Monday, 12 November 2007

Martians in France

Bit pressed for time today. So not much in the way of original blogging, I fear. Instead, I intend to fob you all off with something I wrote some years ago about the perils and the pitfalls confronting the British in France as they grapple, with generally hilarious results, to speak the language.

Here it is.

Whatever the other consequences of the sometimes prickly state of Anglo-French relations, they’ve done nothing to stop the numbers of British buying houses in France. No one is really sure how many Britons live in France. The official figure is about 100,000. Unofficial estimates are almost double. But what no one denies is that the total is large – and growing rapidly.

Yet there is an obvious peculiarity about this Anglo-Saxon invasion that is almost never mentioned: however much we may love France, we can’t speak the language. The overwhelming majority of the English descending on France are no more capable of speaking French than of speaking Martian. As for the long-term residents, I doubt if even 5% speak French with anything resembling fluency.

The papers are filled with articles about enthusiastic couples, normally photographed in front of their pool, their ivy-clad house behind them, and how their lives have been transformed by their wonderfully successful move to France. The weather, the empty roads, the huge house, the food, the wine. The usual idyllic business. Yet the linguistic half-world in which I guarantee they exist is never mentioned.

How do you deal with a plumber when you don’t know the words for sink or tap? How do you order firewood when you don’t know the word for log? How do you buy a car when you don’t know how to ask the mileage? In fact, how do you do anything when you can barely understand what’s being said to you? (Visits to doctors and dentists are especially hilarious.) There is a baffled bemusement that dominates the average Briton’s life in France and it is always centred on the language. Swimming pools or not, we’re struggling.

The horror stories are legion. An English neighbour, planning a drinks party, telephoned a Frenchman and his English wife. She spoke to the husband. On the day itself, a charming Frenchman and his clearly suspicious – and very definitely not English – wife turned up.

Conversation of a sort was made by the semi-French speakers among us. Meanwhile, our hostess dragged my wife to the kitchen, muttering about needing help with the food. Once there, she practically fell to her knees. “Oh my God! It’s the carpenter! I asked the wrong couple!”

Hers had been the classic French telephone conversation in which you think, more or less, you’ve got the gist. In fact, while you’ve painfully conveyed what you want to say, you’ve almost entirely misunderstood what’s being said to you. Literally unable to admit this, you resort to the standard techniques. A light trill of “Oh, mais bien sûr! Oh, oui, oui! Absolument! Oh, ha, ha, ha!” Fingers are crossed, prayers said.

Three months after my wife and I had moved to France she had become so traumatised by her daily battles with the language she couldn’t walk down an aisle in the supermarket if she saw someone at the other end handing out free samples of cheese. The prospect of having to say “Non, merci” would bring her close to tears. (“Oui, merci” was out of the question, inevitably inviting a conversation that would instantly spiral out of control.) This was linguistic paralysis on an epic scale.

Does it matter? After all, even the French, whatever their once formidable determination to resist the relentless advance of English, have had to come to terms with its ubiquity. The business world has long since acknowledged it as the world’s lingua franca. Even in rural areas the change is noticeable. Shops increasingly have notices in English (“Milk Fresh” proclaims a hand-written sign in our local shop). In the little town nearest to us, the supermarket now even has announcements in English. “Hello, and welcome to Super-U in Mirambeau. We have a host of special offers for you this week. . . . ”

Inevitably, this creeping spread of English has encouraged the natural reluctance among many Britons to make even a token effort to learn French. Indeed substantial numbers of British residents have as good as given up. Why embarrass yourself by speaking French badly when there’s always someone down the road who actually is English? Visit much of the Dordogne and you might as well be in Surrey.

So, again, does it matter? Well, yes. How could it not? Living in France and not speaking French doesn’t just mean making your life vastly more difficult, it seems the absolute negation of why you’d want to be here in the first place. France may offer rural bliss of a kind that has as good as disappeared in much of England. But taking advantage of it has to mean more than living in a transplanted version of Godalming and watching EastEnders on satellite telly.

On the other hand, who am I to preach? After five-plus years here my own French (O-level vintage 1970) is still often feeble. Further, slice it anyway you like, French is a distressingly difficult language to learn, stuffed with pitfalls. We are constantly assured that we can pick it up in three months if only we buy this or that tape. A little application and we’ll be jabbering away with the best of them. Don’t you believe it. If it was that easy, we’d be speaking it already. Grammar, vocabulary, accent, comprehension: for most Britons in France, they’re just a blur in a linguistic fog.

As remarkable, however, is the attitude of the French themselves. Faced with this invasion of monoglots, and contrary to every myth of the witheringly contemptuous Frenchman (or woman) confronted with a typically tongue-tied Anglo-Saxon, they remain exceptionally sanguine. Large parts of their country are being taken over by people who can barely ask them the time – let alone understand the answer – yet they are invariably polite, indeed embarrassingly encouraging when you do manage some mangled phrase. I honestly can’t imagine the situation in reverse.

1 comment:

Stew said...

The Creator - after nearly 2 years of blogging, I am only now starting to find bloggers of a similar cloth.
So I've taken the liberty of starting a French Blogger blogroll If it grows it could be a useful and interesting resource.
Info here: