beaucoup’ (phonetically correct: mair sea/bow coow) instead, I pronounced ‘beaucoup’ incorrectly as, ‘bow cyu’.¬† In doing so, I essentially told my future brother-in-law, that he had a nice derriere. Not the lasting impression I had in mind, but boy, did I make one! He smiled and kindly corrected me, understanding what I meant to say while preserving both our dignities, thank goodness! Then I thought, oh my, to how many others had I said it incorrectly? I could only hope that they all understood too and knew that I tried my best, as evidenced by my good-hearted brother-in-law.

It really was and still is amazing, how accepting people are when you at least try to speak their language. I have been told by a few native French who have encountered more than a few other English speakers (namely Brits & Americans) who come and expect people to adapt to their way, with no intention of learning the language. This was shocking to me. Again, as a Southerner, my family would be aghast to know that I had been a guest in another country (similar to visiting someone’s home) and didn’t do my best to be a good one during my stay. I think learning just a few words of the language in whatever country you visit or live, is very much like visiting a friend’s home and bringing a small gift to show your gratitude. It is a gift to see the world and meet new people, so why wouldn’t we treat it as such?

Looking backward through the binoculars, it is difficult¬†to humble one’s self in needing the help of others and becoming dependent on the kindness of strangers. So much rides on a first impression that to look foolish for not saying something properly, can be very disheartening and prevent you from dusting yourself off to try again. So, I can certainly understand why there are people who do not learn because of their fear of being humiliated or not being accepted. Sadly, the opposite is true from my experience. People want to help you when you make the effort. Just think of friends, coworkers or your own children who you knew were doing their best to learn and they smiled when you tried to teach them. The same philosophy works, be nice and try your best even if it’s only a few words, use them and you will be surprised how well and how far it will take you!

 
216 Comments

Posted by on January 7, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,