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Speaking in tongues

I was disappointed with the difficulty I had in reading a short book in French last year, and my heart sank both last week and today when I realised that a business meeting I had expected would be in English was actually going to be in French. I can use French OK for chatting to Francophone neighbours, taxi driver and restaurant staff in Brussels, or for shopping in Wallonia (the nearest open supermarket on Sunday afternoons is in Hamme-Mille), but doing more significant stuff is a bit daunting.

But in fact it was fine. It helped that neither interlocutor was French or Belgian, so perhaps more merciful to non-native speakers, and that my programme assistant, whose native language is Spanish, has much better French than I do and was present in case of communications breakdown. The only tricky moment was in last week's meeting, where we were talking to a diplomat from a non-European Francophone country, who has only recently arrived in Brussels; I completely threw him when I said "nonante" rather than "quatre-vingt-dix", meaning "ninety". (We Belgians also say "septante" rather than "soixante-dix" for "seventy"; Swiss Francophones do the same.) I was unapologetic; it's not just local slang, it's officially written on my son's birth certificate ("L'année mille neuf cent nonante neuf", ie 1999).

I remember when Anne and I first visited Brussels on holiday, long before we moved here, and the bus driver told us the fare, moving from his own word to French French to Dutch/Flemish to English: "Septante! Soixante-dix! Zeventig! Seventy!" In how many other cities would a bus conductor know to ask for a fare in three and a half languages?


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 11th, 2012 10:01 pm (UTC)
Congratulations! I might share this story with some of my students; a lot of them have a comparable level of English, and it's nice to have some extra support for my mantra of "it's not as inadequate as you think it is."

Speaking of Francophone bemusement in the face of dialect: a Belgian friend, getting married in Paris a few years ago, was told he would have to get his birth certificate officially translated "into French" because it gave his year of birth as "septante-sept". To be fair, they did back down when he complained to management.

The French seem uniquely narrow-minded about dialect variations in their own language; every French language teacher I've asked thinks of Parisian French as "la Francaise" and everything else as a sort of embarrassing pidgin. I wonder whether it's an artifact of their education system that has been passed on to some other Francophone countries.

You do make me miss Brussels a bit. :-)
Apr. 12th, 2012 04:37 pm (UTC)
I like your mantra and it's very true for most people.

It might just be because none of my French teachers or French colleagues were / are from Paris, but they all hated Parisian French.
Apr. 12th, 2012 01:43 am (UTC)
I was impressed when I went to a market in Bruges and one of the stall holders switched effortlessly between French, German, Flemish and English. I wondered if he also knew Japanese (given the number of Japanese tourists also in attendance.)
Apr. 12th, 2012 01:47 am (UTC)
I was always a bit hesitant about my French ( we always knew that "les francais ne parlent pas O Level French et les quebecois even more so!") especially as back in the 70s you could get a pass without ever having been taught the names of the letters of the alphabet, so you couldn't even spell your name. However I once managed to amaze myself by keeping up a conversation in the waiting room at Bruxelles-Midi for the better part of three hours without too many circumlocutions.

I've always been rather embarrassed at the British reputation for being hopeless with languages, and always at least try the local lingo in the belief that you get better treatment if you show willing (except in NL, the Dutch always seem to detect your accent and are then determined to show off their English and don't give you a chance to try to improve your terrible Dutch...). I'm reminded of my last visit to Prague when I conducted something like an old modem's handshaking process to try to find a mutual language:
Me to receptionist: "Dobry den! Mluvite anglicky, prosim?"
Receptionist: "Ah, ne...." (shuffles off the the back room and emerges with someone who could well be her grandmother)
Grandma: "Dobry den! Mluvite nemecky?"
Me: "Ne, anglicky, velssky, francousky..."
Grandma: "Ah, francais!" and we then proceeded to get on like a house on fire, though I did pick up a bit more Czech from her during my stay.

If you speak Welsh you can reveal a lot about yourself by whether you count in vingesimal or decimal - deg a thrigain rather than saith deg, to compare with your soixante-dix / septante, it's both an age thing and shows whether you spoke the language as a child or are a learner, rather than a geographical distinction.
Apr. 13th, 2012 09:08 am (UTC)
In the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul if the stall holders calling to you can't guess the country you're from they will switch through half a dozen languages til they get a response. I thought I'd throw them off by pretending to be Polish and was surprised when one of them replied!!
Apr. 13th, 2012 09:26 am (UTC)
Yes, Istanbul is one city where you would definitely expect a very high level of multilingualism, especially among stallholders! (See also: Jerusalem.)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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December 2022



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