adventures of an american housewife in the south of france

Communication Breakdown

Since we've been in France for almost a year now (can you believe it?!), I thought I'd give you all an update on how our French is coming along.  It's been awhile since my last update, so maybe you think we're fluent now?

we should spend more time together

Yeah right.  In a nutshell, here's how I'd describe our French:  meh.  It's a really difficult language to learn in your thirties.  I sort of feel as though we've hit a plateau recently, but really, it's no one's fault but our own.  We still take our weekly one-on-one French class, but with the holidays and all our recent travels, our classes have been very sporadic.  We've only had about 3 or 4 classes in the last 5 months, but we're getting back into a routine and we're excited about it.  We really need to practice more.  Of course we do practice everyday - we have to speak French in our day to day life - but we don't really spend time studying or doing online courses like maybe we should.  Right now we know enough to get by - at the grocery, at the doctor's, at restaurants, while out shopping - but as far as having a normal conversation with someone, our vocabulary runs out in about 5 minutes.  We kind of learn new things as we go along and as they're needed - for example, we've had a lot of issues lately with flooding in our bathroom, so I've learned lots of new words while talking to the plumber and insurance company, like "degats des eaux" and "fuite" and "moissisure."  But those words aren't really going to help me make any friends over here. Whenever our friends come to visit and we take them out on the town, they are always so impressed with how well we speak at restaurants.  We fully understand the menu, how to order, and can even make small talk with the servers.  We put on a good show, but the truth is, that's sort of where our capabilities end.  I think we're doing pretty well, considering the fact that we knew absolutely zero French when we arrived, but we still make stupid mistakes all the time.  Like when I told my neighbor he was "très jolie" (very pretty) instead of "très gentile" (very nice) after the held the door open for me.  Or when Michael tried to ask a co-worker where he lived by saying, "Où t'habite", but he instead, he accidentally added the word "est" so it came out sounding more like,  "Où est ton bite" and that means something very, very different. Practicing French with actual French people brings up an interesting dilemma:  they correct every little mistake you make.  And I mean everything!  Pronunciation, accent, gender, etc.  It's hard to get through even one sentence without being corrected and it makes the conversation very stilted and difficult.  They aren't doing it to be rude, the French just take their language very seriously.  They take great pride in speaking clearly and correctly and they want you to do it too. I think this is the reason why many French people who can speak a little bit of English just don't - because they are fearful they'll make a mistake, which would be really embarassing for them.  I just feel that if someone is going to try to speak English with me and they make a small mistake, like assigning a gender to an inanimate object, I'm not going to interrupt the flow of the conversation to correct them.  My dear friend here always used to talk about her purse like it was girl, because the word purse is feminine in French. So she would say things like "Can you grab my purse for me?  She is on the couch" which I thought was just adorable.  I would tell her later about her mistake, but not right in the middle of her sentence.  I don't know if that's a better way, but I just feel it's more encouraging. The bottom line is, if we want to get to the next level, we need to make more of an effort.  We need to study our notes everyday and practice more with our friends, no matter how frustrating it may be.  At the very least, I'd like to get to the point where I'm not telling my 65-year old neighbor Claude that he's "very pretty."  And Michael...well let's just say he doesn't want to make his mistake again either.

10 Responses to “Communication Breakdown”

  1. Kathleen says:

    Keep the faith Natalie. Imagine knowing French Canadian slang and using it in France only to get the “Are you from Mars” look;-) You are right that it’s just a cultural thing and shouldn’t be mistaken for rudeness.

    I’m sure Claude was pleased to know you thought he was pretty:-) Bon courage:-)

    • Natalie says:

      Thanks Kathleen! And I know what you mean – when our Québécois friends lived here, a lot of times locals had a hard time understanding them, even when they would say even simple words like “beurre”!!!

  2. Melissa says:

    I’m a fairly new follower, and I love reading about your overseas adventures! I used Google translate to figure out what Michael said and just about fell out of my chair laughing! I’m brushing up on my French because my husband and I are going to Paris this fall, and I’m very very nervous about the language barrier.

    • Natalie says:

      Isn’t that hilarious? I almost died when he told me – I wish I had been there!

      I’ve found that a lot more people in Paris speak English, or at least are willing to :) so I wouldn’t worry about it too much! I think it’s great that you’re studying up a bit on your French because that will definitely help. Making the effort is always appreciated, even it’s just general greetings.

      When we first moved here, I always had the little “Lonely Planet’s Pocket Phrasebook” in my purse because it has a GREAT dictionary just for food! It’s really helpful for restaurants :) Here’s the link to it if you want to check it out!

  3. Sabbio says:

    Oh Natalie, I can’t help but laugh at Michael’s “mistake” ^^” Reeeeally awkward lol

    And I must say not all French correct foreigners when they’re speaking… I don’t though I have several English/Amercian friends and acquaintance (mainly with my children school) because I know how it can interrupt the flow of ideas plus I feel it’s a bit patronizing and direspectful… Still I’m always ready if they ask me a precise word or do have a doubt on the word they’re using ;)

    P.S. : maybe Claude is gentil and joli! ;P

  4. Pink says:

    Very ineestrting points you have mentioned , appreciate it for putting up. “The biggest fool may come out with a bit of sense when you least expect it.” by Eden Phillpotts.

  5. Bonjour,Nous recherchions un bon Marsala que nous avions très apprécié il y a 40 ans en Sicile. enfin grâce à celui proposé par la ruche, nous avons retrouvé le goût de l’époque. DélicieuxExcellent aussi le jus de pomme.A bientôt

  6. ourworld says:

    Your’s is a point of view where real intelligence shines through.

  7. disse:Maurício,parabéns por mais este relato. Muito bacana! O motivo do contato é também para dizer que vi a reportagem do Loucos por Futebol, da Espn,com vocês. Me amarrei! A Mari é uma figuraça, única. E você, realmente um apaixonado pelo futebol. Parabéns. Abraços, Anderson.

  8. Thanks Davey, I’ll always have faith in Amanda……….especially after seeing the old Amanda sparkle the other night. It looks like as far as Amanda is concerned, the rules are there to be broken…………..and the goalposts are there to be moved The past three nights, my texts have been hot and hit the mark fast………….probably used up all my luck now tho Fingers crossed for a “bad” night ………….. Tony MrT

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