Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

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?
Tags: world: belgium

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